The Spur Stop, Part 1

Why the hot debate over this horse-training tactic?

Why the hot debate over this horse-training tactic?

Western pleasure prelims at the 2011 Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show.
Learning to ride a spur stop horse can be a challenge, but there are many trainers who swear by it. Learn the pros and cons of using the spur stop in your horse training. Journal photo.

By Randee Fox in The American Quarter Horse Journal

“Keep your reins long. Apply your lower legs to slow her down. If she doesn’t slow apply your spurs softly, slowly and evenly holding them until she slows, then release, keeping your reins long.”

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.

If you’re interested in articles discussing training methods like this one, then The American Quarter Horse Journal is perfect for you. Each month The Journal provides its readers with the most up-to-date information on the latest training methods from some of the industry’s top trainers. This magazine is the perfect addition for horsemen and women of any age or riding level.

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?

Dale: By closing my legs on a horse that is accustomed to this maneuver, I can encourage rounding the horse’s back and collection without handling the horse’s mouth.

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.

28 thoughts on “The Spur Stop, Part 1”

  1. hi
    I am very uneducated in these methods. Nor would i care to be Enlightened… I have seen several horse brought along with this technique then bought by the “average Joe” which have resulted in the poor animal becoming yet another byproduct of our “great industry”. As quoted by an individual “Can’t ride it…”
    It takes a skilled horseman versed in this specific technique to get satisfactory result. Most “joes” just want a simple trail horse or ranch horse that has very few “buttons” to push. I believe its a shame that when a horse has outlived its'(usually) short show career that it’s doomed to becoming an undesirable commodity.
    Less IS More….I love the simplicity these horses brings to my life! I’ve been extremely Blessed with the results, uncomplicated, happy horses, any “joe” can get along with. God Bless.

  2. Like “Maggie”, I, too am uneducated in the “spur” method, and also like her DO NOT want to have first hand training on it. It smacks of poor horsemanship, a ruse to make the rider look good by stopping with loose reins.
    When the show career is over, all the money that can be made from this horse is spent, what is the horse able to do for the average rider? Most horses go on to a great life as a trail horse or ranch horse (both a specialty in themselves)and this type of training would frustrate and confuse….. picture a rider on a single tract trail high up in the Eastern Sierras in a tight situation, and that horse not knowing to slow down or go faster due to the fact his rider was not aware of the SPUR training. The line between gentle pressure, tapping, etc. is too fine for the average rider once the horse is out of the show ring.

  3. I always wore spurs to signal gelding in just what was needed. He wouldn’t go otherwise.But it was always a light touch and as long as he knew I had them on he would do anything I asked of him.

  4. I love the spur stop. Like the article states, it was a fad a few years ago and quickly disappeared because trainers and riders did not have the proper knowledge to train and ride a horse with this technique. Its more of a show pleasure thing and I use it more as a secondary aid than the one and only command. A gently hold on one or both legs with a very slight raising of your hand signals the horse to move forward into the bit, round and collect. When I train, I use the technique frequently, but everyone has a different definition of the technique. When I sell a horse, I make sure that the horse’s ability and training fit the rider. I don’t sell a finished pleasure horse to someone who wants a trail horse who never had proper training, a person who rides a horse like a Harley and only know kick to go and yank to whoa. If used right, this is a wonderful aid. But the rider needs to be educated or working with someone who is educated in the spur stop.

  5. Spurs have their place in riding but whether you use them for “going”, “stopping” or both, they can be abused and damaging when used by inexperienced ridiers. I agree with both Maggie and Carol on the matter of using spurs for stopping; it’s not what the average rider understands. I train my horses to maneuver through seat and legs. While I wear spurs, I rarely need them.

  6. The spur is supposed to be an extension of the riders leg so couldn’t you learn to use the technique without the spurs as well? I do not use spurs but may someday use a blunt spur when I feel I am a good enough rider to only my horse.

  7. Many of the trainers in the article stated that it is effective in allowing them to ride their horses the same way at home and at shows. In my opinion, if spurring and pulling are the way to get a horse to move in the frame, something is wrong with the show standard.

  8. HOW SAD! this is exactly why I have quit showing!!! These horses are very controlled, no natural movement at all! They all look ridiculous, uncomfortable and fake!! Amazing what some people will do to a perfectly good horse just for money. Just sit back once and look…just LOOK! From the chopped off mane to the fake tail (which I’m sure feels natural and comfortable)and the gaits which are just wrong!! SHAME! SHAME ON YOU QH INDUSTRY!!!!

  9. I had a big gelding that was started as a western pleasure horse . I didn’t think much about it (haven’t shown QH western in quite a few years) but when i started this big guy over fences what a surprise i got when i was using my leg to a fence. He wasn’t afraid of the fences but everytime i tried to adjust the stride and used my leg, the poor guy would slow down and drop his head. Well, it didn’t make for a very pretty fence. We had to get pretty creative to get around this and never did get nice relaxed fences. The spur-stop is a bastardized half-halt and it’s more of a “trick” than a cue. I just figure that it’s another one of those training fads that the pros use to keep ahead of us average joes so that we need to hire a trainer to be competative in the wp

  10. This is as simply as I wish to answer this…Can we please stop trying to reinvent the wheel “horse”???? Please!!!!

  11. Being uneducated in this type of riding does not dismiss the training method as bad because a lot of “average joe” riders don’t know what to do. Being a responsible horseman is all it takes.

    When I was looking for a new buckskin to ride in 2010 to run as Miss Buckskin World, I found a mare, who rode spur stop and like the author got on and was totally confused. I listened and learned as I tried her out.

    Although I didn’t get that mare, I eventually purchased a bay mare who rode the same way. I proactively sought out a trainer who put me on the horse and worked to teach me how to ride her properly. After that the mare and I were inseparable. I knew how she worked and just what buttons to push. And as a teenager I would at times get a little too hard on my horses mouth before her..this helped me in really lightening up with my hands and using my legs to guide her.

    My grandfather was not the type to run to a trainer or to spend gobs of money hoping that our cash would put us in the winners circle. Living near Ocala it was easy to enlist the help of someone who had experience with spur stop. If you are going to purchase a horse that you can’t handle, that is poor horsemanship on your part…you have to do your homework.

    The gelding I won Miss Buckskin World with in 2011 and that I still show doesn’t ride spur stop and although I wish he did, I certainly am a better ride because I have learned how to use my feet to collect him and really make him move off of my leg.

  12. I have been training for over 35 years and been though the whole fad thing, spur training is the best way to save a horses mouth and gain body control. The mouth is way more sensitive then their sides, I think just the name puts fear into alot of people. When training a young horse to spur stop you use your lower leg and spur and slight pull on the face within 20 minutes you can stop, turn, the horse dropping his head and have the horse moving off your leg (spur) leaving the mouth untouched and the horse moving off its hind end, using the reins only for reinforcement. As far as horsemanship I would rather see someone applying spur and leg than pulling hard on the reins trying to gain control, it’s definitely a quieter approach with the spurs. I see so many novice riders, whether they’ve been riding for 20 years they still don’t grasp the jerking the reins approach hurts and deadens a mouth. when I see someone jerk and pull on horses face I just want to say sit down use your legs and give that poor horse a break. So before you put down the concept, try it your horse will like it….

  13. This technique is driving new people away from showing Quarter Horses. You must adopt new methods, use a trainer, etc. to be competitive, even at Novice levels.
    Also the horse, trained this way does not have a successful “second career”. The average rider does not know how to cue it and then blames the horse ’cause it doesn’t behave as expected. I have seen horses that had been Pleasure “show” horses that were treated badly because they did not perform as expected.
    I know people who would show in AQHA shows but don’t because of these issues.

  14. I am very familiar with both ways of riding as I have had horses that handle both ways. But, if you use your legs softly as you should use your hands softly if you are going to bump them then the spur stop is VERY beneficial! It definitely gives a more polished look in the show pen especially when you are showing to more that 2 judges. It also inhibits more control. Personally I think it’s better than ripping off their faces to get them to slow down and it also helps drive those hind legs up underneath them. While I do agree that it does sometimes get the horses to move their hips inward and go slower and drop their top lines. I think that is more to do with how they are trained with the technique.
    However this technique goes across all breeds. It’s not just a Quarter Horse thing. As I have shown in many different breeds and they all are using it. However, it is something that may take awhile to pick up. But, I like to feel like I am actually “riding” my horse with it underneath me rather than just sitting on top.

  15. Its a stupid “trick” NOT training. Its a ridiculous cheat fad that should be stopped. Legs mean go. Reins /seat mean stop. AQHA needs to stop these ridiculous trends but they never will and it is sad. They supposedly cracked down on excessive slowness and unnatural head carriage yet they are still widely seen. All for a strip of ribbon and the almighty dollar. And don’t get me started on post legged, hog fat halter horses! What are you people doing to the Quarter Horse?

  16. Great article and thanks for bringing this to light Randee. I am like you in that I have never shown a spur stop trained horse before. I totally understand why it is done in western pleasure as it is so highly competitive and a draped rein looks good but I am more inclined to feel comfortable with riding a horse a little more bridled like in a horsemanship class. I guess I feel a little safer when the reins aren’t pitched. Pros and cons for sure but not likely that most youth or newcomers to horses just want to ride in one class. I am more interested in movement than extreme slowness but that is just my humble opinion.

  17. I have ridden and trained horses for over 30 years. This training method is BY FAR the most beneficial and humane way to ride and show a performance horse. I have used it extensively in both my western pleasure and HUS horses with wonderful, stress free results. I am currently teaching my 7 year old riding student this method on my 17 year old all-around gelding. When she looks at me and smiles that huge grin every time she uses her spurs and he collects up it warms my heart. She loves the feel of riding without ‘pulling’ on his mouth. My gelding is happy, she is thrilled, and they are a flawless team.

  18. I have not ridden a horse with this Training but to me it makes great sence as the average rider that does not ride often may get into trouble while riding and the 1st thing they do is to squeeze to stay on. Doing this on my horse will cause her to speed up. Which is exactly the opposite of what they need.
    She does use a tap method to back up when she is not listening to me and that works well for us. I wish I had known of this sooner and it would be something to keepin mind for the next one in training..
    Thank you for sharing.

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  20. Very interesting article. I appreciate learning about the methods trainers use. For those who’s negative comments describe something new to them as “tricks, harsh, or something that will destroy the horses “second career”, I say you have to give the horse (and trainers)much more credit. These intelligent animals will quickly figure out the manner in which brings them the quickest release, even if it is new/different from what they have been taught. If a new owner incorporates a different method, as long as it is good and proper horsemanship, his mount should have no problem figuring it out. If there is a issue that doesn’t improve, it lies with the current rider not communicating. **Keep on keeping on… learning 🙂

  21. This type of training takes a very sensitive and educated rider. Buying a horse ridden like this and not learning the correct way to ride the horse yourself is like buying a Grand Prix Dressage horse and putting a pony clubber on him. The Pony Clubber “can’t ride” the horse because they aren’t trained to, not because the horse or trainer has done anything bad.

  22. As a pattern class person I like both styles of riding. I’ve had very successful rides on very different mounts with a spur stop and traditional cues. I actually plan on training my new two year old to spur stop because I feel it will accentuate her personality and ability however I may not do the same on my next horse. I think being able to ride both styles is important for me as a competitor and that educating yourself is the most important thing you can do as part of the industry. I think assuming a horse cannot learn another way once it has been taught one is also fairly ridiculous. Time and patience are key to all things horse.

  23. This technique is as old as the hills and goes back to the old masters. Done correctly its a nice option to pulling on their mouth!

  24. Ive used a spur stop for a long time. I started to use it in the early 90s maybe late 80s when another trainer friend was telling me how well it was working for him with his pleasure horses. It was an old west coast technique that he had learned while apprenticing with a bigger trainer on the west coast. I love it, my horses are happier, and pretty soon they can be given all sorts of cue with simple leg pressure. I start my youngsters very simple and slow. And do so at the walk intil they get the idea, then Ill add a jog, etc… once it clicks, then it moves very fast.

  25. I will never be a WP fan the way it stands. Not only is it like wathching paint dry, it is unnatural looking and stunts the horse. When I want to stop my trail horse out in the woods or while doing arena work, I take my legs off his sides and put the loose rains down. He stops on a dime. I do agree that when alot of these specially trained horses are no longer performing, most have no further use to their show ribbon driven owners and if they are not sold to average Joe they end up with kill buyers.

  26. Thanks for the article. I used to show many years ago and went to a show recently. I wondered why everyone had on spurs and had them sticking in the horses sides. I guess I know now. Just another one of the tricks of the trainers who have ruined the western pleasure horse and made them the saddest looking horses I have ever seen. This article and the one I read about forward motion in pattern classes make me laugh out loud. Do the execs of AQHA ever sit back and really look at what the “win win win” trainers have done for the breed. It really is so sad.

  27. It’s not just pros and trainers that can/do teach this. I taught my 12yr old recently unretired broodmare to spur stop/slow within a couple 20 minute lessons. Never was it aggressive training and my spurs are blunt. She is an AA and this doesn’t keep her too slow for HUS either. I love being able to keep out of her mouth and she’s a lot happier with me keeping out of her mouth. She’s built long so keeping all of her collected was a challenge now it’s just a little press and she rounds right up. Helped us out tons.

  28. Spur stop has caused many a ruined horse, heavy and too low in the front, no forward motion, troping. Wrecks the horse. Lynn Palm is right-on with her comments. A trainer friend of mine gets beautiful cadenced framed results with good ole-fashioned training and patience. each horse is different, some tolerate the spur stop but most don’t and it ruins them. Get back to the basics. Also – get rid of the troping already!!

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