Understanding Spurs

JulieGoodnight.com Logo

Question: Dear Julie,
My understanding is that spurs are to be used to back up a request if the horse is not responding or to make a cue more clear as in lateral work. I was watching one of Julie’s DVD’s regarding the 3 positions of the use of the leg. It is hard for me to picture how to not have the spur contact the horse, especially in the most forward position when cueing with one’s leg. In general, should leg cues be given with the inside of the calf to avoid hitting the horse with the spur rather than turning the heel inward?
Mariposa CA

Answer: Casey, Thank you for your well-thought out question. The use of spurs has become a controversial subject and maybe a topic that would be good for a discussion on my http://juliegoodnightontheroad.blogspot.com blog. Like any training aid, spurs can be used correctly and incorrectly. But just like with bits, whether they are ultimately harsh or gentle for the horse is ultimately up to the rider.
Spurs have been used for millennium in the training of horses and throughout that time there have been those that have brutalized horses with misuse of the spur. But the spur has also been used throughout time as a high level training aid to help motivate the horse to perform difficult maneuvers and reach a higher level in his training.
Artificial aids (manmade items that aid in controlling the horse, like the spur, whip and tie-downs or martingales) should be used to reinforce the natural aids (seat, legs, hands, voice); in the case of the spur, it should only be used to reinforce the leg aid. I am not a fan of using the spur on lazy horses to make them go—I’d rather see these riders use a crop. Incorrect use of the spur could be inhumane use or it could be using the spur as a cue rather than as the reinforcement.
A horse is said to be “spur trained” when he has been ridden by a rider that uses a touch of the spur as the cue, instead of using the natural aid first. I have ridden many horses that are trained this way and if you do not have spurs on, it is as if they are deaf to any cue. You don’t have to use the spur hard on them; they just have to know you have them on. Not the kind of horse I like to ride—but there are enough of them out there that I have become trained to always bring my spurs with me to expos, where I’ll be riding an unknown horse in my demos, and don’t have time to teach him to listen to my leg.
The primary part of your leg that you should use for cueing the horse to move is the inside of your calf first, then your Achilles area, and then finally the spur if the horse is not responding. It is never correct for your heel to come up to cue a horse for anything—whether you have spurs on or not. Your lower leg should always remain long, with your heel down and the spur well away from your horse’s sides, whether you are using the leg in the forward, middle or backward position. A rider that is competent enough to use spurs should be able to ride through any circumstance without ever accidentally touching the horse with the spur. Unless and until the rider has reached this high level of riding, spurs should not be used.
Most of the time I wear spurs when I ride my horse, but rarely would I ever touch him with them and I am not hostage to them—he’ll work just fine without. If the spur is used to reinforce a leg aid, my calf was used first, then a stronger (lower) leg aid; about 99% of the time, that’s more than I need to get a good response from my horse. If I didn’t, I might touch him lightly with the spur as a reminder that I can apply more pressure to motivate him to work harder if I need to. If he still is not responding with enough effort, I may bump him with the spur. But each time I cue the horse again, I’ll always go back to the lightest possible leg aid, high up in my calf.
When aids are consistently sequenced from light to firm, the horse will learn to respond to the lightest aid because he knows the reinforcement will come if he doesn’t. That is why many trainers, particularly those training high-level performance horses, always wear spurs—you never know when a horse might need a little reminder to respond to a light leg aid. And since they have 100% control of the spur, it is never applied haphazardly or inadvertently.
To me, the spur should not be used as an aid to make a lazy horse go faster, but to achieve high levels of performance. I am more likely to use a spur on a not-lazy horse. Using the spur on a lazy horse may end up training him to only respond to the spur. Also, since most lazy horses are insensitive, they may learn to ignore the spur just as much as they ignore the rider’s leg. And since these insensitive and lazy horses are more likely to be beginner’s horses, the use of the spur is questionable because the rider has inadequate skill.
For the lazy horse, I’d rather see the rider use a crop and give the horse a few spankings to reinforce the leg aids. Always ask the horse to move forward with a light leg aid (combined with a shift of your weight forward and a release of the reins); if he does not respond, put your reins in one hand and give him a sharp spank with the stick right where you cued him with your leg. He will likely leap forward (make sure you hold on and don’t snatch him in the mouth for doing something you told him to do) and the next time you ask politely, he should march off enthusiastically without an argument (if you used enough pressure with the spank). Make sure you don’t jerk back on the reins as you spank, inadvertently pulling back on the reins when you want him to go.
As you advance to doing lateral work, you may find that your horse is not as responsive to your leg aids, now that what you are asking of him requires more effort on his part. The more effort that is required of the horse to comply with what you are asking of him, the longer it takes to train that response and the more pressure is required to motivate him.
As you begin lateral work with a horse, you are at the beginning stages of higher performance and you should be riding at an advanced level; you may find you need spurs. But still, the correct way to use the spur is only as reinforcement, after applying the leg aid with increasing pressure first. Then give the horse a warning that the spur is coming, followed by a bump of the spur if needed. But find the amount of pressure that motivates the horse to respond to the lighter leg aid and make sure you have good timing with your correction.
Be careful not to become dependent on the spur—if you have to use it every time you ask the horse for lateral movement, you may not be using it correctly. Either you are not using enough pressure to motivate the horse to try harder, or you may not be using the right timing with the correction from the spur. For the horse to associate the bump of the spur with the initial light leg aid, the correction with the spur must follow within three second of the initial cue—and the sooner the better.
Spurs should never be used inhumanely—that’s brutal and poor horsemanship. At no time should there ever be any evidence after riding that a spur was used on the horse. If there is swelling, welts, raw skin or blood or if the horse flinches when being touched, it is an indication that the spur has been abused by the rider. It is highly likely the horse has become resistant because he is totally confused over what the rider is asking or the rider is demanding more than the horse is capable of giving.
There’s lots more articles in my Training Library that relates in some way or another to this question and I have two riding videos that would help clarify the use of the natural aids and also lateral movements and more advanced maneuvers. They are Volume 2: Communication and Control and Volume 5: Refinement and Collection, in my Principles of Riding series.
Good riding!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host