One of the trainers I respect the most, Mark Rashid, recently posted on his Facebook page:
Twenty-one years ago this coming Wednesday, I took the spurs off my boots and hung them on the wall in our living room. I did this as an experiment to see what kind of responsiveness I might be able to develop with my horses without having to use them. The experiment is still under way.
I’ve had the pleasure of riding with Mark three times over the past 9 years, and I have always learned something new and valuable. Also, he has always asked me to remove my spurs, trying to get me and Angel to work together without them. I confess, that has been a struggle.
Responses to Mark’s post were very interesting. Notice, he didn’t say, “nobody should ever use spurs,” or “all spurs are evil,” or that he had achieved complete success in his experiment. Still, most of the responses were like this: “I would NEVER use spurs! Spurs are evil! I don’t use spurs or bits or shoes on my horses! I’ve seen horrible abuse from new riders wearing spurs! Using any aids other than hands, legs and seat is unnatural!” (Really? You don’t use any sort of halter or bridle or saddle, ever? You just jump on and off you go?)
One person wrote a long and thoughtful response about how spurs could be abusive,
but aren’t in the hands (on the feet?) of riders who know what they’re doing, and that they have a place in certain types of riding and on certain horses. They are aids, nothing more or less.
This is my position as well. When I got back into horses in 2002, my first trainer – who was pretty much a disaster in every way – still taught me a few things of value. One was, “you have to earn your spurs.” In other words, you don’t get to wear spurs until you learn how to ride well enough so that you don’t torture your horse with them. Why do I wear spurs? Honestly, one reason is laziness on my part. Angel is pretty laid back, and wearing spurs keeps him moving when I want him to go. Understand, I’m not jabbing him. I use them gently. And if I use too much spur, he lets me know about it! Another reason is that Angel is trained to respond to spurs; Rod has always used spurs. None of his horses have ever been hurt or even marked by them. Clear and concise aids are good; I would rather press once with my spur than kick my boot heels against my horse’s sides until he decides he might move. Some horses are very forward, and as a friend once said, “I don’t need ‘go’, I need ‘whoa’!” Maybe if I were more in tune with Angel and my intent was clear and strong, I wouldn’t need spurs. But, there it is. Maybe that is what Mark meant by, “The experiment is still underway.”
The spurs pictured above are actually fairly benign. The rowels (points) are short and blunt. I took the picture on the left of some spurs from the 1800s which were on display at the Alamo I would never use spurs like these, and I would never work with someone who did.
But, here’s the thing. I broke my foot in July. I am now back in shoes, but per my doctor I have to wear only laced shoes as my foot is still swollen and will continue to be for several months. That means that I cannot wear my regular riding boots, but only my barn boots which lace up. My spurs don’t fit very well on those boots. And because my right foot is still a bit swollen, the spur on that foot pinches. So, I am now beginning an experiment of my own, out of necessity. I will be riding without spurs for a few months. Maybe the consistency of not using spurs over the next several months will make a difference. I’m willing to find out.