When riding or training a horse ‘aids’ are used to assist in communicating to the horse what is required. These are generally divided into two categories: the ‘natural aids’, which consist of the rider’s legs, hands, voice and body and the ‘artificial aids’, such as whips and spurs. Whips are commonly carried by those in the English riding disciplines - often by even the very young rider as an extension of their legs as an aid - but across the
disciplines, when it comes to the wearing of spurs, there are some riders who strongly believe in their value as a training aid and others who, just as strongly, disagree with the need for them at all.
The question so often asked by riders is when and why should a rider use spurs?
The problem with spurs is often that people just put them on and do not realise that there are different types of spurs created for different purposes. Not all horses or riders for that matter suit one type of spur. In other words, there is not a ‘one type suits all horses’ scenario with spurs, so for a novice rider or one who has
never ridden in spurs before there is a need to ask an experienced rider or trainer about the spurs they think would be suitable for their situation and their horse, before they start putting the spurs
There are different spur lengths, angles, rowels and materials that determine the purpose of that individual spur. If a horse is dull and ‘doey’ then it may be that a long, slightly sharper spur or a roller spur is more suitable. The roller spurs have big or small discs on them. If wearing a pair of spurs with rowels, the rider
does need to always make sure that the rowels are free from sand and debris and that they spin or turn smoothly. When they jam with dirt or sand and don’t turn freely is when they can be quite cruel and hurt a horse. A quick spray of WD40 to keep them lubricated is highly recommended! For horses that are super
sensitive, one of the ‘dummy’ spurs would be more suitable. Spurs also need to be positioned correctly to be effective. When a horse is seen with rub marks from spurs it is often that the spurs
are in the wrong position. It is not necessarily that the rider is using them too enthusiastically as many would think, although this can be the case at times. Some horses are particularly sensitive to spurs and prone to rub marks when they are changing their coat as well.
Learning to use spurs
The use of spurs and when and how to use them is critical to obtain maximum effectiveness. The rider needs to practice using them. They are not there just to make boots look professionalnor can they just be ‘whacked on and away you go’! If a novice rider has a weak lower leg position with a lot of movement in their lower leg or is unbalanced in the saddle, they should not be contemplating wearing spurs, as they may inadvertently
end up spurring the horse and creating a reaction they were not anticipating! This is scary and dangerous for both horse and rider.
Once a rider has a balanced seat and a secure lower leg, they can start to introduce spurs, however, just because spurs are worn does not mean they have to be used. Spurs are a tool of refinement, an extension of the leg when in the saddle – it is like pressing a button on a particular spot for that to move or have
a very specific reaction. It is all about how and when the rider applies the spurs and with the correct preparation, practice and training for both rider and horse the result will be an effective ride with much less effort from the rider.
Four experienced trainers – Amanda Ross, Dan Maloney, Heath Ryan and Andrew McLean all agreed that they would not introduce spurs to a young horse just starting out under saddle for the first few rides. Andrew McLean had a different and, as always, interesting and thought provoking perspective on the learning theory and nuances involved in training.
A top level eventing rider based in Victoria, Amanda has represented Australia in the Individual Three Day Event at the Sydney Olympics, was twice reserve for the World Equestrian Games in 1998 and 2010 and is qualified as an NCAS level 3 eventing and dressage specialist coach!
Amanda likes to keep it as simple as possible when training ayoung horse and uses the plainest of gear when starting out.Once the youngster is able to stop, go, turn left and turn rightconsistently and connect everything together at the walk, trot and canter, then she will introduce a set of spurs.
The introduction of spurs is done through transitions initially – halt to walk; walk to trot etc. Amanda emphasised the importance of starting off quietly and gently; in other words do not kick and put the spurs on at a 10 out of 10 amount of pressure and force! Start out at a 1 out of 10 and if that is not sufficient then build from there – 3 out of 10, 5 out of 10 etc. The horses’ reactions will vary depending on their sensitivity
but as soon as the rider gets the reaction they are looking for, as far as a transition or moving off the leg, then they know they have found the right level of pressure.
Generally the spurs Amanda prefers to use are ones with horizontal rollers as they don’t rub and are a subtle introduction to spurs for the young horse. These are also her preferred everyday spur on all of her eventers. With the assistance of spurs Amanda finds she is able to introduce the concept of the half halt and basic lateral work, which is essential for straightness and flexibility on both sides of the horse. Lateral work assists in teaching the horse to move from the inside leg to the outside rein/hand and this subsequently stops the horse from falling in or out on the circle. Using this manner of training Amanda says that the horse learns to trot a nice 25-30 metre circle, in a balanced frame, with a minimum of effort.
When the horse becomes more solid in its education, the spurs are used specifically for lateral work and refining the part of the horse she wants to move. Amanda can pinpoint the specific part of the body
she wants to move and then, using spurs, move it with the degree of momentum and energy she requires.
Apart from being a keen and elite level competitor Amanda is a very popular instructor for all levels of riding. When a pupil wants to start using spurs, or perhaps needs to as the horse is a little dull to the leg, Amanda will only suggest this is a good idea once the rider’s leg is relatively stable. The first thing riders need to establish is that there is no need to use the spurs, even though they are wearing them, and that it really is a matter of foot placement. The physical action of turning out the toe will put the leg/spur onto the horse’s side more easily, particularly for riders who are short in the leg and have a very wide horse, as it is physically more difficult to get their leg on the horse.
When the toes are pointing forward then the spurs are not in use and the calf or lower leg can be on the horse as the ‘go forward’ cue. For riders with a weak lower leg position, Amanda encourages them to do a lot of two point work in the saddle, which is where the rider is standing in the stirrups, balanced over their legs and is supporting their own body weight, as this is an excellent exercise to improve lower leg strength and position. It is the position used when jumping or galloping.
A highly regarded and much sought after horse trainer based in Victoria, Dan’s business ‘Four To The Floor Horsemanship’ bridges the gap between disciplines. He has started literally hundreds of young horses that have gone on to compete in a variety of disciplines. He also works with riders and their horses who are further along in their journey together.
Dan doesn’t wear spurs on young horses for the first 10 to 14 rides as he likes them to become accustomed to the leg and not be over reactive when they are first starting out. He always ensures any horses he is working with have been given the proper preparation for what is being asked of them, by starting out with ground work. Safety for the horse and rider or handler comes first and this is achieved by introducing new concepts, initially from the ground, and building from there to under saddle work. As he points out, it makes perfect sense, as no one would put a bit in a horse’s mouth for the first time, jump on and then expect it to know how to turn left, right and halt from the use of the bit. Similarly, if a rider got on a horse with a set of spurs and used them without the proper preparation then the reactive side of the horse’s brain would kick in, not the thinking side of its brain. Anyone who has been around a horse when its reactive side of the brain is at full throttle knows it is not an ideal situation in which to put either themselves or the horse!
On the ground Dan teaches the horse to bend, and move forward when asked whilst maintaining the bend through its head and neck. With the ground preparation completed spurs can be introduced to the young horse under saddle by putting them on gently and waiting for the hindquarter to yield or move away from the pressure of the leg/spur and the horse to relax and soften through its head, neck and body. When the right preparation hasbeen done initially Dan has found that 99% of horses will respond well to the introduction of the spur under saddle. Some will kick out at the spur, some will be more sensitive to it and become a little
nervous but the key is for the rider to be consistent and calm in their approach and, in Dan’s words, “make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy” for the horse in all aspects of its training.
Dan sees spurs as an extension of the rider’s leg and it is important that a horse at all stages of its education knows to move off the rider’s leg by using the calf first, before the spur. It is a matter of applying an aid at the lowest level possible and then only increase the pressure of the aid in increments. In other words, if the rider want the horse to go from a halt to a walk then they press lightly with the calf, if there is no response increase the leg pressure to a medium level and ‘cluck’ to the horse (introduce the verbal cue). If the horse is still not responding, the pressure is increased a little more by adding in the spur.
When the right preparation has been done initially, Dan has found that 99% of horses will respond well to the introduction of the spur under saddle.
If the length of the shank of the spur is too long, no matter what arider’s level of experience, then the spur will be the first aid the horse feels and not the calf/leg. Always give the horse the opportunity to respond before increasing the pressure. Dan emphasised that the rider should not take the leg off between asking for light-mediumhigher pressure as, by removing the leg in between, the horse will not relate to the pressure being the cue to move forward.
Dan believes that when a rider has got to the point where they have a relatively secure lower leg and they know where their legs are on the horse, then they are at a point in their riding they can use spurs. Just like Amanda, he encourages riders to learn to turn their toes out slightly when they want to apply the spur and this is particularly helpful to the riders who are shorter in the leg and have difficulty getting or keeping their lower leg on their horse’s side.
Dan generally rides all of his horses in spurs and his preferred type of spur is a 10 rowel Western spur with rounded points. He find that spurs are most useful for lateral work and also as a tool of refinement to use for moving specific areas or body parts of the horse. With the leg slightly back riders are able to move the hips or rear end of the horse, with the leg on the girth they are able to move the barrel of the horse, and with the legs slightly forward they are able to move the shoulders.
Heath has represented Australia in eventing and
dressage at WEG and Olympic level, is a passionate
coach and, with his wife Rozzie, breeds Warmbloods,
trains and competes at Grand Prix level.
Heath believes, since spurs are compulsory at FEI level competitions, the young performance horse should be introduced to them as soon as possible. The successful introduction and understanding of how to use spurs correctly, and how the horse should respond to their use, is a critical component to success for the competitor. Even though some people may think that using spurs on a horse is unnecessary or cruel, it is a requirement to use them at certain levels of competition (FEI level) and the guidelines and rules are put in place to ensure that the animal’s welfare is uppermost at all times. If riders want to have a successful riding career at the elite levels they need to be able to use spurs and train their horse with the use of spurs.
It is when the youngster is 5 to 6 weeks into its training under saddle and is able to leave the stock saddle behind - that Heath uses to begin with - and move into a dressage saddle, that is the time the young horse is first introduced to spurs. By this stage they are able to walk, trot and canter in a nice forward and relaxed
manner. Young horses just starting out their saddle career do best with small dummy spurs and, as they advance, the type of spurs used may vary.
As spurs are a requirement at certain levels of competition (FEI level), if riders want to have a successful riding career at the elite levels they need to be able to use spurs and train their horse with the use of spurs.
For Heath it is all about communication with the horse no matter what level they are at in their training. Spurs are an aid to enable the rider to be able to communicate clearly and concisely with the horse. “Just because the rider is wearing a pair of spurs does not mean that they have to use them,” he said. It makes very little
difference what sort of spurs a rider uses (small dummy spurs for the young horse or roller spurs for the Grand Prix horse) it is HOW the rider uses the spurs as to how effective they become.
Heath emphasised that it is not putting the spur on the horse that is important in the training but how quickly the rider can take it off once the horse has responded to what was asked of it. Heath recalls when Anky Van Grunsven talked about the use of spurs when she was at Equitana in Melbourne in 2005. Like Anky, Heath believes that it is more important that the horse move off the spur than have to use a very strong leg all the time and be constantly pushing. The spur is there if the rider feels they need to use it but if they don’t then they can take them away. It is far preferable to use a soft leg aid with a spur on than be constantly
nagging the horse with their legs.
For Amanda, Dan and Heath, riding is all about communicating clearly with the horse, no matter whether a rider is a Grand Prix rider, an eventer, an adult rider or a trail rider or some where in between – it is all about communication and partnership and spurs, when introduced and used correctly, can be an integral part
of the formation of that partnership.
Andrew has made a lifelong study of the horse and the
theory behind how they learn. He has a PhD in equine
cognition and learning, has been a successful competitor
in eventing having represented Australia in Horse Trials,
was shortlisted for the World Championships and has
competed in State and National level FEI dressage and
eventing. He has also show-jumped to Grand Prix level
and held a Racehorse owner-trainer’s licence.
Andrew’s experience as a trainer, rider, competitor and educator is extensive; he continues to coach riders and National Federations on the optimal use of learning theory for improved welfare of the trained horse as well as improved performance. It was interesting to learn that with all of his experience in so
many disciplines, Andrew is not keen that spurs are seen as being a ‘standard piece of equipment’. The fact that it is now compulsory they are worn at FEI level in dressage is, in his opinion, a backwards step for the overall welfare of the horse as well as the progression of educating people about how the horse learns and should be trained to achieve optimal performance. His belief that the propensity to create conflict and thereby develop ‘learned helplessness’ in the horse through the rigorous and zealous use of spurs is bordering on a form of abuse.
‘Learned helplessness’ occurs when a horse is unable to find any escape from the painful stimuli of the spurs being used constantly, and in an inappropriate fashion, when under saddle. The horse shuts down emotionally in order to deal with the conflict. It is very difficult initially to diagnose at what point learned helplessness
commences as the clinical signs are hard to detect. The more a horse apparently endures pain the greater the emotional, physical and mental consequences become. This manifests itself in many different ways such as gut problems – ulcers, hind gut acidosis, poor appetite, breakdown in the immune system, skin disorders, behavioural disorders etc. These responses become ritualised and, even if the cause of the horse having developed these afflictions is removed, it is extremely difficult to break the cycle of ritualised behaviour. One might well imagine that even if the horse appears to be better and the original stimuli is removed the behaviours will become its ‘default setting’ at times of stress and conflict.
There is extensive research available for riders to tap into to train their horses for optimum results and, because of the availability of this knowledge, the days of seeing horses with spur marks on their sides should not exist.
Spurs should not even be comtemplated being used without the rider’s leg being still and secure all the time. Only then, with proper nstruction, should they possibly be used as they were originally intended – that is, as a means of refining communication between the horse and rider. The precise nature by which a spur can be
used means the rider can be accurate to within a centimetre as to what part of the horse’s body the rider is wanting to move – this is particularly relevant for lateral work and also creating an ‘upward lift’ in energy.
Andrew is in agreement with Heath Ryan and Anky van Grunsven that it is not the application of the spurs that trains the horse but rather the removal of the spur.
The original intention of spurs was not as a means of making ahorse ‘go’ and sadly, when we see horses being ridden with rub marks on their sides or towels under the saddle cloths to prevent
spur marks developing, it is more indicative of the incorrect understanding and application of the spur in training. Riders need to be very careful about using painful stimuli such as the overuse of the spur when training and riding their horses. There is extensive research available for riders to tap into in this century to train their horses for optimum results and, because of the availability of this knowledge, the days of seeing horses with spur marks on their sides should not exist.
It is not difficult to train a horse to move forward from the pressure of the calf or leg. They are a creature of flight and movement – it is natural for them to want to move away from the pressure and a horse can be trained to move from the leg with the lightest of pressure. The key is in the immediate timing of the rider to remove the leg once the horse has responded. Without the immediate removal of the leg or spur the horse is unable to differentiate what is required and the rider is actually ‘de-training’ the response. The overuse of spurs or the leg means that it becomes counter productive to what the rider is wanting to achieve. The rider keeps spurring, often using harsher and harsher spurs and inflicting more pain and conflict upon the horse. How often is someone heard to say they use spurs because their horse is ‘lazy’ - blaming the horse for becoming something that they have unwittingly trained it to do!
Unlike many other sports, the equestrian world does not put itself under the scrutiny of constant reviews and what is ‘best practice horsemanship’. The general public are keenly aware of animal welfare issues and will not tolerate cruelty. This can only have positive consequences, as it is in everyone’s best interest to constantly review and change the way that horses and riders interact with one another for their mutual benefit.
Whether a rider chooses to use spurs or not is their decision as a rider. Perhaps though, it is the responsibility of all riders to better inform themselves about why and when the use of spurs is appropriate and equally, when they are not. Spurs are not always in the rider’s or their horse’s best interests.
Ultimately, like anything else in the horse world, individual riders should try not to be coerced into wearing spurs and using them just because everyone else is or they think they look good. Unless it is necessary for the level under which they are competing, then serious thought should be given to what the implications and
training ramifications are for a horse.