I don’t use spurs, because I don’t want to make my horse dull!”
If you’ve shared this opinion with so many riders I meet, you’re in good company!
But what if I suggested that the opposite might also be true? As a woodworker might choose smaller chisels to refine the details of his project, so spurs give a rider precision in delivering his cues, sharpening the response. It’s one tool in our tool box of artificial aids, adding extra motivation to our natural aids.
And as megaphone amplifies the voice, so the spur increases the intensity of the aid.
Remember, any tool can be abused in the hands of a novice or careless operator, but once a rider has good control over her lower leg and heel, so as to avoid accidental kicks, spurs can help her to reach just the right spot in just the right amount.
Spurs can refine the communication with our equine partners to achieve that subtle conversation we all strive for. Yes, even for the horse who’s already dull to your leg!
In order to have a more enjoyable ride and responsive horse, consider these points; Request. Escalate. Reward.
Skilled riders are intentional about their communication – they’ve learned to avoid cues that are too little, too much, too late, or too early – sometimes the hard way!
We can’t blame a horse for not responding to a cue he doesn’t understand. Our legs must deliver the request in the same manner and location every time. A sensitive horse reacts to what he doesn’t understand by fretting and rushing. The laid-back one just tunes it out. A spur helps me pinpoint the exact location I intend - at the girth or behind the girth, for instance. It can serve as a reaching assist for a rider whose build makes it challenging to reach the right spot. If we make our request with correct technique and amount, it’s fair to escalate the signal with a stronger one if he doesn’t respond.
Riding a horse needn’t be an aerobic workout like riding an exercise bike! Though it’s hard not to love a horse with a laid-back attitude (the kind that’s only mildly interested in the snow falling off the arena roof), the downside of a horse that’s dull to his environment is that he can also be dull to the aids. You need to “resensitize” him to your leg. After all, if a horse can feel a fly on his side, he can feel your leg!
On a scale of one to ten, aim to start each request at the low end and increase it until you get a reaction. Use your calf first, before your spur. After you’ve made a reasonable, light cue, dial up the volume on the megaphone. How fast you go up the scale will depend on your horse’s temperament. A sensitive horse requires careful crescendo. For the dull horse, more surprise -whatever you have to do to irritate him! This may involve lifting up your heel in order to make spur contact – picture lifting a little bit of skin on his side. If he’s dull, try a sharp vibrating action to motivate a response. Turn up the volume until he almost spooks from it and the instant he does, reward (remove your aid, drop your heel and soften your body.) Done correctly, after several repetitions, you will be able to refine this process.
By wearing spurs, I won’t miss a training opportunity in which I’m unable to follow through on my request. Although optional equipment in any competitive discipline, I prefer to have them available if I need it to deliver just the right amount of authority for on-the-spot motivation – in the training, warm up or show ring.
Picture your horse within an imaginary box. If your leg represents the back of the box, your dull horse has likely become quite content to rest on it as he would on the butt bar of a trailer! Horses seek freedom. Self-carriage develops when your horse discovers freedom inside that box and that leaning on any of its boundaries is uncomfortable. If he responds promptly when you follow through with your spur, immediately lower your heel and soften your leg to send him the “thank you” message.
The same quality we love in those unflappable horses, we tend to hate when they’re “unflapped” by our aids. Riding a horse in tune with your aids is like an enjoyable dialogue between partners. Determine not to “babysit” him with nagging aids. Attune him to your whispers with precision of a spur, and you have the potential for some great subtle conversations!
Originally published in Horse-Canada magazine 2015