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.
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.
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.