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Do Spurs Hurt Horses? Is It Ethical?

Oliver Jones

Many horse people know the axiom, “You have to earn your spurs,” with good reason. Spurs in the wrong hands can be painful and unethical to the horses. At the same time, spurs can be helpful tools that do not hurt horses when used correctly.

For this reason, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, “Is it ethical to use spurs?” In some hands, spurs are completely unethical, whereas they are helpful and pain-free in another’s.

To learn when spurs hurt horses and are unethical, read on. This article explains how to select ethical spurs and use them correctly as well. Let’s get started.

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What Are Spurs?

As you probably know, spurs are little metal pieces that go on the back of the rider’s boot. The purpose of the spur is to direct the horse or kick start it into gear. Spurs come in many sizes and shapes, some of which being more painful than others.

Often, spurs are used by riders who use horses for work when looking over cattle and other animals. Spurs are also worn for dressage and other shows where spurs are often required per the rules, though the rider doesn’t have to use the spurs to lead the horse.

Do Spurs Hurt Horses?

Whether or not spurs hurt horses largely depends on the spur type used and how the rider uses them. Ideally, spurs do not hurt horses. That being said, spurs can lead to skin scratches, bleeding, and other pain if used incorrectly. For this reason, spurs should not be worn by inexperienced riders.

More specifically, spurs should only be worn by experienced riders on horses that need spurs. Since not all horses need spurs, they shouldn’t be used on all horses. When a rider decides to wear spurs, it’s important that the rider is experienced at both horse riding and spur usage.

If the horse needs spurs and the rider knows how to use spurs, spurs are completely ethical. On the flip side, spurs are painful and unethical if used incorrectly.

When Are Spurs Painful and Unethical?

There are some very clear times when using spurs is painful and unethical. Most importantly, spurs are unethical if used incorrectly and used as negative reinforcement.

When Used Incorrectly

Many new riders try spurs out too early. When first riding a horse, new riders often cling their legs to the side of the horse. This isn’t a problem without spurs, but the practice is very painful if done with spurs. For this reason, only experienced horse riders should try wearing spurs.

Likewise, many new spur wearers do not know how forcefully they should touch the spur to the horse, often with painful results to the horse. Once again, this proves how important it is to wear spurs only when you are experienced with horses and the device.

Most of the time, incorrect usage of the spur is an accident. Because it is an accident, most people would not say that spurs are unethical at this point, even though they are painful. What is unethical is when horse riders do not care to learn how to correctly use spurs before on horses.

To make sure you are using spurs ethically, talk to a professional to get coaching on the matter. By doing your best to ensure that you are using spurs correctly, you minimize unethical treatment to the horse.

When Used as Negative Reinforcement

Spurs are highly unethical whenever horse riders use them as negative reinforcement. For example, some people use spurs to punish a horse for not doing as directed. This is unethical because it counts as physical punishment to the horse. Just as you wouldn’t hit a dog for misbehaving, you shouldn’t use spurs as punishment.

Instead, view spurs as a way to communicate to your horse what you want it to do. Afterall, that is the point of spurs. They are a communication tool, not a punishment. Using spurs as negative reinforcement is unethical and improper use of the tool.

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How To Use Spurs Ethically

If you plan to use spurs, it’s critical that you learn how to use them properly. Even if you have the best intentions, you can easily scare and injure your horse if you do not know how to use spurs. Here are some things to keep in mind when learning how to use your spurs:

Be Comfortable on Your Horse First

If you are new to horse riding in general, wait awhile before purchasing spurs. Many people make the mistake of purchasing spurs before they’re fully comfortable on the horse. Often, this results in unintended injury and pain to the horse.

The reason for this is that many new horse riders look for support using their legs, which causes them to gently caress the horse’s sides with their legs. Without spurs, this does not injure the horse, but the habit quickly hurts the horse if you are wearing spurs. Only put on spurs once you know that you do not unknowingly look for support using your legs.

Only Get Spurs If Needed

Many horses do not need spurs. For example, many sensitive horses and horses with high energy will respond if you just put pressure with your foot. There is no need to additionally scare the horse if they are already responding as you want them to.

Let The Horse Respond Before Using Spurs

Once you determine that your horse requires spurs, always give your horse a chance to respond to other signs first, and only use your spurs if your horse is not listening to the other cues. Most likely, your horse will begin responding to the other cues once you train it properly.

Think About Tapping Instead of Jabbing

Most people’s first image when they think of horse spurs is the old western movies where the cowboy jams their spurs into the horse. This is not how you should be using spurs. Instead, gently tap the side of the horse instead of jabbing the spurs in. Tapping the spur will get your horse’s attention without harming it.

Listen To Your Horse

Whenever you have your spurs on, make sure that you are being highly sensitive to your horse. Most horses will let you know if you are hurting them. If your horse is showing any signs that they are being injured from the spur, listen and act accordingly.

How To Choose Ethical Spurs

Another aspect of using spurs ethically is choosing the right spurs. In today’s market, there are many spurs to choose from, some of which being more ethical than others. Make sure you purchase spurs that are designed with ethicality in mind.

If you know that your horse responds quickly to most taps, you can get small spurs, if any at all, that pose little risk of injury. More stubborn horses might need something longer. Either way, look for gentle and ethical designs. Most reputable spur companies only sell ethical spurs.divider-horse

Final Thoughts

Spurs are ethical when in the right hands. As the old saying goes, you must earn your spurs. For horse riders who earn them, spurs can be a helpful and ethical tool. More so, responsible horse riders know how to use spurs to ensure the horse doesn’t get hurt in the process.

Because of how potentially dangerous spurs can be, these helpful tools can easily become painful and unethical fast. When in the hands up an abusive owner, spurs are downright painful and unethical. For this reason, only use spurs if you are well trained in selecting and using these potentially painful devices.


Featured Image Credit: George Dolgikh,Shutterstock

Oliver Jones

Oliver (Ollie) Jones - A zoologist and freelance writer living in South Australia with his partner Alex, their dog Pepper, and their cat Steve (who declined to be pictured). Ollie, originally from the USA, holds his master's degree in wildlife biology and moved to Australia to pursue his career and passion but has found a new love for working online and writing about animals of all types.