By Pat Parelli
Every little cowboy wants to wear a pair of spurs. . .
In my opinion, spurs are one of the most misunderstood and misused pieces of real horsemanship equipment. Why do I say that? Because spurs are not really designed to make horses go faster: their real use is to go sideways, as well as up and down.
If used artfully, spurs can help you obtain a higher level of communication with your horse. To do so, we need to develop the philosophy, concept, and skills needed.
Here is a little background on how spurs have been designed, and simple analogies on how spurs can benefit the horse:
Spurs in Warfare
Hundreds of years ago, when horses were used for warfare and riders were using the horse to fight men on foot, the first thing a man with a sword would do is try to wound or kill the horse.
So, somebody got the idea to put something that looked like a little sword (the spur) on the heel of their boot to help the horse go sideways in a moment’s notice. In this scenario, the little sword is way better than the big sword.
Spurs in Cattle Herding
When it was common for all cattle to have horns, the older they got, the longer and sharper their horns became. When riders started using horses in handling cattle, it did not take long for people to realize that the cattle’s main defense is to put their heads down with their horns facing outwards. They would then either stand their ground, or charge and use their horns offensively.
So again, a little horn used on the horse’s side (the spur) could help the horse get out of the way quickly. In other words, the little horn was better than the big horn (except, of course, for General Custer—that’s a Battle of Little Bighorn joke).
Prepare You and Your Horse for Spurs with the Parelli Program
In the Parelli program, we teach people to play Seven Games. Game number two—the Porcupine Game—encourages you to use something sharp like stick fingers to teach a horse to yield away from steady pressure (as opposed to rhythmic pressure, like kicking). This game will help your horse respond effectively to spurs and understand how you're using them to communicate at this higher level.
Mistakes People Make When Using Spurs
Most people try to use spurs to make the horse go faster by kicking, rather than using rhythmic pressure with a crop or rommel on the hindquarters. Using spurs with rhythmic pressure is something a real horseman would hardly ever do.
Know Your Tools for Better Horsemanship
So I go back to my statement: If spurs use artfully, they can help you obtain a higher level of communication with your horse.
If we revisit the Keys of Success with horses—Attitude, Knowledge, Tools, Techniques, Time, Imagination, and Support—when it comes to the spur (a tool), we must use it correctly. If we don’t understand it and use it incorrectly, it would be like using a hammer to get a screw into the wall.
The reason why we as riders sometimes don’t use a tool correctly is because we feel it’s our only tool available. So, when using spurs, understand first its design for use: to go sideways, as well as up and down—not for rhythmic pressure. For your full toolbox of horsemanship skills, the best place to start is the Levels Program, which you can find in the Savvy Club.