Why the hot debate over this horse-training tactic?
By Randee Fox in The American Quarter Horse Journal
Huh? Spur to slow? Spur to stop? No reins? What the heck is this?
The instructions made no sense to me, as it was totally counterintuitive to the way I had been trained to ride. I was trying out a darling 5-year-old proven western pleasure show mare in a sweet little lope for the first time with trainer Denise Callahan.
It had been years since I had ridden a western pleasure show horse. So here I was, feeling green in unfamiliar territory with a potentially new horse partner. Hey, whatever happened to “spur to go”?
The horse was a perfect fit for me, but I left feeling apprehensive about this technique. So I asked well-respected competitor friends, AQHA associates and mentors what they thought of this spur stop/spur slow technique. The responses I received were all over the map – enthusiastically positive to hotly negative to somewhere in the middle.
The one that really hit home for me was from respected showman and friend Shawn Kingma, “It is the most fun I have had riding a show horse in my entire life. I don’t have to rely on checking and pulling back to ask my horse to slow down. The one thing with a spur stop is that it is very much like brakes on a car – If you ride them without release, you will burn them up.”
Why the hot debate if it works so well in the show ring? Are some people overusing the technique? Is it unnatural or inhumane for the horse? Has something been lost in translation from trainer to rider or even trainer to trainer? These questions and more led me to pitch the story to the editors at The American Quarter Horse Journal so I could dig deeper.
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I went back to ride the horse a few more times before deciding to buy her. It actually did work when I trusted her. The horse slowed when I applied slow spur pressure and kept her collected frame on a long rein – it was delightful to ride. I always wondered how exhibitors did that in the show ring. Being green to the technique, out of riding shape and new to the horse, I was inconsistent in my cues, my legs were weak, and I was not used to this process. I either underused or overused my spurs or tapped her instead of softly holding them or went to the reins to slow her, confusing the poor yet patient horse. Soft tapping means “go” the way this horse is trained.
The trainer had me remove my spurs and designed a boot camp for me to strengthen my legs and ride more proficiently and with finesse. She had me do a series of standing three-point and two-point balance exercises under saddle to get my balance and legs in shape and as well in the correctly aligned riding position, heels directly under my hips, under shoulders, under ears. After a few rides, I was able to use my spurs wrapped in a soft pillow of duct tape.
When I had more feel for the technique, on the trainer’s recommendation, I bought new cloverleaf-roweled spurs. After two months and 10 lessons, I am having some great rides but am still a work in progress. The mare is a happy, good-minded horse with a pleasurable and forward ride, and I certainly want to build on that, so I will continue to learn the spur stop – then decide whether or not to modify it.
For this article, I sent out questions to AQHA industry leaders. Here is what they have to say about the spur stop.
How, when and why did this technique come about? How did you learn to do this or learn about it?
Dale Livingston, former AQHA Professional Horseman: The first time I ever heard of a spur stop was 30 years ago. It was a technique of spurring or squeezing spurs in a horse as you asked the horse to do a sliding stop. I remember seeing it first on the West Coast in the 1970s. It was really more a cue to gather the horse as he stopped than to stop him.
In the ’80s, I used it on horses at the walk that were wise to the show pen and anticipating gait calls, to keep them from breaking gait after reversing on the rail, but it was not to stop them. It was to keep the horse’s attention on the rider without moving your rein hand so it appeared the horse was relaxed and responsive.
Charlie Cole, AQHA Professional Horseman: In the early ’90s was the first time I saw the spur stop technique. I
was on the West Coast, and the spur stop seemed to come from the East. I remember watching Dean Hodges. He was the first trainer in California to use it (in western pleasure), so it caught on somewhat out west, but not to the degree it has in other parts of the country.
I myself learned how to use it by getting Zippo LTD in training. He was very spur broke. It worked well on him, and I kinda figured it out because of him.
Joni Nelson, AQHA Professional Horsewoman: I first learned of the spur stop method when I was a youth showing in Ohio about 14 years ago. I learned the basics from the trainer I was working for at the time. The technique came about so that when a person would go to show, they would not pick up their hand to correct or slow down their horse, and that would give them a flawless-looking ride.
Lynn Palm, AQHA Professional Horsewoman: It became a problem when some trainers were training from the mouth to try to collect and slow a horse, then using spurs to cue a horse to stop with loose reins.
Do you use this in training and/or riding, and if so, when did you start training/riding your horses this way, and why did you switch?
Denise Callahan, AQHA Professional Horsewoman: I started applying the spur stop/spur slow about four years ago, incorporating it into my riding. I switched because when we show our horses, it is a lot easier to ride them off of our legs, seat
and body than to have to use too much of the hands and reins. It takes more strength and more precise skill. We want our horses to move more precisely, with a strong hock and flat leg, nice cadence, so I teach them how to work off my legs in time with their legs.
Joni: I have always used this technique in training horses, but I have learned how to refine it to work in out program so that our horses do not lose forward motion. I have also modified it so that when we ask our horses to stop, they stop rounded and on their hindquarters.
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Lynn: I would never use this type of trendy and unnatural training because it consists of poor horsemanship. The balance of the horse is forced on the forehand, the heads of the horse go below topline. It creates abrupt forehand stops and promotes crooked horses – horses canted with hips inward, short choppy strides, horses bobbing the heads at the lope because they are too slow and laboring. This training has to be done with strong harsh techniques. There may be a few great horses that can do this, but how many thousands of horses are ruined mentally or physically?
Bret Parrish, AQHA Professional Horseman: Around 1994, we switched and went totally to the spur stop technique. We felt this was a way to educate horses without pulling on their faces.
What are the pros of this technique in your opinion?
Joni: It is a good way to look like you are not correcting or asking anything from your horse in the show pen. I think it has kept a lot of our show horses more honest in the pen because of the respect for our spurs and knowing that we can correct them in the pen. If used properly, it is a very effective way to keep a horse’s body in the correct “line” to use his entire body in any gait. It helps get total body control from the shoulders to the hips.
Bret: The spur stop training method reaches a lot of control, and when used correctly, it does not inhibit the forward motion. We are able to show our horses like we ride them at home, and this cuts down on horses learning to cheat in the show pen. This method encourages a softer way of training and allows us to educate a horse rather than intimidating with the hands.
Charlie: Overall, I think using a spur type of stop is very beneficial, but it must be used and taught properly.
What are the cons of this technique in your opinion?
Charlie: Like any training method or fad, too much of a good thing can be a very bad thing. I have seen the spur stop overused to where the horses look unhappy because they are constantly being spur-stopped or ridden every stride off of a spur. One major concern I have seen when judging, especially in the east, is very poor rider foot position because of the spur stop. In horsemanship, you see exhibitors lope up to the end of their pattern then dig their spurs in, causing their toes to turn out and point straight down. I am very critical of this as it shows not only a lack of position, but a lack of connection through the seat and rider to the horse.
Dale: Many people don’t understand balance in motion, and by using this maneuver in the wrong way, we see many horses stopping on the forehand and giving the appearance sometimes of being sullen in responding to forward motion requests in gait changes and execution of gaits, sometimes turning almost sideways to take leads.
Joni: The spur stop is being used incorrectly by many people. They are forcing the horses to work off their hocks only and not allowing them to use their shoulders and losing their forward motion, thus making the horses more canted and having a below-level head carriage.
If you spur-stop horses, they often stop on their front ends. Horses should stop on their hindquarters, allowing them to go to their next movement better.
A spur slow on a hunter under saddle horse can shorten the horse and make for a choppy stride, as opposed to the long, sweeping stride that we all love.
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Lynn: The only way to achieve the spur stop that I have seen is to ride with aggression. Imagine yourself getting spurred in your side and then someone checking or jerking or pulling on your mouth. Yes, you will slow down from an ouch, and from an ouch from the sides – horses learn to hate the riders! I can tell you it is a big reason why AQHA has lost lots of its population at shows. People don’t want unhappy horses and horses looking so unnatural. They surely don’t want to ride with strong and harsh ways.
Stay tuned next week for Part 2, in which our trainers discuss the correct usage of the spur stop and things to avoid if you’re using this technique on your horse.
If your interested in learning more about western pleasure, check out this short video.