“I don’t use spurs, because I don’t want to make my horse dull!” If you share this opinion, you’re in good company; many of the riders I meet feel the same way. 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 her cues, sharpening the response. It’s one tool in the tool box of artificial aids, designed to reinforce our natural aids. As a megaphone amplifies the voice, so spurs increase 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 horse just tunes it out. A spur helps pinpoint the exact location we 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 of pressure, it’s fair to escalate that 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 10, 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, you may need to lift up your heel in order to make spur contact, or even create a sharp vibrating action to motivate a response. Turn up the volume until he responds 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, you won’t miss a training opportunity in which you’re unable to follow through on your request. Although optional equipment in any competitive discipline, I prefer to have them available if I need 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. 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