Spur Basics

Courtesy of America’s Horse Daily

Learning to use spurs properly is all about feel, says AQHA judge LeeAnn DeMars. It’s the same sort of finesse that you strive to develop in your hands. With spurs, she says, “You must have that control through your leg and heel. The more you improve the feel, the less you have to move your leg.”

Spurs should never be a substitute for a bad leg. Most importantly, they should be used as a last resort. “Yourcues start with your seat, follow down your leg and end with your spur,” she says, “Using your spurs should not be your first reaction.”

When LeeAnn works with a novice student, the trainer makes sure the rider builds leg strength and positionbefore the beginner straps on spurs.

The rider needs to develop a steady leg,” she says.

Stirrup length has to be correct with any rider who uses spurs. Even if the stirrups are only a tad too long, some riders tend to grab with their knees.

“This sends their toes down and heels up,” LeeAnn explains, adding that the spurs will go up with the rider’s heels, inadvertently poking the horse. “The foot doesn’t have good control, so the rider uses spurs in a way that they’re not meant to be used.”

This is especially true with a hunt saddle, even though spurs for English events are nubbier and shorter-shanked than western spurs.

“You don’t have a huge fender on an English saddle,” LeeAnn says. “There is a lot more range of motion in the rider’s leg.” A beginner hunt seat rider needs to be able to control his or her feet and legs before wearing spurs.

“Until you can get riders to keep their calves on the horse and their heels down, it’s not a good idea to stick spurs on them,” LeeAnn says. “Or they’ll be grabbing with their heels and spurs for balance, causing an unwanted reaction, such as kicking out or excessive speed.”

While some horses might not shuffle or spook, other indications demonstrate the horse’s discomfort. A horse might wring his tail in protest, pin his ears or kick out. Quite simply, your horse will let you know if you misuse your spurs.

Adjust Your Stirrup Length

When you’re adjusting stirrup length for a hunt-seat saddle, drop your feet from the irons. The bottom of the iron should be level with your anklebone. For proper western stirrup adjustment, stand in the stirrups. LeeAnn says that a hand’s width – about 4 inches of daylight – between the seat of the saddle and your seat, is about right. When you sit back down, your stirrup length should be correct.

Be Sure Your Spurs Fit

Poor-fitting spurs will rock up or down and flop around on your boot. LeeAnn says that spurs need to be snug. This comes mostly from the heel cup being the right size for the rider’s foot and boot. Spurs range from youth to ladies’ and men’s sizes. Even so, the type of boot you wear will have some bearing on the size of the spur that fits.

“A crepe-sole boot takes a wider spur than a leather-sole boot,” LeeAnn says. She suggests taking your boots with you when you shop. Keep in mind that, while you can use a vise to widen or narrow the spur, big alterations aren’t possible. About 1/4 inch is all you can expect to gain or lose. Stainless steel spurs are harder to spread.

With any spur, the heel cup, which slides over the heel of the boot, is pretty much set. If it doesn’t fit your boot from the start, there’s very little chance you’ll be able to alter the spur.

Spur Straps

Spur straps play an important role in keeping spurs in place. LeeAnn likes wide straps on western spurs because they help the spurs stay put. And, they offer a little more protection on the inside of your foot.

Quality is an important issue, regardless of whether the straps are for western or English spurs. “Avoid cheap leather that will fall apart, or buckles that won’t work,” LeeAnn says. With English straps, the buckles need to be on the outside, with the tails pointing down. LeeAnn adds that the shanks of English spurs must also be pointed down.

“It’s not acceptable to have your spurs turned up,” she says.

The Right Tool for the Job

When one of her students is ready to start using spurs, LeeAnn will generally get out a short-shanked ball spur. The horse will know the rider has spurs and will respect him or her, even though it’s a mild spur. But if the rider kicks hard, the ball spur isn’t aggravating to the horse.

If the rider has good leg position but has not yet developed a great deal of leg strength, LeeAnn will bring out a longer-shanked ball spur. This also works, she says, for little kids or light-weight riders who don’t have a lot of muscle in their legs.

“The more you contract your muscle, the weaker it gets,” she says. “So, if you’ve pulled your leg in as far as you can, it gets weaker. If you extend the length of the spur shank, it provides more leverage, and you can get more power out of that rider’s leg.”

LeeAnn fits riders with a long-shank ball or blunt-end spur before she’ll have them use a spur with rowels.

“The rowel is sort of a last resort,” she says. “But, if I do have a rider use a rowel, it’s likely to be one that is fairly straight-shanked.”

An exception would be with small kids who might need shanks that turn in.

“Their legs don’t come down the barrel of the horse very well,” LeeAnn says. “In fact, their legs will stick straight out. Until they can encompass the horse’s barrel, they need a little extension of the leg.” Shanks that turn in provide that extension and give them some help.

“As long as they have good control of their feet, these riders are OK with spurs,” LeeAnn says.

Spurs are like bits. Needs change, and sometimes you need more than one pair. “I have three different pairs for myself,” she says. “What I use depends on the horse. If I’m on a green horse that needs to learn something, and I don’t want to aggravate him, I go to a spur that’s soft but helps me get the point across, even if I have to use it a little harder.”

Sometimes older, dull-sided horses require spurs with rowels.

“Personally,” LeeAnn explains, “I don’t want a lot of point on my rowels.” She prefers a more blunt rowel that rolls. “That’s the whole purpose. You roll the rowel up the horse’s side, which works better than if it just jabs them. When you roll it, you get new feel with each area the rowel touches. It brings new life to the horse’s hide.”

This is akin to using your leg without a spur. It hangs straight down, and you apply pressure. If you get no response, you move it to a new area to create a different level of feel.

LeeAnn’s spurs are tipped in a little, so she can ride with a straighter foot. “They’re just barely pointed at the horse. With my short legs, I like this type.” Some shorter-legged riders might want to use spurs with shanks that curve up and then bend down. These would give more lift when the rider pressed on the spur.