“I’ve got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle as I go merry lee riding along.”
I love that verse from an old cowboy song. I have been thinking lately about the tools we use to communicate with our horses, and spurs are one of them. In the right hands, or should I say the right feet, they are a very effective aid to get your message across. On the wrong pair of boots, they can cause far more harm than good. Let's talk about how to be a responsible spur-wearer.
If you are always using your spurs to communicate with your horse, then you will always need your spurs to communicate with your horse. (Learn how to communicate with “feel” instead in Course #1)
Once your horse gets dulled out, you will then have to kick hard or get sharper spurs. Neither are great options. I use my spurs to be independent of my spurs rather than dependent on my spurs. To give credit where it’s due, I picked up that pithy one-liner from my friend Buck Brannaman. Not sure where he got it, it could very well be one of his originals! But it perfectly explains my philosophy of spurs.
In my mind, when I'm working with a horse, whether it's from the ground or from his back and whether it's my hands or my feet, I always picture a “pressure” dial being used. And I always start out with the pressure dial being set right at that zero mark. You can probably already see where I’m going with this.
So in my mind's eye, I turn up the pressure from zero to however high I need to elicit a change. I don’t get too liberal with the pressure, but I apply as much as it takes and as little as I need. That’s another horse training piece of wisdom, always as much as it takes and certainly as little as you need. This is how you create a soft, willing participant in your horse. When the change happens, I reward that by taking the pressure off and starting out again at just after zero. Regardless of how much pressure it took when I most recently asked, I always go back to zero. That gives your horse a chance to learn and start fresh. I call this method "Suggest, ask, tell."
Using this method of always rewarding the slightest change and the smallest try by taking the pressure off, I begin to develop a very light horse, whether in the hands or off of my legs. I teach this method in Course #1.
Let's apply the “suggest, ask, tell” method to a real example. Let's say that I’m working on leg yields or side passes. I don't start off by using my spurs to signal my horse to move. Instead, with the pressure dial at its lowest setting, I would begin by pressing my calf against the horse's side. I call this much pressure being my used “suggest.” If he doesn't respond by moving away from the slight pressure applied, then I turn up the dial a little bit and go to the “ask.” Ask would look like me bumping my calf against him until he moves off the pressure. And if this level of pressure doesn't yield the desired movement, then I turn up the pressure dial to “tell,” which would be me using my spur and pressing it against him until he moves off the pressure.
I always offer the horse a good deal by starting with as little pressure as I can get away with. You can always add more pressure, but you can’t take it back. Applying too much pressure too soon or unnecessarily will result in a numb, dulled-out horse that will always require lots of pressure and won’t enjoy having you ride them.
I use this method on all of my horses and begin during the colt-starting process. My horse understands my consistency and knows that when I ask for something, I will always follow up with the necessary amount of pressure to get it, but I always start with the least amount of pressure. I’m always striving to get more with less pressure working on getting my horses as light as possible.
So getting back to spurs, my goal is not to have to use them, but I wear them as I don't have to go to the barn to get them for whatever reason. My horse responds to the light “feel” or pressure I’m applying because he knows I have the ability to turn the pressure cooker up. And so, by having them and applying the “suggest, ask, tell” method, I very seldom need them.
I also like them because my brother Mark made them for me and I think they look pretty dang cool.
You can watch Keith teach his full Suggest, Ask, Tell method as well as learn how to create "feel" and have your horse read your body language in Course #1 -- Introduction To Keith Stewart Horsemanship. Enroll at CowboyCampusUniversity.com