By Bridget Kirkwood
Spurs: They’re as cowboy as a 10-gallon hat, but their use dates back as far as 500 B.C., crossing cultures from Rome to Arabia. In the 13th century, spurs were depicted in Henry III of England’s Royal Seal. The Spanish conquistadors wore them and the French infantry lost battles bearing the word spur in their name. Regardless of the nation or the time in history, people who’ve ridden horses have worn spurs, and today, cowboys and cowgirls continue the tradition.
“Spurs in the United States have been influenced by the Spanish, British, Dutch, Mexicans and French. They’ve been influenced by all the people who came to this country and rode horses,” said Kerry Kelley, a custom spur maker from Weatherford, Texas. “A pair of spurs is a tool; they’re not used to punish or harm the horse. Much like a hat, saddle, boots or horse, the spurs reflect the cowboy’s personality and he considers them a prized possession.”
Made for both collectors and working riders, most cowboy spurs in the U.S. can be categorized into one or a combination of four styles: Texas, Plains, Californian/Vaquero and Chihuahua. Texas spurs show stylistic influences from each of the other three and are favored by many competitors in Western sports such as reining, cutting, roping and barrel racing.
“People started making Texas-style spurs in the 1870s, and by the turn of the century, they were the preferred choice all over the Plains region,” Kelley said. “They were made by the blacksmiths in Texas for the trail-drive cowboys, so they had to be functional, durable and beautiful.”
Materials, Size and Fit
The body of a spur must be inflexible so it holds its shape. Kelley uses a ductile iron that is hardened when the spur is built.
“It holds up over time and to a lot of abuse,” Kelley said. “It’s well suited to people who use their spurs.”
Copper, brass and silver embellishments such as floral work, brands, names and individualized patterns personalize the spurs. Kelley prefers to use German silver rather than sterling silver due to its hardiness and ability to stand up to an everyday working environment.
“Sterling silver and other soft metals get banged up beyond recognition when people use the spurs to work or show horses in. The German silver stands up to heavy use and will hold the engravings,” Kelley explained. “I will use sterling on highly decorative pieces or if the customer specifically wants it.”
As the spurs are used, the metal oxidizes, giving it a rusted, antiqued, blacksmith-made look. The brown patina the spurs gain provides contrast to the decorative silver and copper work.
Stainless steel is also an option for competitors, such as polo players, who prefer their spurs to have a shiny, silvery look to them.
To clean and care for spurs, rub them with an oily cloth. Mineral oil, commonly found in many barns, is a safe option for both the horse and the spurs.
While beauty is important when selecting a set of spurs, it is even more important you choose a spur that structurally fits your body size, your sport of choice and your style of riding.
Spurs help a trainer teach a horse to respond to pressure from the leg. Over time, that pressure becomes less and less. Many horsemen change their spurs to fit with the horse they are riding. Factors they take into consideration are the age of the horse, its level of training, and the amount of feel the horse has. Similarly, sharper spurs may be used when a horse has a thick, winter hair coat, while duller spurs are worn during the summer when the horse is slick.
“You can achieve quicker results with spurs than you can by just kicking,” Kelley noted. “A lot of people feel like the light touch with a spur is better than kicking hard with a bare heel.”
For the spur to be effective, it must stay in place on the rider’s boot. An ill-fitting spur will fall down on the heel or move up when it is used. When the spur remains in place, it allows the rider to be more consistent with the cues they give their horse because they know where their spur is.