Lions and Tigers and Spurs, Oh My!

At our farm we have a collection of tack and tools that have been donated to us and to our foundation rescue, Eye of the Storm, over the years. Many of these tools are so cruel we choose to use them for education rather than resell them like most donated items. On our educational wall (we jokingly call this our “torture chamber” and our “wall of shame”) we have tools with a wide variety of bits ranging from mild to extreme, even homemade torture devices, we have a collection of types of whips to teach the differences in styles and common uses, we have twitches, chains for noses and legs (to stop kicking, to encourage high stepping, or otherwise to inflict pain), we have a collection of strange halter devices including a weaning muzzle (which spikes the mare when the foal tries to nurse!) – but we have surprisingly few spurs. We have a few mild spurs, the plain knob-style spur, and just 1 giant, beautiful Argentinian spur, or it would be beautiful if never used on a horse. But a good friend and volunteer has cleaned out their old tack box and decided to donate their rowelled spurs.

I’m excited for this to help include in our education about these stinking little tools. So what is it about spurs that earns their place on our wall of shame? We all understand basic physics right? When pressure is distributed it causes less pain, when it’s narrowed it increases the pain. We can think of it like standing on thin ice, if the ice begins to crack while we are standing, we can distribute our weight by laying down. However if we are trying to crack the ice in a bucket, we may use a chisel or spike, to narrow the point of the pressure to break it more easily. Spurs work in the same way. When we ride a horse with traditional training we use our legs and particularly our heels to apply pressure, when the horse responds as desired, moving away from the pressure we stop squeezing/kicking. The goal of the spur is to narrow and amplify this pressure, just like using a chisel or ice pick. This not only increases how aversive the leg aids are but pin points where you can apply the pressure, further back or further forward to control different parts of the horse’s body.

With understanding of behavioral science we understand that the only purpose of this tool is to increase how aversive the experience is for the horse to work harder to avoid it. We know now that we don’t need to use aversives to train or control our animals, especially not heightened aversive tools that have no use aside from increasing the pain. With positive reinforcement as a tool on our side we never need escalated aversives to influence behaviors, especially tools like harsh bits, whips, or spurs. The need no longer exists to get the behaviors and precision we want.