Learn how and when to apply the spur stop in horse training, and find out what to avoid when using this technique.
By Randee Fox in The American Quarter Horse Journal
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series. Need to review Part 1? Part 1 covered an introduction to spur stop and where some top trainers and horsemen first noticed it. Randee continues her questions here.
How and when should the spur stop be applied, and how do you teach it to your students?
AQHA Professional Horseman Charlie Cole: It has many uses and benefits. From teaching my horse the spur stop, when I walk to obstacles in trail and softly squeeze my legs, they will slow down and look at the obstacle. On the rail in western pleasure, I can close my legs and can draw them back to a slower lope if I need to.
Dale Livingston: It is a balance of feel and motion of the horse. It takes a good rider to teach it correctly, and it takes a well-trained and good-minded horse to accept it in many cases. Since all riders and horses are different, it depends on the individual horse and rider. Like all useful training techniques, it can be abused by those who apply it for the wrong reasons or as a quick fix. Some horses can’t handle the total manipulation of this training fad.
AQHA Professional Horseman Bret Parrish: Through repetition, we teach our horses a rhythm, and when a horse does not maintain that rhythm, we close both legs around the horse to soften and slow down the rhythm.
AQHA Professional Horsewoman Joni Nelson: We tend to put this button on our show horses a month or two before they go to the show pen. When we teach the spur stop, we hardly ever go to both legs at the same time when we first make contact with the horses’ sides.
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We use our outside leg first, farther toward the girth, to keep the horse from stopping and losing his forward motion. While we softly roll our outside spur, we gently close our inside leg until the horse slows down. As soon as the horse slows down and at the same time goes forward, we release our legs as a reward. Using our outside spur as a motivation to go forward is key to keeping a horse’s forward motion and a good, soft front leg. If you go to the horse hard with your spurs, they will be hard in their bodies and legs.
We teach all of our students how to use this technique way before they go to the show pen – as soon as they start riding with us, even if they have learned it from someone else. Spur stopping is applied in every aspect of our training. We use this mainly for body control and to stop and slow them down.
Describe step by step how to do the spur stop correctly.
Bret: When teaching a horse the spur stop method, you begin by closing both legs around the horse and stopping and backing softly. Over time, the horse will begin to rate itself as you begin to close your legs. This is taught through repetition. In our program, we also use the outside leg to maintain cadence and lift. With the combination of both legs to soften the rhythm and the outside leg to lift, we can control and maintain fluent movement and self-carriage.
Joni: The steps that we go through when asking the horse to stop or slow are similar but different.
To stop: We start to close our legs, starting with our thighs working down slowly to our spurs, closing them softly, picking up on the reins so the horses do not push their front ends to the ground and lower their heads too low, while saying the word “whoa.” We always use that word so they do not get any leg cues confused with another one.
To slow: We go to our outside leg softly working down to our spur that will go directly behind the girth so we do not ask the horse to get over-canted. Then we softly, while rolling our outside spur soft, go to our inside spur, asking them to slow down while keeping their back picked up and their front legs going forward. Forward does not mean fast. As soon as they do what we want, we release the pressure as a reward. Horses need to know their comfort zone, what their job is, and what they will or won’t get corrected on.
AQHA Professional Horsewoman Denise Callahan: I teach the horse forward first with a maximum stride, staying in front of my leg, then I teach them cadence and self-carriage and to accept aids in more than one way. Some horses that I have taken to train have been trained to spur slow/stop yet have never had their faces touched and freak out when they sense the bridle. As they come along in their training, staying soft and forward, I start to come in with my legs, having them stay round and collected and slow down off the spur. After they have the rhythm and cadence is when we teach them to slow and stop.
For the rider who has not ridden the spur stop/slow, there is a lot to learn. Until they have rhythm, balance, strength and cadence, they cannot learn the spur stop or slow. We first teach the rider to get the rhythm in walk, jog and lope, then we perfect the spur stop/slow as the rider gets comfortable.
This is a very different approach than other styles of riding, and I truly feel that it is not mean. We never kick off the spur, as we never want them to be scared of this aid. I believe that if this technique is done properly, the horse stays happy.
Describe what can happen to the horse when this is done incorrectly and overused. Also, what happens to the rider when this is overused or done incorrectly?
Denise: This not something you want to try to teach your horse at home. Go to a professional trainer and learn how to do it correctly.
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Some people rush this process with a green horse, before the horse learns to move forward and has self-carriage and cadence. They go in with their spurs, slowing their horses down yet not ever allowing their horse to reach maximum cadence and forward stride. I have accepted horses in training that knew the spur stop and slow at a walk and trot but never learned to move forward off the rider’s leg in a lope. They came in confused and choppy, as they had never learned what forward motion was. This is when problems are created.
Dale: I think it causes more problems today than it could ever fix, much like the overuse and overemphasis of horses’ headsets in the ’80s and the overemphasis in the ’90s of nose out and flat front legs without softness in the face and flow in the legs.
AQHA Professional Horsewoman Lynn Palm: To train with the horse’s natural instinct, one will teach a horse to move away and forward from leg aids. Spur stop teaches a horse to lean and be heavy. Natural use of leg aids is using the calf of the rider’s leg. Horses love lightness from a rider’s leg aid. A spur is an artificial aid to assist the natural leg aid. If used for a cue, you will get results immediately. Later, you get less and less; then the spur has to get stronger and stronger.
Bret: It has been our experience that if this training method is overused or abused, you will inhibit the horse’s forward motion and take away any natural self-carriage. In our opinion, however, the same thing results from using too much hand and pulling on a horse’s face.
Charlie: Overuse causes a horse to have a very short, choppy stride. Usually, the horse is irritated and doesn’t use its ears well and gaps its mouth. Many times, the horses look intimidated. The riders tend to have their heels down and knees poking out.
If you do not use the spur stop, what modification or alternative training/teaching technique would you recommend to slow down or stop a western pleasure or hunter under saddle horse while keeping a long and loose rein?
Dale: If the horse is trained properly, with or without this, the horse should be light in the mouth and light in the side. As the cowboys say, you spur to go and pull to whoa, and if we do that correctly and consistently, we should achieve collection, not sideways departures, dog tracking down the rail and on-the-forehand stops and turns.
Lynn: I teach a horse to respond from the seat aid – weight in the saddle to keep the hind legs coming underneath the horse to slow. I keep my leg aids touching the horse’s side, to keep the hind legs engaged and moving forward as I am slowing the horse, then supporting with reins to lightly ask the horse to round and shorten the stride to slow.
I do this through bending the entire body of the horse and thus working with controlled balance on a circle. I also teach a horse to collect and round from back to front, not from the front (hands/mouth of horse). This gets the horse to deepen or engage the hind legs, bring his back up and lift the forehand from the reins. He continues to round the spine from the withers to the poll.
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Learning how to ride the spur slow/stop has been somewhat of a transformational journey for me, causing me to not only push my own edges as an equestrian but to reflect within. Now that this mare is home, I am riding her every day. As we get to know each other, I can see how the spur slow can be effective in rating her speed with slow, soft use of the spurs, along with good horsemanship skills. I have no doubts now that the spur slow/stop works in today’s show ring and can see that it is being used in a variety of ways with style modifications – some effective, some not.
The debate has left me with more questions than answers, wondering where we are in the big revolutionary picture as intelligent equestrians.
Is the over-riding purpose of this technique to produce show horses that are more competitive in rail, horsemanship and trail classes slowing and stopping them off our spurs secretly because as an aid it is not as obvious as slowing or stopping in more natural or classical ways?
Is its widespread popularity because horses who are trained with spur slow/stop and riders who use it get rewarded in the show ring? Who doesn’t want to win? Some say it’s a passing fad and, if so, will we someday look back and say, “Wow, remember when we used to use that old-fashioned spur slow/stop?”
All of this has caused me to re-evaluate my overall goals as a “lifetime horsewoman”– – to build long-term friendships with my horses, not driven by competition but rather driven by the challenge to stay present in moment-to-moment inspiration while artfully blending with my horses’ dynamic energy, intuitive intelligence and grace. What I’d really like to perfect is to become so strong, connected and refined as an equestrian that all of my cues, rating various speeds and gait transitions come from my own core-based intrinsic rhythm changes – not spurs. By the end of my life, I would hope to say that I had mastered those lessons first.
Watch this video of the 2011 AQHA 2-Year-Old Western Pleasure World Champion