Why I Spent a Month Riding My Horses Without Spurs

Photos by Andrew Ryback Photography

By EMILY MILLER

After showing from January through March at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, my horses and I were at our peak fitness.

I planned April to be a no jumping month for the horses to have some downtime. But, in order to maintain my fitness and give them a much deserved break, I decided to ditch my spurs for the month. We are all familiar with “no stirrups November,” but I’m in my 40s with a lot of hip issues, and riding without stirrups makes it challenging for me to function in the real world. Also, who doesn’t feel bad bouncing around on your horses’ backs for a whole month?

I am not one of those riders who has a different length, sharpness, and shape of spur for every occasion. I do, however, have a trusty set of spurs that I use on most of my horses every day that are a relatively small roller spur. I choose to avoid spur marks on the horses and the biggest modification I make is whether I ride with them above or below my spur rest.

If I’m jumping a green, spooky, or slow horse, the spurs sit above the rest. If I have to tackle the liverpool in a jumper class, the spurs sit above the rest. Thankfully, for the most part, the spurs stay below the rest. All that being said, I figured no spurs for a month would be a good way to keep my legs strong, my horses happy, and I really didn’t think it would be very hard.

However, by the second full week of my no spurs April, I found myself messaging in my “PA Horse Girls” group text to say: “I cannot wait for April to be over!”

Riding four horses per day without spurs is exhausting. You never really know how much you rely on spurs until you don’t have them. And although my motivation was originally to keep my legs strong, I got a lot more out of no spurs April than just fitness.

My jumper, Jordy, would probably jump fire if it was between two standards. 

However, if he has to pass a jump on the flat, he is absolutely convinced that horse-eating gremlins abound. I uncovered he has a pretty agile squat-scoot-spook sideways move. Having a less effective leg caused me to realize that I drop my hands too much on this horse. The first part of the spook sequence actually starts with him raising his head. With my spurs, I was able to quite honestly force him into a frame to avoid the spook. Without them, there was no forcing. However, if I lifted my hand so the bit was in the corners of his mouth, I could control the spook better with less effort. Of course, my trainer has told me to lift my hands 1,001 times. Our no spur April rides finally gave me the feel I needed to make it muscle memory.

Photos by Andrew Ryback Photography

My Amateur Owner Hunter, Casiro, is always a chore to motivate.

He is one of the horses I will ride without spurs more often because he’s prone to spur marks and his skin is sensitive. He’s always been ridden in spurs, but can be dull to them. I channeled the old adage that “you should ride a hot horse with lots of leg and a cold one with no leg” for him. 

When I ditched my spurs, I picked up a dressage whip. I wanted him to listen to a light leg and not have to nag. I went back to basics that many of us were taught as beginners like “squeeze, cluck, tap,” which is basically the progression of aids one uses to get a response out of your horse. This is how I teach all my young horses to be light to my aids, and this is the approach I took with Casiro to get him motivated to my leg. 

I figured out that he starts to get in front of my leg when I do transitions, not only between different gaits, but within the gaits—and these didn’t have to be huge speed changes, either. I would “rev” him up with my leg for a few steps and then back way off with the leg and let him continue. When he would slow down again, I’d “rev” him up and repeat.

This could happen four to eight times in one lap around the ring—I was just insisting on a response. I figured out that those little rev ups really got him thinking forward. Of course, consistency is always key and I had to be prompt with my squeeze, cluck, tap sequence if I wanted to improve his responsiveness. 

Photos by Andrew Ryback Photography

Frodo is another hunter that I’ve recently been showing in the Adult Amateurs.

The most common adjective I use to describe Frodo is feral. One of his favorite aspects of being ridden is trying to take my leg-off by swiping it on the fence. Since I value my appendages, I normally ride him in spurs so as to avoid the removal of said appendages.

What I learned in my No Spurs April with Frodo was that I can indeed keep my legs attached to my body without spurs if I am very aware of where his shoulders and haunches want to go. I also need to remain focused so I can stay three steps ahead of him at all times. So, our month of no spurs was an exercise in mindfulness and staying in (er, ahead of?) the moment.

My last mount of the day is usually Harry, Frodo’s full brother, who also has a penchant for rubbing my leg off on the fence—I wonder if it’s hereditary?

He’s not nearly as committed as Frodo. However, what Harry taught me is that riding one of your quieter horses last, or riding your horses in the same order every day, is not always the best strategy. Sometimes, you have to change up the order for extra strength or for a more meaningful school. Switching up the order also helps recreate show day drama where classes and rings may run later than expected. 

Finally, when May 1st arrived (hallelujah!), and I got on my horses with spurs, they felt light as a feather on the aids. I know I maintained my fitness because after our first jump school in May, I was not sore or winded trying to keep them going.

The rewards were such that not two weeks later, I was already back to riding Casiro without spurs to keep him tuned up!