The Western Spur

If there is one thing that defines a cowboy, it’s the jingle-jangle of his spurs “singing.” Yes, the western spur sings with a distinctive cling-clanggg that lets everyone ’round know there is a cow puncher approaching. And, to most any person raised in the city, the cowboy’s jingling spur rowels might appear to be pure pretension, but the spurs to which they are attached are a very necessary part of his equipment. Not that the cowboy doesn’t enjoy the jingle, mind you. 

But, what of these pieces of metal strapped to the boot of the iconic American cowboy? From where did they come, and for what is their purpose? Well, my friend, for the answer to these questions about the western spur, read on.

What is a spur?

A spur is a metal tool designed to be worn in pairs on the heels of riding boots for the purpose of directing a horse or other animal to move forward or laterally while riding. It is usually used to refine the riding aids (commands) and to back up the natural aids of the leg, seat, hands, and voice. This very old word derives from the Anglo-Saxon spura, and spora, to the Medieval High German sporn, and then the modern Dutch spoor, all of which mean “to kick.” As centuries passed, the generalized sense of “anything that urges on as a stimulus” has been known as a spur since at least 1390.

The spur was used by the Celtic people of the northern British Isles beginning in the fifth century B.C. Iron or bronze spurs were also used throughout the Roman Empire, and the spur also existed in the medieval Arab world.

Anglo Saxon soldiers on war horses. Note the “prick” spurs at the heels of the soldiers.

Early spurs had a neck that ended in a point, called a prick, riveted to the heel band. Prick spurs had straight necks in the 11th century and bent ones in the 12th. In England, the rowel spur is shown upon the first seal of Henry III and on monuments of the 13th century, but it did not come into general use until the 14th century. The earliest rowels probably did not revolve, but were fixed.

Spurs as an honor

The spurs of medieval knights were gold gilt and those of squires were silvered. To “win his spurs” meant to gain knighthood, as gilded spurs were recognized as the badge of knighthood. So important to the medieval knight was the honor of earning his spurs, that in the rare cases on ceremonious degradation, the spurs were hacked from the disgraced knight’s heels with the cook’s chopper!

Colonial Spanish espuela grande circa 16th century.

Though often decorated throughout history, in the 15th century, spurs became an art form in both decoration and design, with elaborate engraving, very long shanks, and large rowels. Though sometimes it has been claimed that the design changes were used because of barding (the use of war armor on horses), the use of barding had fallen out of fashion by the time the most elaborate spur designs were created. More likely, the elaborate designs reflected the increased abundance of precious metals, particularly silver, that followed the European exploration of the Americas that began in 1492. Spur designs in Spain and colonial Mexico were particularly elaborate. For example, the spurs of the Spanish conquistadores were sometimes called espuela grande, the “grand spur”, and could have rowels as large as six inches around.

In northern Europe, the spur became less elaborate after the 16th century, particularly following the Stuart Restoration, but elaborate spur designs persisted, particularly in the Americas. And, while the spur is used in many equestrian disciplines, the rest of our discussion will be focused on the western spur.

The spur is an important part of the cowboy way of life

Descendants of the Spanish spur are still seen today, particularly in Mexico and the western United States, where the spur has become an integral part of the Mexican vaquero and American cowboy traditions. The spur as an art form, as well as a tool, is seen in western riding, where spurs with engraving and other artistic elements, often handmade and using sterling silver or other precious metals, are still worn.

Custom built spurs.
Photo: Spiller Spurs & Bits

In today’s American West, spur styles continue to change.  Western spurs almost invariably have rowels.  The influence of ornate early Spanish design is still evident.  Spur design was also influenced by the wearing of chaps.  Where long chaps are worn, as in the Northwest, a dropped heel pattern and a chap guard are important.  The chap guard consists of a curved blunt projection on the shank just behind the heel which helps keep the chap clear of the rowel.  In areas where long chaps are not needed, a straight shank without a chap guard can be worn.   

In the old west, a cowboy never buckled on a pair of spurs until he had filed the sharp rowels to make them blunt. Sharp rowels make a horse nervous, so nervous that he will not always give his best effort. Since spurs are used to signal that quick action is needed, and not for cruelty or discipline, sometimes a motion of the leg or calf is sufficient. Usually, though, the mere touch of the spur to the flank is all a well-trained cow horse needs to get the point that quick movement is required to do his job. Cowboys value their horses unlike few other things in the world, so the thought of unkindness – especially towards his working partner – is beyond the cowboy’s comprehension. His spur is merely a signal for the horse to take action.

Let’s talk spurology

The parts of a spur include:

  • The “yoke”, “branch”, or “heel band”, which wraps around the heel of the boot.
  • The “shank” or “neck”, which extends from the back of the yoke and is the area that touches the horse.
  • The rowel, seen on some spurs, a revolving wheel or disk with radiating “points” at the end attached to the shank.
Basic parts of a western spur.

Western spurs are usually held on by a leather or leather-like spur strap that goes over the arch of the foot. Occasionally chains also pass under the boot in front of the heel to anchor the spurs, but if a cowboy’s spurs are well-balanced and custom built, chains are simply not necessary.

When used in military ranks, senior officers, and officers of all ranks in cavalry and other formerly mounted units of some armies, wear a form of spur in certain orders of dress which is known as the box spur, having no spur strap, but a long metal prong opposite the neck, extending between the arms of the heel band, which is inserted into a specially fitted recess or “box” in the base of the boot heel. Due to the prong, such spurs can only be worn with appropriately equipped boots.

The western spur may also have small curved-up hooks on the shank in front of the rowel, called “chap guards”, that were originally used to prevent the rider’s chaps from interfering with the rowels of the spur. The shank angle from the yoke can vary from “full” to “one half” to “one quarter” to “straight”. Some cowboys also added small metal pajados, also known as “jingo bobs” or “jingle bobs,” near the rowel, to create a jingling sound whenever the foot moved. Rowels can vary in size and number of points. More on that later.

Unsaddle my pony
She’ll be itching to roam
I’ll be halfway to heaven
Under horsepower of my own

When the round-up ends
And the campfire dims

He shouts and he sings
When a cowboy trades his spurs for wings

“When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings”
(from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”)

What spurs are and what they’re not

Spurs are, first and foremost, a training aid; they’re an extension of your heel. When used correctly, they reinforce leg aids to improve your horse’s responsiveness. At the same time, spurs are not a weapon; improper use of spurs sparks fear and resentment. They can also make your horse dull-sided—if you’re constantly digging spurs into him, he’ll tune you out. And, just because you wear spurs doesn’t mean you have to use them. I wear mine all the time. But I can go several days without ever using them, and I only do so when I need to reinforce cues from my legs.

Heels down and spurs off the horse until needed.
Photo: Pinterest

Spurs are not to punish a horse, but they are effective in getting a horse’s attention if used properly and sparingly. As has been taught to me, keeping your heels down and your spurs off the horse’s flank not only provides more stability in the saddle, but also makes the times when you do touch the rowel to your horse that much more effective. Horses learn and respond to the relief of pressure. So, want a horse to pick up a faster gait? Try leg pressure first, and then a light cue from the spur next. Once you get a response from the horse, now’s the time to lower that heel back down and let the horse give you what you asked for.

Many types of the western spur

There are many types of the western spur, limited only by utility and imagination. For our discussion, here are five basic types according to master horseman Bob Avila:

1. Cloverleaf
 As the name implies, this blunt-edged rowel resembles a cloverleaf. The lack of points makes it one of the mildest rowel configurations available. It’s great for a horse that merely needs a tap to reinforce your leg cue.
 The shank is a touch longer than the roper-style spur below, but still qualifies as a short shank. Such shanks require less leg control (to avoid inadvertently jabbing your horse) than spurs with longer shanks. 
Good for:
 Rookie riders and rookie horses, or those horses that are real “feely” (reactive to leg and spur pressure). 

Roper style spurs. Note the short shank and blunt rowels.

2. Roper-Style
Rowel: This 10-point, small-diameter rowel is fairly blunt, but the pointed configuration makes it more aggressive than the cloverleaf. I’d call it middle-of-the-road, with regard to severity. 
Shank: The short shank is the mark of a roper spur. That’s because ropers stand up and lean forward to throw a loop. The short shank helps prevent them from inadvertently jabbing their horses when they stand. 
Good for: Ropers, trail riders, and short-legged riders (to prevent inadvertent jabs). The middle-of-the-road rowel makes it good for most horses.

3. Reiner-Style
Rowel: Another 10-pointer, this one’s points are slightly longer and narrower than the roper-style rowel. I think of it as a step up from that and the cloverleaf, although the blunt points keep it from actually being sharp. (A word of caution: As with bits, even the mildest spur can become abusive when used inappropriately.) 
Shank: The long length and upward curve of the shank position the rowel much closer to your horse’s side than the roper’s short shank.
Good for: Long-legged riders with effective leg control who desire minimal foot movement when applying spur. As with the roper spur, the rowel makes this one good for most horses. 

Nine-point star spurs.

4. Nine-Point Star
Rowel: The large-diameter rowel features nine narrow points that have more bite than any of the previous rowels. (For insights into how rowel styles will feel to your horse, run different styles across the palm of your hand when you go shopping. You will feel a marked difference between this rowel style and that of spurs 1, 2, and 3.)
Shank: Similar to spur 3.  Good for: Good trainers and top non-pros. This spur requires an advanced degree of leg control and rider know-how.

Rock grinder spurs. Note the raised neck and sharp pointed rowel.

5. Rock Grinder 
Rowel: The sharp points are based on a tool used to tune up stone grinding wheels; hence the name. It’s a rowel with bite. It can be a great training tool for experienced riders: It gets your point across quickly, maximizing reinforcement of leg cues with minimal pressure. However, it can do damage with the wrong rider.
Shank: These spurs feature a long shank with a slightly raised neck, which requires minimal leg movement, especially on someone with shorter legs. Good for: These are professional-level spurs. They can rip hide if you’re not careful and in control.

Even if your don’t ride, there’s a spur for you

Collecting of particularly beautiful antique spurs is a popular pastime for some individuals, particularly aficionados of western history and cowboy culture. So, if you don’t prefer to wear spurs, you can still participate in the unique iconography and mystique of the American West, by searching out and collecting western spurs. They truly are an art form all of their own. The differences is styles, uses, materials and rowel can take you through a history of the American West and the cowboys who tamed her.

You see, to a cowboy, spurs are a very personal item. Good, well-built spurs are not at all inexpensive, for you get what you pay for. But, with that price tag comes an heirloom quality item that can be used for decades, and then passed down to younger generations or passed to collectors to admire for decades more.

Spurs are the cowboy’s quintessential tool, yet they are also fine art. Hand-built sculpture of silver, steel and iron. To hear them evokes the romantic notion of the American West. To see them conjures images of unmatched craftsmanship. But, to feel them. Ahh, to feel them. Now, you hold in your hands the very essence of the magical waltz of a cowboy and his horse.

Until next time, mis amigos, happy trails! ★