Pay a visit to any good tack shop or peruse an online catalog, and you’ll see a vast array of spurs in different shapes and sizes, all of which can be used to influence the horse in different ways.
In this article, we take a look at the purpose of spurs and how to use them correctly in dressage.
What are spurs used for?
A spur is basically a metal tool that’s fixed to the heel of the riding boot to back up the rider’s aids and evoke a response from the horse, as well as refining the rider’s aids, reinforcing the aids, and rewarding the horse.
Once you reach an advanced level in affiliated dressage, spurs must be worn. However, you can wear spurs at all levels of dressage if you want or need to.
The main reason for using spurs is to achieve a sharper, more instant reaction to your leg aids.
Spurs are useful for helping to refocus the horse, getting his attention, and producing a sharper reaction to your leg.
You can use spurs to reinforce a particular aid. For example, if you’re riding leg-yield, and the horse is slow to react to your leg aid to move sideways, applying the spur can be used to reinforce that your leg means to step sideways away from your leg.
More advanced work demands a very precise reaction to your leg aids, and spurs can be used to refine those aids.
For example, if your horse tends to swing sideways during the flying changes, you can use your spur to help straighten the horse and make the change itself quicker.
Using spurs in this way means that you don’t have to use as much leg and enables you to use a more discreet, lighter aid.
If you have a very sensitive horse that objects to the use of too much leg pressure, you can use the spur instead.
The less leg you have to use, the more rewarding it is for the horse, so using a gentle touch with the spur instead of a heavy leg aid can be a very effective way of thanking the horse for his responsiveness.
What are spurs NOT used for?
Like your dressage whip, spurs should never be used to punish the horse!
If you are seen to be using your spurs aggressively either when warming up for a competition or, heaven forbid, during a dressage test, you will probably be eliminated on welfare grounds, either by the collecting steward or the judge.
Are you ready to wear spurs?
Before you even think about using spurs, you must have an independent seat, and you must be able to ride with a still hand and leg.
An independent seat means that you can use your seat, leg, and hand in isolation or combination without negatively impacting any of those aids.
Basically, if you can’t keep your legs still, and you balance yourself by hanging onto the reins or gripping with your lower legs, you shouldn’t be thinking of riding with spurs.
Is your horse ready for spurs?
If the horse is to accept spurs, he must be comfortable with the rider’s legs lying quietly against his sides.
The horse should be responsive to your leg aids, moving forward in a good rhythm with suppleness and a secure connection through his back to the contact.
You must have these qualities established before you try using spurs on your horse; otherwise, you risk confusing and potentially upsetting him.
Why do you want to use spurs?
Before you ride in spurs, consider why you want to use them.
Unfortunately, many people use spurs as a kind of fashion accessory, only wearing spurs because everyone else does. That’s not a good reason to use them!
Unless you want the spurs to get a response from the horse, reinforce an aid, refine your aids, or reward a sharp horse with minimal use of your leg aids, you don’t need to wear them.
How to choose spurs
When it comes to choosing spurs, there are lots of different types, and it can be confusing. However, you can make the choice a little easier by considering the following golden rule:
Use as much as you need but as little as you have to.
In other words, begin by using small, dull spurs with a 0.2-inch shank. You can then increase the length of the shank and/or the style of the spur, but only if you didn’t get the response that you wanted from the small spurs.
In general, the length of the spur is related to the reactivity of the individual horse, rather than the experience or otherwise of the rider. For example, an advanced rider may only need a very small, dull spur if they have a hot, responsive horse, whereas a novice rider mounted on a lazy horse that’s dull to the leg might need a longer spur.
Pointed spurs and those with rowels should be reserved for experienced riders who can ride with a still leg and independent seat.
How to fit spurs
You should fit spurs so that the end of the shank is pointing slightly downward. The spur should sit on the spur rest on the back of your boot, and the spur strap buckle should be placed on the outside of your boot.
In dressage, it is not permitted to wear spurs upside down.
How to use spurs
To use spurs, the rider slightly raises their heel, pushing the end of the spur’s shank or the rowel against the horse’s side.
Spurs should not be used to jab the horse in the belly with every stride the poor creature takes! Nor should you kick the horse hard. Using spurs in that way is dangerous. You could injure your horse and/or it could result in an unscheduled dismount!
Types of spurs
You can buy spurs to fit men, women, and children, and the size of the spurs varies accordingly. The length of the shank varies, but children’s spurs are usually the shortest.
Round ended spurs
Round ended spurs are very mild, having a small ball at the end of the spur shank. You can also buy round ended spurs with a rubber ball, and those are just about the mildest variation.
Knob ended spurs
Knob ended spurs have a squared-off shank with blunt edges.
Prince of Wales spurs
These spurs have a squared-off shank with a flat end, making them slightly sharper.
Roweled spurs have a round wheel with blunted teeth. The wheel spins around when the rider applies the spur to the horse’s side. Most roweled spurs have eight teeth on each wheel.
You can buy spurs with a disc rather than teeth, and these are a popular choice for dressage. Roller spurs have a plastic roller, rather than a rowel. When you put your leg on the horse, the roller moves along the horse’s side.
Roweled spurs are permitted in dressage, but the ends of the rowels must be blunt.
Swan neck spurs
Swan neck spurs are often used in dressage. The shank of the swan neck spur is angled upward before leveling off.
Waterford spurs have a large, round ball fitted to the end of the shank.
Comb spurs have small, blunt teeth set inside the heel band, meaning that the rider doesn’t need to turn their heel to use the spur. Note that this design of spur is not permitted in dressage.
Spurs can be used as an additional aid to back up and refine your leg aids, and should never be used to punish the horse.
Needless to say, before using spurs, you must develop an independent seat and quiet, still legs, and your horse should be working in line with the dressage Scales of Training.