What are Spurs?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Spurs are pieces of equipment worn on the boots of a horse rider and used to aid the horse. They are widespread throughout the equestrian world and have a long history of use, dating at least from the time of the Roman Empire. Though spurs are utilitarian, some are decorative as well and made from precious metals.

From the middle Medieval period onward, knights used spurs to help control the horses they rode on.
From the middle Medieval period onward, knights used spurs to help control the horses they rode on.

In medieval Europe, spurs were symbolic of knighthood. Early versions simply had a "prick" end, but by the 14th century, the rowel, a revolving sharp-toothed wheel, was most popular. Squires historically wore silvered spurs, while knights wore gilded ones. Spurs, especially gold ones, were considered a mark of rank and pride, and to be divested of one's spurs was symbolic of disgrace. Conquering armies sometimes confiscated those of their opponents and hung them on display as a sign of their victory.

Many people pair spurs with a Stetson hat.
Many people pair spurs with a Stetson hat.

Today, spurs vary widely in design, and there are conventions regarding the type used in different riding styles. Most Western-style riders use fairly long ones with a rowel that is rolled along the flank of the horse. English-style riders typically use a shorter, blunt version. There are many variations available on both types described above.

Some horse riders and animal rights activists are concerned about the possibility of spurs hurting the horse. It is important to learn how to use them properly, as the horse may otherwise be injured, spooked, or become insensitive to them. Accurately used, spurs do not hurt the horse, but supplement the other ways in which the rider guides the horse, through voice commands and body position. Proper posture is essential when using spurs, as they may inadvertently irritate the horse otherwise.

A condition known as spur-rubs may affect horses with sensitive skin. There are more gentle ones available for such horses that are not likely to irritate the skin. Conversely, harsher spurs are available for horses less sensitive to gentle equipment. The type used is to some degree based on the preference of the rider and the needs of his or her horse.

Like many accouterments of horseriding, spurs have become a part of cowboy fashion. Although most knowledgeable riders would never wear them when not riding, some people choose to wear them for show. Many are silver and quite decorative. A common feature is a chap guard, which keeps the wearer's chaps free of the rowel spikes. Some decorative cowboy spurs may be custom designed.

Spurs are often part of traditional cowboy outfits.
Spurs are often part of traditional cowboy outfits.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


Spurs don't pinch horses if you use them right. It's like a touch so horses know to move away from the pressure. If they weren't used, some riders, with certain horses would be forced to pull on the reins, and that may cause a bit to be pushed too hard into the horse's mouth.


@SarahGrove – I agree, I see nothing wrong with fashion spurs, but I do not like seeing Western spurs used on horses. It is just plain cruel.

The article states that they are used to aid the horse. I don’t think so! In my opinion they are used to hurt the horse. It is like pinching your child to get them to obey. There are better ways.


Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with wearing spurs as part of cowboy fashion. I don’t wear them, nor am I what you would term a knowledgeable rider, but I think they look nice.

I have seen some of the most amazing decorative Western spurs that look really sharp with the right boots and clothes. Admittedly, the English spurs I have seen are not quite so decorative.

I mean, what is fashion anyway? I would rather see a great looking boots sporting some fancy spurs than green hair!

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