If you do not know how to ride a horse, do not use spurs, even if the horse seems to be completely unresponsive to kicks in the sides. Despite cowboy movies and Grand Prix dressage riders having to wear spurs during competition, spurs should never touch a rider’s boots until the person has been riding for years. Even then, the spurs should be unroweled or have plastic covers placed on them.
Signs of Abuse
The skin on a horse’s sides is just about as sensitive as human skin, no matter how stoically the particular horse may take blows or jabs. Spurs are only meant to supplement leg aids, or cues, but not to be a complete substitution. Even small unroweled spurs can inflict major pain and injury if used by a lazy and vitriolic rider.
Signs of spur abuse in horses and ponies will be injuries right behind the girth area or even under a horse’s belly, depending on how long a rider’s legs are. These injuries can be as dramatic as bleeding gashes or as subtle as bumps which resemble hives. Hair loss and changes of skin color without bleeding can also be signs. These signs also resemble bug bites, so be careful of accusing anyone of spur abuse unless you have videotape and witnesses to back you up.
Why Horses Don’t Protest More
In human minds, if the horse is not bucking, screaming or otherwise making signs of protest, then it must not be in pain. Therefore, use the spurs all you want. The horse does not seem to mind. Riders in the Olympics or at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna use spurs and they are considered the best riders in the world. Beginning riders may confuse the use of gadgets as a substitution for years of training and building up strong legs.
Horses are prey animals. Out in the wild, if a horse showed any sign of pain, then a predator would select them for dinner. A hurt horse was easier to kill than a healthy one. Horses are renowned for ignoring blows, jabs in the mouth and constant drumming on their sides. Although they are stoic, they can feel pain.
Spur abuse is not a modern problem for horses. Horses were mainly trained by brute force and fear throughout most of their domestication. A few short, sharp jabs of the spur would stick in any horse’s mind that if they wanted to avoid pain, they had better move. One well-documented case of spur abuse happened in the 1896 Kentucky Derby. The winner, Ben Brush, had been jabbed in the sides by jockey Willie Simms so much that spectators could see the blood flowing down the colt’s sides.
So what are top level riders doing wearing spurs? They often just tickle or touch a horse’s sides, not jab or kick. But they also are giving horses signals through shifting body weight, the reins and (if allowed) voice cues. Spurs are not a short cut to blue ribbons or silver trophies.
“How to Think Like a Horse.” Cherry Hill. Storey Publishing; 2006.
Horse Training Tips with Deanna Castro. “The Purpose of Spurs.” http://deannacastro.com/2009/03/the-purpose-of-spurs/
Brisnet.com. “Ben Brush: 1896 Kentucky Derby Winner.” http://www.brisnet.com/cgi-bin/static.cgi?page=historical_cameos_2
Spanish Riding School Homepage. http://www.srs.at/