Last Updated on March 29, 2023
Spurs are a common tool in both English and western disciplines. Like all other tacks, there are many different opinions on the usage and necessity of spurs. Although commonly associated with big decorative rowels and cowboy boots, there are several types of English spurs. In fact, spurs are so common competitive organizations approve usage and enforce strict regulations on spur style and usage.
Purpose of English Spurs
Spurs simply attach the back of a boot. Although western boots have a “shelf” known as a spur ledge above the boot heel, paddock boots and tall English boots have a slightly different placement. Riding heels do not include a shelf, but provide a “spur rest” above the heel. This provides a slight angle and a small amount of projection for the spur to rest on in a stable position. Spurs are made of metal, typically stainless steel for longevity and easy-care.
Spurs can be used as an additional or extended aid to move a horse forward or laterally. Spur use is usually considered an extension of natural aids (such as legs and hands). For some riders, spurs provide a more precise cue vs the foot and leg. This is particularly true in dressage where horses and riders must execute highly technical and precise movements. However, some trainers will have their small junior exhibitors utilize spurs if they lack powerful leg contact on a well-versed (stubborn) schoolmaster!
There is no malintent with spurs in English disciplines, as they are not made to be an “irritant” or agitating device. To combat misuse, which does occur, competition organizations regulate and inspect spur-use. Unnecessary “force” or over-use will result in a penalty or even disqualification in some cases.
It is though original spurs used by the Celts during the 5th century BC were made of bone or wood. Archaeological digs have uncovered spurs made of iron and bronze utilized in the Roman Empire by Roman Legions. The lack of appearance in other sculptures indicates spurs were only provided to fighters needing strong leg cues to fight with their hands. The modern spur has drastically changed. However, the earliest “roweled” spurs appear to have originated in France. In later history, spurs were used as a golden or gilded rank sign for knights and royalty only. The Esquires’ spurs were silver, indicating rank.
Read more about the Uses of Horses Throughout History
Different Types of Spurs
There is no singular type of spur used in English. Unlike western riding where spurs can be highly ornate, English boots use thin and streamline spurs and spur straps to prevent the usage from becoming a distraction. Although the following styles are all utilized by English riders, not all may be competition legal. Please check your rules and regulations prior to use.
POW, or Prince of Whales spurs, have varying neck lengths. They feature a blunt end and slightly angled neck, like these Centaur stainless steel spurs.
Unlike a Tom Thumb bit with a great deal of severity, the Tom Thumb spurs resemble the POWs. However, they are typically a much shorter blunt end, usually ¼” like these Shires spurs.
Rollerball spurs utilize either rubber, plastic, or metal ball that freerolls in a horizontal manner. The ball can be rolled across a horse’s barrel to encourage engagement and roundness, or used bluntly in a more traditional manner. Check out this Horze stainless steel 20mm rollerball spur here.
3-Tooth spurs are typically stainless steel, and appear to have “notches” on the outer edge facing the horse. Unlike other designs, these do not have a protruding neck. Many riders like these for petite or young riders that need help accentuating cues for their horses without unnecessary protrusion. Korsteel makes one the most popular 3-tooth designs, available here.
The rounded ball spur, also known as a Waterford ball, is a round-ball attached to the spur neck. The Waterford ball comes in different sizes and lengths but is considered a gentle spur by many. You can see the Centaur 1″ spur here.
Rowels are not just for western disciplines! Although a much different look, English roweled spurs include a spinning rowel on the end of the spur neck. Necks can vary in length and angle, and rowels will greatly differ as well. Some are brass, while others are stainless steel. Some use smooth discs, while others have varying amounts of “teeth” on the rowel itself. These Coronet spurs feature teeth.
There are multiple variations of each spur depending on your needs and preferences. We recommend consulting your trainer and competition organizations before making a decision on an English spur type right for you.
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How do you choose an English spur?
Definitely, a good spurs is one that can be used with an ease and that is not so hard that it can cause pain to the horse or cause the horse to become agitated or discouraged. The second thing that should be considered is the actual type of spur that is being used. The length of the spur should be such that it is not too long and it should not be too blunt. A long spur may become entangled with the horse’s leg and will not be effective at controlling the horse. Also, a long spur will be difficult to use because it may cause the rider to become entangled in it. A blunt spur will not impress the horse and will not be effective at controlling the horse.
What are the most gentle spurs?
Bumper spurs are a great option for riders who are interested in riding a horse that is particularly sensitive. If you’re interested in trying a softer option for your spurs, you may want to try bumper spurs. Bumper spurs have a curved metal piece around the heel that is fairly flat, rather than spiked. In brief, bumper spurs are very similar to dressage or dressage-style spurs, except they are softer.
Are spurs really necessary?
Usually, riders use spurs to get a better and quicker reaction from the horse. Spurs are used to encourage your horse to react faster to your leg, as by nature, horses can get dull to your leg. Spurs can be a great tool to help the horse to react with more precision, without more pressure from the leg. A highly advanced dressage rider, for instance, may want a more precise reaction from their horse when riding tempi changes or pirouettes. In addition, some horses that are very sensitive can benefit from the use of spurs. When you use your spur gently on a sensitive horse, it’s a clear and light aid for them, and thus works as a great reward.
Are spurs used in English riding?
No matter what level you ride at, you must use spurs. In English riding, spurs are worn at all levels and are mandatory from Young Horse Class upwards. In Young Horse Classes, riders are allowed to use dummy spurs but must keep them free to move. There is no restriction on the type of shank or Rowel as long as they are free to move. Only blunt styles without rowels can be worn in Young Horse Classes.
Are spurs good for a lazy horse?
If your horse is lazy and not moving quickly enough, using spurs on a lazy horse can help encourage a faster pace. You shouldn’t use spurs every step, however, and should only use them when necessary to get a desired result. Wearing and using spurs on a lazy horse can encourage stimulation and speed. Do not, however, spur your horse every step. Use your spur sparingly and effectively. Put it on, get a result, and then take it off.
Equestrian, Marine Corps vet, and Morgan horse enthusiast.