Addressing the Great “Spur Stop” Debate
Imagine yourself in the arena, loping softly down the rail. The announcer calls for the walk, and you……press your heels into your horse’s sides? Thus begins the Great “Spur Stop” Debate. The spur stop is a training technique that is commonly used in stock horse breeds and especially western pleasure events. This technique allows the rider to bring the horse to a halt using only the rider’s spurs or heels. Spurs are not necessary to perform this technique, although riders at this advanced level often use them.
The most common misconception about using a spur stop is that it confuses the horse, as leg cues are used to encourage forward movement. However, this idea is not entirely accurate, at least not in this context. Riders use their legs to establish forward movement, yes, but seat and body position are also important. And don’t forget that you should be able to control your horse’s lateral (sideways) movement with your legs as well. Different cues mean different things and a highly trained horse can distinguish whether a cue indicates to move forward, move over, or stop. Falsely believing that legs mean to go forward and hands mean to stop is where a lot of riders get into trouble.
It is important to remember that essentially all movements that the horse performs require impulsion - defined as a driving force that provides forward motion. Wait! Forward motion? At the stop? Yes, in a manner of speaking. Think about it like this: what happens when you pull back on your horse’s face (without applying leg aids)? Chances are, he raises his head, hollows his back, and stiffens. Keeping your legs on him when you pull back keeps him driving forward into the bit and staying soft and round. The spur stop is merely an advancement of this technique, in that the hand motion is eliminated and the horse is taught to soften, round, and slow or stop using leg aids. If you would like to see an example of a highly trained horse that responds to seat and leg cues, check out this video. The entire video is shot bridleless and demonstrates the spur stop a couple of times.
In recent years the spur stop has incited controversy, largely due to its misuse as a shortcut in western pleasure training. Western pleasure, in my opinion, has devolved into an event that is more about strategy and slowness than about showcasing a smooth, relaxed, pleasurable horse. As as result, some trainers have increasingly developed tools to give them an edge in the show ring. The spur stop fits the bill – the perfect way to slow or stop your horse without using your hands (which is often impossible due to the ridiculously long rein length that horses are often shown with). Riders will sometimes lope while using the spur stop at each stride to keep the horse extremely slow. Opponents of the spur stop frequently refer to it as “riding the brake” in a western pleasure class as it results in a jerky, halting lope. Recently some trainers (like western pleasure legend Cleve Wells) and judges have spoken out against misuse of the spur stop. Organizations like the AQHA have come together to penalize undesireable traits of the western pleasure lope – at the top of the list? The spur stop. This policy has trickled down to other breeds and now the ApHC specifies in western pleasure classes to “lope with forward motion” in an attempt to eliminate the misuse of the technique.
Critics claim that a horse with a spur stop will be a one-trick pony, and that serious injury could result to riders that attempt to ride a horse with a spur stop over jumps or in a barrel race. This idea is ludicrous to me. This training technique is advanced and generally speaking, only top level horses would be trained in this manner. While versatility is great, the reality is that there are very VERY few top level western pleasure horses that also compete in barrel racing or over fences. In fact, I can’t think of any. I rode a horse with a spur stop for years and I did all-around events. The spur stop, when used properly, is extremely useful in pattern classes and trail, as well as western pleasure. When you are in a class of 50 National caliber trail horses and you can lope your horse into a 12 foot box and stop using only your seat and legs, you score big points. Additionally, my horse was trained to drop his head with a particular type of leg pressure. That was a handy technique if his attention was caught by something while we were waiting for our turn to ride a pattern, or when we approached a trail obstacle that he wasn’t paying attention to.
My opinion? I think there is a place in the show ring for the spur stop if it is used properly. I completely disagree with the idea of riding a western pleasure class with your leg dug into your horse’s side so he doesn’t run off with you. But I do think that having that round, square stop achieved so effortlessly (at least from an observer’s point of view) adds a level of pizzazz to a performance and might score you a second look with the judges. Just for the record, I have shown many horses that were not spur stop trained, and I did equally well with each of them. One of them was even a western pleasure horse!
What is your stand on this topic? Ever ridden a horse with a spur stop? Let me know what you think!