To Spur Or Not To Spur

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
When and how should I use spurs to prompt my lazy horse?

Question: Dear Julie, I’ve seen your show on RFD-TV about how to lower your horse’s head. In the episode you mentioned something about spurs, how to use the spurs at the right time and it’s not always a good idea to use on a lazy horse. My question is when I get ready to ride my horse, how do I make it go forward? Do I need spurs? I kick and pull but it won’t move forward. Does my horse need more training? I need advice. –Bryant

Answer: Hi Bryant,
Thanks for watching the show. We get lots of feedback from people on how much they learn in each episode and often they say they watch the show again and again and pick up something new each time. The truth is, there is a lot of info packed into a half-hour show and there are always things I wish I had more time to address. You touch on several really good issues in your question and I need to make a clarification about when to use spurs and when not to.

When talking about getting your horse to lower his head and round his frame, I always talk about using a lot of leg (not spur) and that you always increase leg pressure when you increase rein pressure. There are many articles in my Training Library that address the horse’s frame, lowering the head and collection and volume 5 in my riding DVD series, Refinement and Collection gives extensive instruction as well.

Before you ask for any horse to lower his head and round his frame, he must be moving freely and willingly forward in all gaits. This is a much more basic and fundamental stage of training which far precedes collection and rounding of the frame. Forward motion is one of the most fundamental tenets of classical horsemanship. Anyone who has ever started colts knows this—you cannot teach them anything (stop, go, turn) until they are moving freely forward. Free and forward movement is the basis of all training.
If your horse is not moving freely forward on command in all gaits, you must address this fundamental problem before you can ask a horse to lower its head or anything else. As with all training problems, you must first and foremost consider a physical cause. You’d be surprised how often people pour thousands of dollars and hours into training when the horse was acting that way because he was in pain—an ill-fitting saddle, a painful bit, a sore joint, a rib out of place that only hurts when you ask him to canter (right before he bucks you off). With a horse that is not moving willingly forward, it could be any of these and dozens of other physical causes. Best to have your horse assessed by a vet to rule out any issues.

Once a physical problem is ruled out as a possible cause of the horse’s refusal to move forward, then you can look to the horse’s training. First off, does he have any clue of what you are asking him to do? You’d be surprised how many horses are being ridden regularly but have very little actual training. When it comes to responding to the bit and cues, it has to be taught by someone. Often I see horses that just simply are untrained even though they are packing a rider down the trail with no problems. A horse must be taught how to respond to rein pressure; it does not come naturally to a horse. If your horse is lacking basic training, watch my video on Bit Basics and you can easily learn to train your horse for a light response and low head carriage.
The next thing to consider is whether this is learned behavior by your horse? In other words, does the horse know better (to move off your leg) but is acting this way now because it has worked so well for him in the past? It doesn’t take much of a perceived gain for a horse to learn that his refusal gets him what he wants—many insensitive horses will gladly endure the kicking and spurring from a rider if it means he doesn’t have to lope circles or do any work. Again, there are articles in my training library that may help if this is the case.

However, as is often the case, and the topic of an episode of Horse Master we just taped (it will air in May ‘11), in some cases the problem is that the rider is giving the horse conflicting signals by pulling back on the reins when she wants the horse to go forward. If you are riding a lazy horse or one that is reluctant to move forward in some situations (like when approaching a giant mud puddle—as in the case of the episode we just taped), and you pull back on the reins, the horse will choose to take that as permission to stop. Any backward pull on the reins inhibits forward motion; that is a fundamental truth that you should always remember. In some cases, we do want to inhibit forward motion, like when asking the horse to stop or collect his frame (but he has to be moving freely forward first). But in many cases, riders are pulling on the reins, inhibiting forward motion when they don’t really mean to, like when the horse spooks, balks, backs or is just plain being lazy.

Remember that forward motion precedes all other training concerns and when you need the horse to move more forward, you must reach forward with your hands towards the horse’s ears. If you pull back on the reins when the horse is not moving freely forward or even just keep your hands in a neutral position, the horse is unlikely to move forward. Actively pulling back on the reins of a lazy horse or one that is not moving forward for any other reason will always make the problem worse.

As to your question about spurs, let me clarify what I said on the show and how I feel about this artificial aid. I said that, to me, the use of spurs is not a good choice on a lazy horse. It is not an aid to make a slow horse faster; it is an advanced-level aid for advanced riders to use on advanced horses to motivate them to a higher level of performance and do more difficult maneuvers. If the problem with your horse not moving forward is simply because he is lazy and has learned to ignore a polite request from your legs, then he needs to be reminded to respond to a light leg.
I prefer the use of the crop to reinforce your leg aid, rather than the spur, in the instance of the horse not moving forward off a light leg cue. A spur will often make the lazy horse even duller to your leg and make him sull up and balk even more. Kicking harder on a lazy horse also does not work well because the lazy horse will tolerate the pressure and just wait for you to quit kicking from exhaustion (which doesn’t take long).

To use the crop as a reinforcement to your light leg aid, in a horse that is trained but not responding, ask once lightly for forward movement with a shift of your weight forward and a gentle bump with your calves (and a dramatic forward reach with your hands). If he ignores your polite initial request, immediately reinforce your leg cue with a sharp spank with the crop right where your leg cued him (make sure you keep reaching forward with your hands—a lot!). If done right, this will undoubtedly send him expeditiously forward, but do not contradict yourself as most riders do by then pulling back on the reins (and punishing him for doing what you asked him to do). Let him move forward freely and only stop him when he is voluntarily moving forward, without any pedaling from you.

Then ask your horse again lightly to move off your legs, prepared to reinforce with the crop again if needed, but always giving him the opportunity to respond to your light aids first. If your timing was good the first time and you used adequate pressure to motivate the horse, the second time you ask with your legs, he should step right off. But you may need more than one spanking before the horse begins to take your leg cues seriously again. With good timing and the right skill level of the rider, the horse will be moving freely forward in minutes. Again, this is a tip for refreshing a trained horse that has become unresponsive– you would train a young horse that didn’t know better a little differently.

I did a “Quick Tip” for Horse Master recently, which may be airing soon, about the use of spurs. Basically it said that spurs are neither a piece of apparel nor a fashion statement, they are an artificial aid. And like many artificial aids, they have a propensity to be used incorrectly, even abusively and they can become a crutch to good riding. I believe that spurs should only be used by an advanced rider that has excellent control over their balance and leg position; inadvertent/indescriminant use of the spur will confuse a horse and can be downright dangerous on some horses. I also believe that with an advanced rider, training a horse to do advanced maneuvers (like collection, lateral movements or other maneuvers that require more effort from the horse), the spur can be a useful tool to motivate the horse to try a little harder. I have written a lot about “finding the amount of pressure that motivates change,” so I’ll let you read up more on this concept by visiting my Training Library (http://juliegoodnight.com).

I think that covers your questions and answers to a few you didn’t ask too! Thanks for watching Horse Master and keep learning!
Enjoy the ride,

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
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If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series

Improving My Horse’s Stop

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Question: I enjoy your presentations and I have a question that I hope you can help me with my horse, Rocky. During groundwork he does not respond to the verbal command “Whoa.” What would you suggest I do while longeing? While under saddle? (Note: when I hand walk him, he responds excellently). Details: Rocky is new to me, a green 12 yr old Fjord, (He’s only had 1 owner before myself), and before I got him, he’s had only 50 rides-within his 12 years of life. I have only owned him for 2 months. On the longe line, when the verbal command “Whoa” is given, he does not stop immediately, and when he decides to stop, it’s only after he takes an additional 7 -10 steps. I am worried about taking him out on the trail. What do you think? (Note: under saddle, he responds fairly well to the bit when stopping) Is he safe? Please advise.
Answer: I wouldn’t worry about taking him out on the trail as long as he responds to your stop cues while riding. Since the cues from the ground and from the saddle are different physically and the context is quite different for the horse, you’ll have to teach these cues separately. But since you are teaching primarily a voice cue from the ground, once he learns it, he should stop better under saddle too.
Your horse isn’t built to stop like a reiner but he should respond abruptly to the whoa command by coming immediately and promptly to a halt, shifting his weight back on his haunches. The Norwegian Fjords are draft type horses that are bred to be pullers and thus tend to be heavy on the forehand. It’s really easy, especially when riding in a snaffle to inadvertently teach this type horse to lean into your hands when you try to stop him with the reins, since their tendency is to want to pull anyway. If you teach the whoa cue from the ground, it will be much easier to teach the horse to hard-stop from the saddle without using the reins.

I like to teach the voice cue to stop while I am circling (driving) the horse in a rope halter and on the long training lead (12 or 15 feet). The first thing you’ll do is make sure the horse will move out at an energetic trot in a circle around you in each direction; then you can start teaching the whoa command.

To teach the voice cue to stop, you will give the horse a verbal cue at the same time you give a body-language cue to stop—by saying “whoa” and at the same time, take one step toward the front of the horse (as if to block his forward motion) and plant your feet in a stop. If he does not stop promptly (within a second or two), you’ll snap the lead, sending a wave of rope toward the horse so that he gets bumped in the chin. Keep bumping, with increasing pressure, until he stops.

By giving the voice and body language cues first, then applying pressure from the rope if he does not stop, your horse will quickly learn to stop on the voice cue instead of waiting for the rope to bump him. This process is demonstrated in detail in my groundwork video called Lead Line Leadership. http://www.shop.juliegoodnight.com/shop/trftg2leadlineleadership.html

It sounds like your horse is stopping when you say whoa, but on his own time frame and he is not putting any effort to the stop or giving much respect for the voice cue. It takes a lot more energy for your horse to stop suddenly on his hindquarters than it does for him to drag his feet slowly into the stop, heavy on his forehand (especially since he is not built to stop hard on his haunches like a Quarter Horse might be). Because it takes more effort for the horse to comply (stop the way you want him to) you’ll likely have to use more pressure to motivate him to try a little harder. Both horses and humans are this way—you have to find the amount of pressure that motivates them to change (to try harder).

By the way, “whoa” can only mean one thing to your horse: stop dead in your tracks now! It cannot also mean slow down or quit spooking or stop and then walk four more strides. So use the word sparingly and always reinforce what you mean. Say “whoa” once, give the horse a brief opportunity to respond, and then reinforce the cue firmly with your other aids. From the ground, your only other aid is your rope; from the saddle, you reinforce the voice cue with your weight and reins.

If your horse “wanders” when you tell him to stop (stops but then continues at a walk for a few steps), you’ll have to issue a correction with the rope, in a timely fashion—as he first steps out of the stop—and with enough pressure that he reacts to the bump of the rope and begins to look for a way to avoid the pressure of the rope. The answer is easy to find for the horse (if your timing is good), that when he hears you utter the magic word, if he stops hard enough, there will be no bump from the rope (and he will get some praise and a nice rest).

You would use the same principles to train the horse to hard-stop from the voice cue when you are riding him. This time you’ll use the voice cue first, followed immediately by your weight cue (sit down on his back and drive your seat bones in); if he does not stop suddenly and with effort, then use your reins as reinforcement, backing him up abruptly. If you give him a second or two to respond to your voice and seat before the pressure from the reins is applied, he will quickly learn to stop to avoid bit pressure.

Sadly, most riders pull back on the reins as the very first part of their stop cue under saddle, so the horse is not motivated to try harder and learns to stiffen and brace when he feels a pull instead of dropping his head, rounding his back and stopping on his haunches.

Remember, you must always reinforce the whoa cue, whether you are doing groundwork, riding or just routine handling. Always be willing to reinforce with your other aids if the horse does not listen or stop adequately; that way, he’ll learn to pay attention and try harder. If you make the horse back up a step or two every time you say whoa, it will improve his stop. Be sure to watch a video clip of the Horse Master episode we did on this topic and check out the full set of Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVDs at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlprUCxQd5M, http://youtube.com/watch?v=dXZKDMkIyRo and http://shop.juliegoodnight.com.

Good luck!

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician