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Why Do Cowboys Wear Spurs on Their Boots?

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cowboy boot spurs

I can’t imagine riding horses without spurs.

Spurs aren’t an everyday sort of tool. On the contrary, I’ve been taught in no uncertain terms that they should only be used for specific purposes (as I’ll share with you below). 

But when you need them, boy, do they come in handy. 

Whether you’re a cowboy, equestrian, or just a casual rider, knowing how to use spurs correctly is crucial for providing non-verbal directions. Trust me, it’ll give your horse that extra “pep in their step” you need for busier, faster-paced work and riding days. 

But where did the spur come from, and how does it work? Read on to find out everything you need to know about this amazing riding tool.

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The Origin and History of Spurs

Spurs have been around since the 5th century BC. They were first used by the Celts of what is modern day England.

The Greek historian Xenophon also mentioned their use, likely in the 400s and 300s B.C.E.

During the early medieval period (8th to 13th century), they were commonly used by Arab riders.

Spurs first began to be depicted in English artwork during the 13th century. However, it’s believed that it wasn’t until the 14th century that their use became widespread.

Knights’ spurs were gilded with a thin layer of gold, while squires’ spurs were silvered. Gilded spurs were earned along with the knighthood, and losing one’s spurs (whether in battle, a joust, or negligence) was considered shameful.

Spurs were brought to the New World by the Spanish Conquistadors and, particularly, the vaqueros whose garments and boots heavily inspired styles and workwear of the American cowboy.

The Design of Spurs

Spur design has changed over the years:

  • The earliest spurs featured a simple prick (pointed tip) attached to the heel band.
  • 11th century spurs had a straight-necked prick, while 12th century spurs featured a bent-necked prick.
  • Rowel spurs (spurs with a spinning “wheel” of pricks) became popular in the 13th and 14th century.
  • Rowel spurs began to grow larger as the centuries passed, with the spurs of the Spanish conquistadores featuring rowels up to 6 inches around.
  • In the 17th and particularly the 18th centuries, rowels once again began to shrink and grow less elaborate, ultimately developing into the “modern” spur we’re all familiar with.  

Modern spurs feature a few common elements in their design.

The heel band (also called the “branch” or “yoke”) connects the spurs to the back of your boots. You can adapt the arms to fit the shape of your boots, and you can tighten or loosen them to feel more comfortable when strapped to your feet.

The spur chain or spur strap secures the spur in place. Spur chains slip under your boot’s instep, while spur straps run around the front of your boot. A “button” will secure the strap or chain to the spur to keep it from sliding out of place.

The rowel is the spinning wheel part of the spur (usually spiked or star-shaped), held in place by a rowel pin. Typically, rowels are mounted on a flexible hinge that allow for easy spinning/movement.

The shank is the “arm” that extends the rowel outward from the heel band. Most shanks are bent-necked, though some modern spurs feature a straight neck.

Types of Spurs

There are many types of spurs used by cowboys and equestrians around the world. The most common are:

  • Roweled spurs, the kind commonly used by cowboys and American riders. They have either a sharp-tipped rowel or a plastic “roller” that generates the same pressure/sensation but reduces spur-rubs and thus is a gentler alternative.
  • Round-end spurs, which feature a metal ball roughly the size of a marble. It’s known to be one of the “mildest” spur types.
  • Knob-end spurs, which feature a squared-off tip and blunted edges.
  • Prince of Wales spurs, which has a flat end that is slightly sharper and thus more likely to elicit a tactile response from the horse.
  • Waterford spurs, which feature a large metal ball that won’t cause spur rubs.
  • Swan-neck spurs, which are usually roweled spurs that feature a shank that slopes upward rather than downward, similar in shape to the neck of a swan.
  • Barrel racing spurs, which have no shank or tip, but ridges or “teeth” on the inside edge of the heel band. That way, they merely have to touch the sides of their boots to the horse to send signals. However, inexperienced riders are more likely to misuse or accidentally use this type of spur.  

4 Reasons Cowboys Wear Spurs On Their Boots

1. Communication

The main purpose of spurs is to provide a tactile means of communication between rider and horse.

An experienced cowboy can communicate a wide range of commands to a horse that is well-trained to recognize the touch of a spur. Used in tandem with voice commands and hand, leg, and seat gestures, it can provide total control over a horse’s movements—to the point that it can become nearly instinctive over years of frequent riding.

With spurs, it’s all about the pressure.

The light touch of a spur provides a faint prick that registers in a well-trained horse’s brain as a signal to action.

Maybe you touch just one spur to the horse’s side to tell it to turn that way. Or maybe you apply a bit more pressure to tell the horse to speed up.

Whatever the command, the sensation of that prick is all the communication the horse needs to obey.

When it has obeyed and you release the pressure, it signals to the horse that it has done well and heeded your command.

Really, it’s a very simple “pressure on/pressure off” system that can be adapted to a wide range of commands.

Best of all, it’s “hands-free”. All of the communicating is done by your legs, leaving your hands free for reins, lassos, or weapons.

Of course, in order to use those commands effectively, the rider needs to be trained as much as the horse.

An inexperienced rider may apply too much pressure, guide their horse incorrectly, or touch their spurs to the horse in a way they haven’t been trained to recognize. The incorrect use of spurs can be confusing for a horse, which can make them frustrated, restive, and even uncooperative.

Think of it like you’re speaking a language the horse doesn’t understand—of course it’s going to get annoyed.

That’s why riders need to learn how to use their spurs correctly so you’re “speaking the same language” as your horse.

Spurs are also very useful for training your horse. The commands may start out simple at first—pressure increase, pressure decrease—but with every new command the horse learns, the more easily they will respond to your communication.

2. Balance

The added weight of the spur attached to your heel will minutely shift the weight distribution on your leg/feet. It can improve your balance and help you feel more stable with your feet planted in the stirrups.

3. Traction

Spurs can be used to maintain traction on wet, slippery, muddy, or icy ground.

Think of them like the “brakes” on the backs of inline roller blades. While your primary control is the sole of the boot (like the skates’ wheels), the addition of that protruding rear attachment can help you dig your heels in and slow down if you feel yourself slipping or skidding.

4. Style

Yes, spurs are very much a style thing for many riders. They’re a dressy addition to cowboy boots or an equestrian outfit, a way to add a splash of gleaming metallic color (be it gold, silver, copper, brass, bronze, or even gunmetal black) to your boots to stand out from the crowd.

And, of course, there’s nothing that signals to all the world you’re a cowboy like the jingling of boot spurs.  

How to Use Spurs Correctly

If you’re going to use spurs, here are some simple but very important tips to remember:

  • Only ride with spurs if you’ve been trained to use them, and if the horse has been trained to respond to them.
  • Make sure your spurs are adjusted so you don’t accidentally touch the horse with the rowels. The application of the spurs should always be intentional and fully controlled.
  • Spurs should only be used for communicating with the horse, never disciplining them.
  • Start with light pressure, and only increase the pressure of the spurs when or as necessary. Err on the side of gentler use always.
  • Consider using milder spurs, such as smooth-tipped or roller-ball spurs. They’re less likely to injure or damage your horse.
  • Use hand, voice, leg, and seat commands in addition to spur commands. A well-trained horse will respond to all commands. Spurs should be used as a last resort or if they are needed for a specific command.

Ride in Style, Partner!

Spurs are a very handy tool to add to your cowboy or riding outfit, as they provide you with an additional and highly effective means of communicating with your horse. But only when used correctly by an experienced rider on a well-trained horse.

They also make a great touch of “flair” to spice up your outfit and show all the world you’re a real cowboy who rides in style.


Do spurs hurt the horse?

If used correctly, spurs do not hurt the horse. They merely apply pressure and the gentle “prick” sensation registers through a horse’s thick hide.

However, be aware that incorrect use of spurs can scratch the skin, causing bleeding and pain. Spur marks (which include scratches, bleeding, bald spots, and raw skin) are an indication the spurs are being used too frequently or with too much force.

Are spurs really necessary?

Many well-trained horses won’t need spurs at all, but are able to follow voice, hand, leg, and seat commands. Other horses may respond well without spurs, but when spurs are used, respond a bit more quickly. Some riders will only use spurs on their horses for faster-paced activities (such as barrel racing or herding cattle) and ride without spurs the rest of the time.

Are spurs illegal to wear in public?

Yes. They may be a bit noisy and draw attention to yourself, but if they match your outfit or are a necessary part of your workwear, wear them proudly.

Be aware, though, there are some states with odd laws regarding spur use. In Arizona, for example, a law prohibits cowboys from walking through hotel lobbies while wearing spurs. In Oklahoma, you are legally allowed to wear spurs in bed, but you’ve got to remove your boots first.

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