Camps are often sharply divided over the decision to use a crop or strap on spurs for training rides. Fortunately, both can be kind and effective when used properly. Here we’ll share some information that may help you choose which option is best for your needs.
Spurs are a terrific tool on the educated leg of a steady, balanced rider. If you’re not entirely positive that you possess a well-educated leg or imagine that you may not be an entirely steady, balanced rider, then spurs are out of the question.
However; for those who can rely on their ability to communicate correctly and in a consistently timely manner with leg, the addition of a spur can be rather helpful. Note that the purpose of a spur is to reinforce a leg cue if it’s being ignored. Spurs are not meant to make a horse go faster. If you’re wearing spurs with the intent of “making the horse go faster” take the spurs off immediately and go take some lessons.
There are many different types of spurs on the market. Educate yourself with their design and use. The most common type of spur, praised for their generally gentle effectiveness, is a ball with a very short shank. Respected local trainer and IRHA Hall of Fame horseman Joe Ruiz is now making a shank-less ball spur; Joe explains that its action more readily translates to contact that the horse will innately understand (vs. the nagging or irritating stab of many spurs currently available). If you’d like to learn more, you’re encouraged to contact Joe directly.
Beware of any design that is sharp, be it large or small in diameter. Bad equipment on a forceful leg has been known to severely injure a horse. If you like the look of the big, jangly old-time spurs worn by the desperados in spaghetti westerns, you can certainly enjoy wearing them to your next Howdy Doody look-alike contest. Leave them at home if you’re getting on a horse though.
The cost of spurs generally range from $30 on up to $300, if you want something fancy, customized and engraved. There are designs for western or English boots. You’ll find several options at AA Callister on Redwood Road, online at SmartPak or Dover Saddlery, or order a custom design locally from Joe Ruiz.
If you’ve determined that you aren’t a good candidate for spurs, or just don’t wish to wear them for any reason, you may want to consider riding with a crop.
Do you have to use either crops or spurs? It depends, on the horse, on the horse’s level of training, and your goals as a rider. Some horses rarely, if ever, question their leader and promptly respond to any request you make when in the saddle.
If you do happen to have a horse that (even occasionally) is slow to respond to your cue, having a means of quick reinforcement allows you to help your horse understand the importance of a timely and correct response. Encouraging this level of comprehension and responsiveness is a benefit to you, to the animal, and to anyone who may handle the horse.
If you make a request and the horse ignores you, and your next choice is to repeat the same request in the same manner without escalation, you’re teaching your horse to ignore you. Horses that learn to ignore their riders often end up in cans of Alpo. You may be willing to accept Fluffy’s willful personality or think it’s cute when you have to kick 14 times before she picks up the trot, but few (if any) others will enjoy such antics. Training your horse well and correctly will help her lead a long and rewarding life if, for any reason, the two of you must part ways in the future. You’re doing your horse a favor by training her to be respectful and listen to her rider.
One of the benefits of the crop versus a spur is that even a rider with an imperfectly educated leg may use one effectively. Of course, having steady and well educated hands with proper rein-handling technique is essential; as one must never pull back on the rein at the same time they apply the crop. If you find you’re balancing on the reins, don’t use a crop. Actually, if you find yourself balancing on the reins, get off the horse and go take lessons with someone who’ll put you on the lunge line until you develop a proper seat. No horse deserves to have an unsteady rider hanging onto and punishing its face.
For those who are balanced enough to use a crop, note that it’s generally thought to be most effective if you apply it directly behind the leg used to cue the horse (and, of course, you’ll only use it if your initial leg aid was ignored). Some also like to give a horse a little tap on the shoulder on the approach when jumping, just in front of the obstacle. It’s best not to reach back and give the horse a smack on the hind quarters, as you may inspire the horse to kick out violently or leap forward with more velocity that you’d initially hoped for.
Know your horse well enough that you’ll be aware of how much pressure will be necessary for that specific equine. Some horses respond to a light tap. Some are so sensitive that smacking the outside of your own boot will get the response you need. Be as firm as necessary, but never over-do it. You don’t want to cause the horse to become fearful of a crop, nor do you want to cover 6o yards in less than 4 seconds and end up in the dirt; such a forceful cue would be counterproductive.
A crop with a wide, flat end is generally preferred to the type with a thin piece of leather; there is less sting and thus you’re less likely to frighten the horse unnecessarily. If there is a loop on the handle, don’t put it over your wrist. You want to be able to drop the crop to the ground at any time if necessary. The loop can be placed over the horn of your western saddle (if it does not unnerve your horse) or you can remove it entirely if you wish.
Never use the crop in anger. It is an instructional aide, not a tool of punishment. If ever you feel frustrated enough to actually hit a horse out of anger, hop off and give yourself some distance. Tie the horse safely. Walk (or crawl, if necessary) away and calm down. Resume riding when you can be rational.
The price of crops range from $10 up to $90, depending on materials (synthetic or leather) and brand. A synthetic $10 crop can be every bit as effective as those approaching the $100 mark. As you’re sure to lose and misplace them regularly, we encourage you to purchase the economy models and buy in bulk. You’ll find them locally at AA Callister on Redwood, IFA or CalRanch (several locations in the greater Salt Lake area), at Horse Crazy down in Draper or buy online at favorite equestrian outlets such as Dover Saddlery or SmartPak.
With a little experimentation, practice and proper instruction, you’re sure to find the riding tools that will be most helpful to you and each individual horse. When you use the right implements at the right time, in the right way, your job as a rider and leader may be much easier, and your sessions more enjoyable for both you and your equine partners.