Every riding horse is taught to respond to pressure from the rider’s leg. This could be to ask the horse to move forward, change pace or work with more energy; or it could be to ask the horse to move sideways. In dressage, spurs are an artificial aid which can be used to enhance a rider’s leg aids enabling you to sit more quietly and make the horse’s performance appear effortless in response to invisible signals, especially in the lateral exercises.
There are a number of things to be borne in mind however before you decide to use spurs. They are not a fashion accessory and no one will think any less of you as a rider just because you choose not to wear them.
Why are you considering using them? Not every horse needs to be ridden with spurs. If your horse is very sensitive and inclined to become tense or ‘hot’, spurs may cause more problems than they do good. Don’t be tempted to ride young, green horses in spurs habitually. Your horse should go from your leg first, not from the whip or spur.
If you do have a rather lazy horse which is inclined to ignore your subtle leg aids, it can be useful to wear spurs every now and then to sharpen up his reactions, but beware using them every time you ride as horses soon become ‘dull’ to them.
Look at your own position and seat. Can you sit deep and quietly with a still leg? If you are inclined to lose your balance or if your leg swings, wearing spurs will not be a comfortable experience for your horse and the result could be loss of rhythm, tension and resistance. When you ride with spurs, always allow the horse a chance to respond to the aid from your leg first; don’t use them every time you ask the horse a question.
When you want to use your spurs, turn your toe out slightly to angle the shank towards the horse’s side, then bring your lower leg inwards. You should be able to feel when the spur touches the horse. Don’t apply more pressure than you need to and never use the spur on every single stride. As soon as you have a response to your spur, relax your leg and reward the horse by taking the pressure away.
There are lots of different types of spurs available; short ones, roweled ones, long ones etc; the variety is quite bewildering. The shape of spur you choose will be to some extent influenced by your body shape. If you have long legs and your horse is short or narrow-bodies, you may find longer shanks suit you best whereas a short-legged rider on a big horse would be better with a short shanked spur with soft, round ends.
Spurs are not necessarily bad things but they should only be used by a skilled rider with a good seat. Incorrectly used, they can cause pain and distress to the horse which will quickly come to resent being ridden at all so think carefully before you decide to use them.