At any Western event, you can close your eyes and hear the jingle-jangle of spurs. Open your eyes, and you’ll see them on the heels of most boots. You’ll see long shanks and short ones. Dull rowels and sharp ones. What type of spur is right for you and your horse?
I’ll help answer that question by examining five common spur styles. I’ll tell you what spurs should (and shouldn’t) be used for, and how form affects function. I’ll also offer tips for how to properly apply them when riding your horse.
What spurs are: A training aid; they’re an extension of your heel. When used correctly, they reinforce leg aids to improve your horse’s responsiveness.
What they’re not: A weapon; improper use of spurs sparks fear and resentment. They can also make your horse dull-sided—if you’re constantly digging at him, he’ll tune you out.
This brings me to a key point: Just because you wear spurs doesn’t mean you have to use them. I wear mine all the time. But I can go a week or so without ever using them. I only do so when I need to reinforce cues from my legs.
Note: The only time I don’t ride in spurs is during the first few days aboard a just-started youngster. If he were to make a sudden, eruptive move, he could accidentally get spurred, and things could get messy. I wait until the horse has about a week under saddle before I start riding him with spurs.
Form to Function
Here are five spur designs from my collection. They’ll rank from mildest to most severe.
Rowel: As the name implies, this blunt-edged rowel resembles a cloverleaf. The lack of points makes it one of the mildest rowel configurations available. It’s great for a horse that merely needs a tap to reinforce your leg cue.
Shank: The shank is a touch longer than the roper-style spur below, but still qualifies as a short shank. Such shanks require less leg control (to avoid inadvertently jabbing your horse) than spurs with longer shanks.
Good for: Rookie riders and rookie horses, or those horses that are real “feely” (reactive to leg and spur pressure).
Rowel: This 10-point, small-diameter rowel is fairly blunt, but the pointed configuration makes it more aggressive than the cloverleaf. I’d call it middle-of-the-road, with regard to severity.
Shank: The short shank is the mark of a roper spur. That’s because ropers stand up and lean forward to throw a loop. The short shank helps prevent them from inadvertently jabbing their horses when they stand.
Good for: Ropers, trail riders, and short-legged riders (to prevent inadvertent jabs). The middle-of-the-road rowel makes it good for most horses.
Rowel: Another 10-pointer, this one’s points are slightly longer and narrower than the roper-style rowel. I think of it as a step up from that and the cloverleaf, although the blunt points keep it from actually being sharp. (A word of caution: As with bits, even the mildest spur can become abusive when used inappropriately.)
Shank: The long length and upward curve of the shank position the rowel much closer to your horse’s side than the roper’s short shank.
Good for: Long-legged riders with effective leg control who desire minimal foot movement when applying spur. As with the roper spur, the rowel makes this one good for most horses.
4. Nine-Point Star
Rowel: The large-diameter rowel features nine narrow points that have more bite than any of the previous rowels. (For insights into how rowel styles will feel to your horse, run different styles across the palm of your hand when you go shopping. You will feel a marked difference between this rowel style and that of spurs 1, 2, and 3.)
Shank: Similar to spur 3.
Good for: Good trainers and top non-pros. This spur requires an advanced degree of leg control and rider know-how.
5. Rock Grinder
Rowel: The sharp points are based on a tool used to tune up stone grinding wheels; hence the name. It’s a rowel with bite. It can be a great training tool for experienced riders: It gets your point across quickly, maximizing reinforcement of leg cues with minimal pressure. However, it can do damage with the wrong rider.
Shank: These spurs belong to my son, B.J. They feature a long shank with a slightly raised neck, which requires minimal leg movement, especially on someone with shorter legs than mine. B.J. likes that length. I prefer an average-length shank (I have average-length legs), but that’s strictly a matter of preference.
Good for: These are professional-level spurs. They can rip hide if you’re not careful and in control.
A multiple AQHA world champion, Avila has also won three NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurities, the NRHA Futurity, and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles. He received the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year honor. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is in Temecula, California. Learn more at bobavila.net.