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Spurs, Western riding, and Hollywood

From: Rob Hampton

Dear Jessica,

I really enjoy your direct and easy-to-understand information. Eventhough I'm a relatively new rider (two and a half years versus a lifetime), I'm already seeing how some folks know the right answers while others only think they know :-)

I have recently been certified as a beginning western riding instructor and trail guide -- seems the more I learn, the more there is to learn. I work with both children and adults at a nearby conference center and ranch. Based on Hollywood's portrayal of the American West, the question often comes up:

Who should wear spurs, under what circumstances, and how are they used?

The policy at the guest ranch is that no one wears spurs, neither guests nor staff. All of our horses (44 at last count) are well trained and very managable. As result, none of the instructors, even the advanced ones, seem very knowledgeable about spurs. For awhile, we had a trainer who wore them for "difficult" horses. However, he has moved on before I asked him. Can you help? This information will help us all.

Thanks and keep up the exceptional communications!

Rob Hampton

Hi Rob! Thanks for the kind words. ;-)

Hollywood has a LOT to answer for -- there are people all over the world, not just here in the USA, who imagine that Western riding means leaping onto a horse from a second-story window, jerking its head around, jabbing it with enormous spurs and pulling it into a spin, and finally taking off at full speed across the desert or up and down mountains and over rocks, running at full gallop for miles and miles, and finally arriving in the next tiny town and jerking the horse to a rearing stop in front of the saloon. The B-film Westerns have convinced several generations of movie-watchers that riders spend most of their time at a gallop, that a horse's normal reaction to a bit is to throw up its head and open its mouth in pain, and that spurs are a sign of cowboy competence -- the bigger and fancier the spur, and the larger and sharper the rowels, the more authentic the cowboy must be.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

On the range and on the ranch, riding was not an art, a sport, or a pastime -- it was part of the job, and horses were transportation, working partners, flesh-and-blood all-terrain vehicles. And cowboys needed their horses to understand who was in charge. Spurs made it possible for cowboys to make their orders very clear -- especially when the cowboys needed their hands free for roping. Ranch horses wouldn't have understood subtle leg pressures from the cowboy, even if the cowboy knew how to give such pressures -- and even if the horse could FEEL such pressures.

There were practical reasons for the size and design of spurs. Spurs were made long because old-fashioned cowboy saddles had so much physical bulk between the rider's legs and the horse itself, that it required a long spur just to REACH the horse. Cowboys were sometimes tall and long-legged, horses were often quite small -- before large horses became fashionable, working ranch horses (as opposed to Hollywood horses) were sturdy, balanced, tough animals standing around 14.0 hh or 14.2 hh. A 15-hand horse was a BIG horse in those days, and in that country.

A man on a small horse, especially a man sitting in a Western saddle, with his legs stretched down long, will find that his feet and boot-heels are hanging below the horse's belly. This isn't a problem -- unless the rider wants to use a spur. Since spurs are attached to the boot just over the heel, most cowboys would have been spurring empty air if their spurs hadn't been designed to curve UP and then down, in an arc, with the rowels not much lower than the top of the boot heel. And since real cowboys didn't spend all of their time ON the horse, low-hanging spurs would have been an invitation to trip. As it is, the combination of high boot heels and curved spur shanks were only dangerous to their wearer if a cowboy forgot to remove his spurs before he squatted by the campfire. ;-) Nowadays, one of the big dangers is catching large-rowelled spurs on the mats in the pickup truck -- most cowboys are careful to avoid DRIVING with their spurs on.

As for the rowels, many spurs don't have them -- and among those that do, there is a lot of variation. The smallest, thinnest rowels with just a few sharp points can look deceptively innocent -- like a wire-thin bit, these pieces of hardware cause much more pain than the thicker, larger ones. A large rowel with many points -- sharp or rounded -- or no points, and some rowels HAVE no points! -- look impressive to the novice, but, like a heavier, thicker bit, are much easier on the horse, because any pressure applied will be spread over a much larger area.

Parade-outfit spurs may be inlaid and engraved and carry the rider's initials or the ranch brand, and they may have large, ornate rowels, but those spurs, like the enormous silver-trimmed saddles, are for show, and the rowels are unlikely ever to touch the horse. Working spurs tend to be less fancy (sometimes with just a touch of overlaid silver), more utilitarian, and most cowboys will customize spurs to some degree, either by ordering them custom-made or by filing down the rowel points to blunt them when they take their "store" spurs home.

Among real cowboys, spurs are an accepted part of the working wardrobe, but it's also part of the "code" that a good man -- a REAL cowboy -- doesn't leave spur marks on a horse. And real Western horsemen, like any other horsemen, don't leap on the horse and gallop until they stop. Cowboys do most of their ranch work at walk and trot -- and, like all good horsemen, they walk the first mile out and the last mile in. ;-)

Today's Western horses are ridden and trained differently, especially those used for dude-ranch work like the trail rides you describe. These horses are fully trained, quiet, and obedient -- they don't need to be reminded of who is in charge. And they are being ridden by tourists, many of whom are quite unfamiliar with horses and riding, or with Western saddles and Western riding -- these riders should never be permitted to wear spurs at any time, and those horses should not be ridden with spurs.

Today's Western horses are also ridden in different tack! The trend in Western saddles, over the last twenty years, has been toward a lighter saddle that balances the rider better over his legs, and also puts much less bulk between the rider's leg and the horse. As a result, the riders' legs lie closer to their horse's sides, and the horses are much more sensitive to changes in leg pressure.

This means that riders now use leg cues rather than spurs to communicate their wishes to their horses. With the riders' legs closer to the horse, spurs become both more effective and less necessary. The horses learn to respond to the rider's leg, and the spurs are used only occasionally, lightly, briefly, as reinforcement, in case the horse fails to respond to the leg. The normal progression for a rider would be a soft squeeze with the leg, followed by a "bump" with the calf -- and if the horse paid no attention, a brief, light nudge, NOT a kick, with the spur.

Your ranch rule, "no one can wear spurs", is a good rule and a good policy. That string of horses, and the people who look after them are the backbone of the dude ranch -- a lot of a ranch's reputation rides (literally) on the healthy, cheerful, well-trained, comfortable horses that visitors enjoy riding and recommend to their friends. Most visitors don't want to hurt the horses -- and would be horrified if they did.

If the horses are ridden periodically by competent members of the staff to refresh their training, there should be no need for anyone else to wear spurs, ever. Only the trainer should have them on, and the better the trainer, the less use those spurs will see. After all, these horses need to be comfortable, pleasant transportation for ranch guests of ALL abilities and experience. The ranch's interests will be best served by keeping all the horses happy, so that they will take responsibility for, and care of, their riders. Horses that have been taught to fear and resent the pain caused by riders will never develop the "babysitter" attitude, and you WANT that attitude -- it makes a good guest-horse into a great one, worth its weight in gold.

The few "yahoos" who truly don't care if they DO hurt the horses, and who probably got their notions of Western riding from those Hollywood fantasies, are not the kind of guests you want to encourage. Such guests typically offer more trouble than profit. These people need to do all their "riding" in controlled situations, at slow gaits, and without a severe bit to jerk. They have no business being turned loose on a horse anywhere, let alone wearing spurs -- one ignorant, foolish, thoughtless rider can ruin a good trail horse or cause an injury (to himself) that results in a frivolous, but still VERY inconvenient and potentially costly lawsuit.

It sounds as though your place is very well-run, and managed by intelligent people who act responsibly on behalf of their horses and the people who come out to ride.


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