That phrase, Never spur a willing horse, has been around for centuries. It came to mind on hearing a talk by Jay O Jay, the celebrated Canadian horseman, which he gave to the Aldergrove Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of B.C. His talk on The Judicious Use of Spurs was given to a packed house. He covered the following topics:
- Should I be using spurs?
- The function of spurs
- Shanks and rowels
- Understanding your horse’s mental & physical limitations
- Blaming the horse
- Developing a quiet effective leg
- Reinforcing your leg cue with spurs
- Remember success with your horse starts with you
His views are very much in line with an article by Martin Black, entitled To Spur Or Not To Spur.
Spurs should not be used as the primary signal. First, if we are asking the horse to move off one leg, we can start by putting some life in that leg. Then, if the horse does not respond to the leg or legs, reinforcement can come with the spur.
There should be enough respect, or even intimidation, caused by the spurs that we rarely need to use them. When the horse gets too comfortable with or desensitized to the spur, we can have numerous problems. Besides the obvious problem that the horse ignores the request made with the spur, he can also get resentful to the point of switching his tail, or even kicking or bucking.
Both Jay O Jay and Martin Black would certainly go along with that phrase, Never spur a willing horse. However it struck me that Spur is a word that has picked up a whole series of negative associations in relation to horses. It is interesting to consider why.
The word ‘Spur’
Checking the dictionary for the word spur, you will find the following meanings. As a noun, it means an incitement or stimulus. As a verb, it can mean to incite or prompt or it can mean to accelerate. These all show the same idea as you find in the phrase ‘to spur on someone to do something faster’.
The word spur also comes up as the name for a variety of physical objects as you will find in Wikipedia. Sometimes they can be instruments of aggression as apparently are found on roosters and pheasants and on the back legs of male platypuses. The most common usage is the equipment worn by riders of horses.
The History of Horse Spurs
Spurs have been used by riders of horses since the 4th century BC. Of course since riders of horses were often those with more power and wealth, spurs were often used as symbols of authority and/or superiority. Indeed knights of old were allowed to wear silver spurs rather than gilt spurs to confirm their knighthood: they had won their spurs.
That notion of superiority and aggression still attaches to the word ‘spurs’. That is why you will find some sports teams use this as part of their name. Perhaps the most famous in the UK is the soccer team, Tottenham Hotspurs, most often shortened to the Spurs. In the US, you also have a basketball team, the San Antonio Spurs.
Spurs and Horses as seen by the man in the street
It always seems to be the case that bad news travels farther and faster than good news. Many people in thinking of horsemen and spurs may remember pictures of riders flailing their spurred heels into their horses sides to force the horses to go as fast as possible. The spurs seem to be almost weapons of coercion to force the horse to do as the rider wishes.
That brings us back to the title of this post, Never spur a willing horse. Using the spurs in an apparently cruel way is not only abhorrent to others but will not bring out the best in the horse. There is a much better way to use spurs that will ensure the horse is willing.
The Best Use of Spurs
A rider only has certain points of possible contact with the horse when riding. Horses are incredibly sensitive and will detect almost imperceptible movements of the rider’s body.
A skilled rider can use such tiny cues to communicate with the horse where he or she would like the horse to go or at what pace. The legs should be very ‘quiet’ so that viewers may be unaware that a signal has been given to the horse.
One problem is that to an extent the human foot is the wrong shape for communicating with the horse. The spur is an artificial aid, which extends the heel backwards. This gives an additional way of communicating with the horse.
It is not a question of applying a great deal of pressure or a series of rapid jabs. Just the lightest touch will tell the horse what the rider has in mind.
A willing horse enjoys going as fast as it can when the opportunity arises. It does not need to be spurred on to do so. The spurs just like the other ways the rider communicates with the horse (reins, seat in the saddle and legs) require only imperceptible movements for the horse to respond.
When the rider and the horse are in close communication, they will appear to move as one. As Jay O Jay often says, “It is the mind that we communicate with, it is the mind that we train and most importantly, it is the mind that controls the horse’s feet.” The spurs are only one small part of that total communication process.