To Spur Or Not To Spur?

This topic has been sitting near the top of my “blog subjects” list, where I go for inspiration. However, as part of my wipe the slate clean, finish unfinished jobs and in general start 2017 afresh approach, I need to write all these blog posts.

My question is, when in a rider’s education should you introduce spurs? 

Firstly, spurs are an artificial aid, which are used to support and refine the leg aids. They can be used to help encourage a lazy horse forwards off the leg, to help refine the lateral aids, and to create impulsion in order to further the quality of the gaits.

The most important factor for me, is the ability to control the lower leg. If a rider has wobbly, insecure lower legs then they most definitely aren’t ready to use spurs because they will inadvertently jab the horse in the sides, overuse the spurs and desensitise the flanks.

I almost like my clients to viewed spurs in a revered light. Most of the time they don’t need spurs – if the horse isn’t moving off the leg then a sharp tap with the whip is usually effective. And the rider knows when they have used the artificial aid. I also don’t want clients to try using spurs nonchalantly, without good, basic theory and understanding. I’ve seen inexperienced riders wear spurs for the first time, and clamp them to their horse’s side, who panics and gets faster and faster in terror. Which leads me to another reason why you need to consider when and how to introduce spurs – has the horse experienced them before, and do they have an adverse reaction to them?

It took me a long time to wear spurs myself, it was only really when I had to wear them for my Stage IV exam that I chose the roundest, nicest pair I could find. Since then, I’ve come to understand that you can wear spurs and not actually use them. When your toe is pointing forwards, and your foot parallel to the horse’s side, the spur does not come into contact with the barrel of the horse when you squeeze your calf to their side. However, turning the toe out slightly brings the spur into contact with the side. This means that you can use the usual leg aid and when you don’t get the desired response (horse doesn’t yield sideways) you can refine the leg aid to give a firmer aid to reinforce the first question. 

When a client or I broaches the subject of spurs, we have a discussion on the theory and how to use, or not to use, spurs. Then we have a look at whether spurs are necessary or not for this horse, and practice using the leg so that the spur isn’t used, then is used, to help improve their lower leg control and awareness of how they are using the leg.

Then, I bring out my round, ball spurs and lend them to my client. I manipulate their lower leg to show where and when the spur will touch the horse so that they fully understand where and how the spurs will be working. And we proceed with an easy warm up, focusing on the leg aids.

So when have I felt the need to introduce clients to spurs? I had a spate of teaching about spurs a couple of months ago, and all were necessary candidates who I think have benefitted from them. With each case, I mulled over the idea for a few weeks, until deciding to introduce the concept.

The first client has a lazy horse, who is also very stiff laterally. We’ve worked with direct transitions to get him off the leg, and use lots of circles and serpentines to supple him up. However, my client was having to use her legs excessively which jeopardised her position and then she tired which made her aids ineffective. I had schooled the horse a couple of weeks previously with spurs, and the horse accepted them happily. Having a more refined aid meant I could get him to bend around my inside leg, and engage his inside hindleg. So I knew spurs were okay with this horse. When the horse ignored the leg aid and my rider tickled his side with the spur he immediately woke up, and was far more responsive to the normal leg aid. Since introducing the spurs we’ve been able to move onto leg yield, shallow loops, smaller circles and figures of eight. My rider is less fatigued and more accurate with her leg aids, and her horse is using his hindquarters to better effect and the two are making real progress in their flatwork.

The second client who I introduced to spurs is a teenager, with a jumping pony. They don’t need any help in the speed department when jumping, but the pony tends to fall apart in the walk – trailing his hindlegs behind. When I schooled the pony with the aim of improving his walk I used spurs to help hold him together in the walk, and it did improve. But you need long, strong legs to keep the walk together, especially in the middle of a dressage test when you soon need to pick up trot again. This was where my client was struggling. She could, over a few minutes, create a better walk, but it took time and was difficult to move back up into trot. We were practising for an ODE, and the walk section of the dressage test was causing issues. The first half of the test looked great: consistent and flowing. But the pair collapsed into the medium walk, which slowed to a wobbly crawl in the free walk across the diagonal, and then the rest of the trot work was nowhere near as good as the first half. My rider was doing her best in the walk, but her long legs and seat weren’t strong enough to hold her pony together. I brought out the spurs a couple of lessons before there event, to her horror, and explained how we would be using them only for the walk sections. The majority of the lesson was spent improving the walk, and getting used to riding forwards to walk and immediately maintain the walk, rather than collapse to walk, let it fall apart and then try to repair the damage. 

This client only needed the spurs for a short period; to help her get the best dressage test she could. After the competition we didn’t use the spurs but continued to work on different exercises to further their flatwork in general. Hopefully by next season they should be able to keep a good quality walk in their dressage tests because my client will have matured, which helps her maintain a consistent approach to her schooling, so the pony stops expecting the walk to be an opportunity to fall in a heap, and keeps his focus on the work in hand. Which will mean the second half of their dressage tests are as good as the first half.

The final client I introduced spurs to rides a pony who isn’t so much behind the leg, but rather ignorant and disrespectful to her rider. I school the mare and find that she respects the leg aids when she knows you’re wearing spurs. It’s psychological. By seemingly being tougher, wearing an artificial aid, the rider can use light aids to more effect and the mare moves nicely from the aids. This rider was very cautious about using spurs, but after practicing without spurs (working on the lower leg positioning) she felt comfortable enough to wear gentle spurs. Once she used them when the mare ignored the leg, the mare seemed to step up her game, and knuckled down to work. Which means that my rider gets a more active trot, leading to better canter work, the mare engaging her hindquarters and lengthening the stride, softening her neck and back (most possibly because her rider isn’t nagging constantly with her legs). 

Initially I think spurs can be viewed in a negative light, particularly by a bystander, but if a rider understands and is competent, and spurs will help improve the way the horse is going, further their education, and help move up a level, then spurs can be utilised to a good benefit either short term or long term. I always think it’s good to remove spurs when not needed or to have a break from them every so often; when hacking or jumping; or if they will give you an edge in competition then just use them then. Otis knows that I put my spurs on for a competition, and it means no backing off fences! It’s important to respect spurs; they can be your friend, but can just as easily become your enemy. Ask your instructor for help and guidance with them.

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4 thoughts on “To Spur Or Not To Spur?

  1. Emily January 3, 2017 / 8:09 pm

    Fantastic post thank you! I love your systematic and sensitive approach to using, introducing, and teaching your students how to use a sometimes controversial aid.

  2. EquiPepper January 5, 2017 / 2:24 pm

    I agree with you completely. They are such a useful aid for some situations.

    My boy is very lazy off the leg at home (not so much at competitions) and is always schooled with a schooling whip and jumped with a short whip. Several people have suggested spurs for him, but since I usually get a reasonable response from the whip and voice it’s never been needed.

    I found a pair of really small ‘beginners’ spurs in a sale over the summer and them over the summer when we were having a bit of a sluggish/opinionated phase. Baring in mind he’s an ex racehorse who probably had never had them before, he was basically fine with them, just a little tense here and there.

    I don’t think I’ve used them since then because I just haven’t felt like I needed them. But if we were struggling with them in the future I would definitely go back to them for him to back up my leg.

    • therubbercurrycomb January 8, 2017 / 10:13 am

      That’s great that they helped at the time, but also that you don’t feel the need to use them all the time 🙂 I always think it’s much better to have a stronger leg aid than to be flapping and nagging with your legs all the time 🙂

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