Why do you use spurs on your horse?

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Decades ago, I removed my spurs. Research studies suggested that lack of forward movement was not due to insufficient propulsive activity of the hind legs but instead, the incapacity of the thoracolumbar spine’s muscular system to properly transmit forward through the thoracolumbar spine, the thrust generated by the hind legs.

Basically, lack of forward movement was because of spine dysfunction instead of a lack of hind leg activity. The thought behind removing my spurs was that with the spurs on I would likely be looking to the problems associated with increasing hind leg activity, instead of concentrating on the thoracolumbar column dysfunction.

It was amazing how fast the horses adapted to the no-spurs situation. In fact, very soon, they responded with greater accuracy to any touch of my legs. At first, I attributed their calmness, subtleness and higher sensitivity to the fact that they no longer feared the sharp contact of the spurs. Equine research had already demonstrated the wrongness of Gustave Steinbrecht’s  “spur attacks.”

Jean Marie Denoix DVM, PhD explained that having two heads, one inserted higher on one vertebral body and the other lower on the adjacent vertebrae, backward movement of the rib stimulated by the contraction of the muscles situate between the ribs, “spurs attack,” compressed and therefore altered the mobility of the two vertebrae connected to the rib.

© Mike Bain
© Mike Bain

Further studies demonstrated that the old concept of the rider’s legs stimulating muscles engaging the hind legs was unrelated to equine functional anatomy. The muscles situated under the rider’s leg are the rectus abdominis and they don’t engage the hind legs. The rider’s leg touches sensors, which are designed to feel touch. These sensors have the capacity to feel a fly.

Protection against external parasites involves feeling their presence and taking appropriated action.” (Carol A Saslow)

In its more elementary form, the touch of the rider leg is interpreted by the horse’s brain as a forward movement signal. This is the simple concept of conditioned reflex. The touch of the rider’s leg is compared in the memory with previously stored stimulus and recognized as an indication of forward movement. The message is transferred to the cerebral cortex and the cortical decision is “go”. The cortical decision is integrated to the elements of the brain such as the olivary nuclei or cerebellum, which monitor the horse’s body state, and the cortical decision is adapted to the body situation. If the body state is a dysfunctional spine, the message “go” is resisted by fear of discomfort or pain. This very basic understanding of equine perception exposes the infantilism of the belief that if the aids are properly applied, the horse responds by executing the correct movement. Instead, the horse response is always a compromise between responding to the rider’s aids and protecting existing muscle imbalance, morphological flaw, weaknesses, memories, or other issues.

Once, we humans, have devised ways to measure the physical world, it became apparent that our perception of “reality” was a construction of our human minds and not a faithful physical replica.” (Plato)

Our sensors function as filters which pass only a minute proportion of physical energy. Our brain uses this fragmentary information to construct a view of the world that was advantageous to the survival of our primate ancestors. With education, the horse’s brain constructs and refines responses to nuances in direction, duration and intensity of the touch of our legs.

Once chaotic stimuli created by the spurs were no longer disturbing the horses’ perception, the subtlety and precision of their responses suggested a sensitivity beyond the scope of conventional beliefs.

Carol Saslow’s recent study provides the scientific answer.

quoteUsing stimuli developed for gauging human tactile sensitivity, we were surprised to find that horses’ sensitivity on the parts of the body which would be in contact with the riders’ legs is greater than what has been found for the adult human calf or even the more sensitive human fingertip.

“Horses can react to pressures that are too light for the human to feel. This raises the possibility that human instability in the saddle results in inadvertent delivery of irrelevant tactile signals to the horse – and a consequent failure in teaching the horse which signals are meaningful. Horses deemed insensitive to the legs (dead-sided), may simply have never had the chance to respond to consistent, light and meaningful signals. Similarly, the seeming ability of a well-trained horse to have extrasensory perception for his rider’s intentions may be instead its response to slight movement or tightening that the rider makes without awareness.” 

(Carol A Saslow, Understanding the perceptual world of horses, Applied Animal Behavior Science, 78 (2002) 209-224).

There are riding techniques as well as saddles designed that result in inadvertent delivery of irrelevant tactile signals to the horse. Basically, leg instability results from seat instability. Saddles with high cantles and enormous knee pads often lead to the rider rolling on the back of their seat bone and lifting their knees into the contact of the knee pads. The aberration makes them squeeze the thigh above the knees, moving the calf away from the horse’s flank. In order to have contact, riders have to squeeze the legs, disturbing the horse’s sensitivity with intermittent and strong physical contact.

Riding techniques emphasizing such approach as well as techniques such as kicking with the heels, causes disturbing stimuli in an area of the horse’s body that is highly sensitive.

Jean Luc Cornille

Jean Luc Cornille M.A.(M.Phil) has gained worldwide recognition by applying practical science to the training of the equine athlete. Influenced by his background as a gymnast, Jean Luc deeply understands how equine training can be enhanced by contemporary scientific research. A unique combination of riding skill, training experience and extensive knowledge of the equine physiology enables Jean Luc to "translate" scientific insights into a language comprehensible to both horse and rider. This approach has been the trademark of his training. - read more about Jean Luc

3 thoughts on “Why do you use spurs on your horse?

  • July 9, 2015 at 8:48 am
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    when I understood what you were saying ( it was very hard for me) in plain language , Spurs just makes the horse react in fear of pain not through leg or seat aids, I’m not a qualified ‘horse ‘ Pearson but if you want your horse to move with a flowing forward movement surely moving with your seat ( sitting deeper to alert your horse to what is asked) and ask with leg aides rarther than fear of the Spurs it must make for a more natural and kinder way to ask for forward motion for the horse must just be waiting in anticipation rather than a more relaxed happy way of going forward as I said I’m just a Pearson who loves my horse well all horses, and feel if you need Spurs or yet a stronger bit you need to look at yourself not the horse .

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    • May 6, 2019 at 10:42 am
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      I agree with you. I’m not a professional but I’ve been starting my own horses from scratch for almost 45 years. I’ve never used spurs and only the softest of bits. My horses respond to my voice and the subtle movements of my body. And because they love, trust and respect me they want to please me. They’re just like big dogs really.

      Reply
  • July 11, 2015 at 1:21 pm
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    Hi there! You mention “several studies” many times, but only directly cite one that I noticed. Could you provide your full references please? Thank you!

    Reply

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