Three Steps to Earn Your Spurs – How to Refine Education & Improve Results

Three Steps to Earn Your Spurs – How to Refine Education & Improve Results

by Kathleen Rossi of Integrated Equine

I will never forget the first time I witness my husband learn just how sensitive a horse can be. He was standing behind my mare brushing her tail, and I heard a loud POP followed by some even louder profanity. My man’s shin got in the way of my horse’s hoof reacting to a fly.

The horse-nerd in me first thought it was fascinating that a single fly could facilitate such a powerful action and response to a single limb without doing much more than landing on her! Then the wife-brain caught up with me, and I instructed him to use fly spray profusely before dwelling near hooves in the summer time. Lesson learned.

The point is, we know horses are sensitive. We see them out in the pasture, methodically shivering their skin and stomping their feet to rid themselves of pesky insects. We treat the welts left by mosquito bites, and spray repellent to lessen the annoyance of constant reaction to them landing on our horse’s hides. With this understanding of such sensitivity it’s important that we not only apply it to horse husbandry, but horsemanship as well.

Conquer the world in record time!

The aids we use to enhance our communication with our horse should be mutually beneficial and understood between both horse and human. Tools like bits, whips and spurs need to have a foundational understanding of why they are used AND have a responsible human attached to the end of them.

These things should also be honored as an instrument to help you be more specific, vs. a permanent crutch for means of function. And when using extra help it’s especially important to consider how it’s being perceived by the horse.

Lightness is not in the hands of the human, it is in the skin of the horse. Let’s talk perception, proper application and pressure, for spurs specifically.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the images and concepts related to spurs being used on horses. “Ride rank, make bank!” as they say. Whether you ride rough stock or run barrels, spurs are a necessary tool to get the horse to do what you want. But not the only tool!

Airing your horse out, excessively kicking into their ribs and coming out of the saddle to make contact from the metal to skin for speed enhancement are not the most effective ways to communicate.

The other image we might see is taking a blunt “bumper-spur” and making it less effective by wrapping it with Vetrap. But both trends are mis-guided. The application of spurs described above is the opposite of how they were designed and intended to be used.

Upward with the rowels in motion.
Upward with the rowels in motion.

Proper application.
Spurs are best used in helping a horse to understand a.) Specific movement execution and b.) Barriers. A spur can be like a finger, OR a spur can be like a fence. Here’s how: If you want a specific movement, ask specifically. Horses have eighteen ribs, which gives you a least that many places on his body to build a button. Jabbing, thrusting, and kicking motions that are erratic and random are the incorrect application of the tool and often result in responses that are erratic and random at best.

Most spurs have a rowel for a reason. It allows for a fluid rolling motion. Most spurs are pointed or have a defined edge. This allows for concentrated placement on the body part being ‘talked to.’ If you want control, establish barriers. Spurs are to communicate to a horse to go sideways, up and down, and yield away from. The spur on your leg can act like a barrier the horse is uninterested in pushing up against. A barbed wire fence is put up to keep livestock from pushing through or into a certain territory (it doesn’t chase or close in on the animals to get them to go).

There are two main movements by which your foot can influence the direction of your spur: Side to side with heels in and toes out, and an upward motion accommodated by the rowels motion.

Side to side with heels in, toes out.
Side to side with heels in, toes out.

Any horse can be ridden with spurs, but not all humans are prepared to use them. It’s important when using spurs that you have a few other things under your hat and your belt before strapping them on.

Emotional fitness is under your hat. Do you have the wits about you, that if things get western you won’t punish your horse with spurs? Getting a point across to a prey animal, and taking out your frustration are two different intentions that can be communicated with spurs. Spurs are removable but mental/emotional damage, not so much.

Physical fitness is under your belt. Basically if you haven’t reached the level of horsemanship of having an independent seat, you literally haven’t earned your spurs yet. Once you can balance without your reins and lower legs, it is logical to learn how to use spurs. Gripping on to your horses flank with a metal claw is a recipe for disaster if you get off balance.

Horses are motivated by pressure and taught by release. If you teach correctly by exaggerating the steps first, you will find refinement as you go along. Spurs should be used with an understanding of psychology along with the functionality of the design. A horse will perceive the spur as an extension of your limbs if it is gradually applied, and quickly taken away. This is why the rowel is an important component. It allows the horse to feel the concentrated, fluid, and steady pressure without feeling attacked, chased or scared.

Horse and human epidermis comparison.

It should also be noted that perceiving pressure is a means of survival for horses. Not just in their mind but also in their body (no coincidence that innately unconfident horses are lighter and “more sensitive” – their instincts run closer to the surface).

The skin of a horse’s flank is actually THINNER than the skin in the flank of a human. In addition, pain sensing fibers stretch up into the surface of the horse’s skin, where as in a human the fibers are set lower and deeper beneath the surface of the epidermis. The density of these nerve fibers is higher in a horse than a human. This is the reason horses are so sensitive.

The best way to go about learning to use spurs is to understand the balance and complexity of the tool. Too often spurs are used as a fashion statement. The horse doesn’t care what you wear, until he knows how much you care.

Prove to your horse that you can communicate through an independent seat (aka excellent balance), that you know the difference between rhythmic and steady pressure, and the appropriate situations and ways to apply both.

Spurs don’t make your horse go faster, your knowledge (and ability to apply it) does.

The videos below offer even further clarification and understanding behind the effective use of spurs:

Lets hear your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

For more posts related to today’s topic, enjoy these additional resources:

Kathleen Rossi is a 2-Star Parelli Professional, Instructor for Photonic Health Institute, WPRA barrel racer, and founder of

If you enjoyed today’s article, visit Kathleen’s website to receive her “Three Key Components to Becoming an Equine Expert” mini e-book when you join the Integrated Equine Network!

Horsemanship Before Sportsmanship – Eight Priorities that Pay Off

Horsemanship Before Sportsmanship - Eight Priorities that Pay Off

A couple weeks ago Kathleen started out this post hypothetically highlighting the “Four Barrel Racing Personality Types.” To roll out today’s new article, I’d like to break that down into an even more basic TWO types.

Even though my husband isn’t a barrel racer, his personality serves as a good example of Type B, while I’m Type A. When I appreciate our differences, I can’t help but think of the classic quote by Zig Ziglar – “You cannot make it as a wandering generality. You must become a meaningful specific.”

Craig’s a laid back, roll with the punches kind of guy. While he’s appreciating each moment, I can be found spinning in Tazmanian Devil-like swirls of mental activity and physical productivity. You can imagine why he’s actually a great match for his sensitive gelding, Dot Com (and ME). Craig operates with steady eddy-style energy that provides a lot of peace and reassurance for him.

It’s great when everyone’s feeling relaxed and content, but the warm fuzzies tend to fade when we’re not progressive. That’s where my specialty comes in, which is crushing goals, blasting through obstacles and chasing dreams – full-steam ahead! My succeed or else style can be pretty intense, no doubt. In fact over the years I’ve had to learn to tone it down. And as you might expect, Craig has learned to liven up!

I have a tendency to latch on to ideas like a dog on a bone, where Craig is slow to put a stake in any one belief. When it comes to caring for our horses and doing everything we can to bring out their best and achieve our barrel racing goals with them, I don’t think we can afford to sway too far either direction.

It doesn’t matter what “style” WE are – we’ve GOT to do our homework to find our own “north star.” But having balance and perspective means we must be willing to let it burn out and focus on another guiding light instead, when appropriate.

Below I’ve shared what I consider to be a set of eight powerful principles to guide you through life, horse training, competing and more.

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Form, Function & Communication with Barrel Horse Bitting Expert, Dave Elliott

Form, Function & Communication with Barrel Horse Bitting Expert, Dave Elliott

This month at we’ll be diving into the subject “horsemanship for barrel racing.” Because quality horsemanship requires quality communication – quality horsemanship depends on quality tools! One of the most important being the bits we use to develop our barrel horses.

It was easy for me to decide who I’d invite as a guest contributor on this topic. Dave Elliott, owner of Elliott Bit and Spur hails from Alberta, Canada and is a household name in the barrel racing industry. Although Dave himself rodeoed in the past, because his wife Louise is a barrel racer, it’s the discipline they’ve primarily focused on serving.

Dave started out using horses on the ranch where he grew up, while his mother and sister rode english. Out of school he became involved in horseshoeing and did that professionally for 20 years. When business was slow in the winter time his interest turned to bit making, which he’s been doing on a full-time basis now for 25 years.

One of the things that clearly sets Elliott bits apart is the years of education and study behind them. Dave said “My search for bitting information led me to studying anatomy. I’ve hosted equine dissection classes and got involved with an equine Osteopath to learn more about motion, neurological systems and cardiovascular systems.”

He went on to explain that “Most of the information on bitting is based on the bit, not the reason why we use certain bits, which is largely anatomical based. When you read old European military manuals you’ll find that most of their bitting and riding was based on anatomical structures.”

I especially appreciated Dave mentioning how important it is to have a clear goal in mind when it comes to exactly what you hope to accomplish. “You have to have a plan as to how you want the horse to move before you select a bit to get it done. I find now days in all disciplines, that people often don’t have a plan.”

He shared that when people call to express certain needs or ideas in regards to which bit to order, “It usually ends up being more of an anatomical answer instead of a bit answer. For example ‘My horse won’t rate for the first barrel.’ I have to understand what their idea of what rate is, whether they’re looking for a short term fix or a long term fix, and if they understand what needs to happen in the horse’s body in order to rate.” Read more… »

Unshakable Confidence – How to Build DEEP Inner Strength to Achieve HIGH Barrel Racing Goals

Unshakable Confidence – How to Build DEEP Inner Strength to Achieve HIGH Barrel Racing Goals

This month we’ve already gone deep to offer no-nonsense tips and techniques for upping your mental game. But how DEEP are you willing to go?

Our personal comfort with depth is an important topic, because it determines the height of our success. The higher level goals we have for our horses, the deeper their foundation must be, and it’s NO different for us.

Here at, we primarily focus on areas related to developing and refining our horse’s education. But there’s A LOT more to jockeying a barrel horse successfully than just riding well or even being a great trainer.

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Four Steps to Think FAST and Clock FASTER

Four Steps to Think FAST and Clock FASTER

by Kathleen Rossi of Integrated Equine

If you’re reading this, I imagine it ain’t your first rodeo. In fact, you might be so experienced you can start to identify barrel racer types like personality types.

Just for fun, see if you can picture a few of these hypothetical ladies strutting across the arena:

The only time greatness comes before hustle is in the dictionary.
The Die Hard: The only time greatness
comes before hustle is in the dictionary.

“The Die Hard”
She loves speed and the thrill of competition. She has an opinion and is known for broadcasting it – loudly! She’ll show up early, make sure she’s on the exhibition list (not that she needs them), and then flash you a smirk in the warm up arena – she loves to win!

“The Thrill Seeker”
She craves the fast paced rush and flashiness of the sport. She’ll probably show up late, but darned if her outfit doesn’t coordinate! You’re likely to see her warming up in a group of 4-across talking at length about her last run (good, bad or ugly.)

“The Easy Go-er”
She enjoys participating in all the fast-paced barrel racing fun, but is content whether or not her name is ever on the leader board. She’s the quiet type that spends more time grooming them than socializing. She loves to barrel race but if she doesn’t clock there’s always the next race.

“The Over-thinker”
She likes testing the limits with her horse, running the splits and calculating the pay out in her head. Her horse is on a strict feeding regimen and she prepared by calling ahead and asking what the pattern would be set at and had her approach to the first barrel strategized before she even pulled in the parking lot.

No matter who you most identify with (one or all of them), there are certain tactics that will set you up for success in the barrel pen. Read more… »

Three No-Brainer Components for Successful and Consistent Barrel Racing Under Pressure

Three No-Brainer Components for Successful and Consistent Barrel Racing Under Pressure

I always say – there’s a lot more to barrel racing, than barrel racing!

For this reason I feel as though the off season, OR any time we’re sidetracked from active competition (for example, when a horse gets injured – my situation not log ago) provides a good opportunity to dive into other areas of personal development that will accelerate our barrel racing success once we’re back in the saddle.

The thing is, when we haven’t been competing for a while it’s easy to beebop along in our own little comfort zone, completely oblivious about how to pressure of competition effects us.  When we’re not out testing ourselves regularly, we get a little rusty and forgetful!

I had a HUGE wake-up call after we first moved from Wyoming and I’d been living in my own little secluded south-Texas world, then hauled our horses to a HUGE barrel race not far from home. 

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Go With the Flow – Microcurrent Therapy for Powerful Equine Healing, Comfort, Relief and Recovery

Go With the Flow - Microcurrent Therapy for Powerful Equine Healing, Comfort, Relief and Recovery

When my barrel horse gelding tore a collateral ligament late in 2012, one of my worst fears – that my best and most treasured equine partner would suffer a serious injury, had come true.

After multiple Vet. visits, an MRI, and many long months, we eventually made it to the side of the recovery roller coaster – in large part because I refused to accept that we wouldn’t make it, but let me tell you it was very touch and go for a while!

After a fair share of worry and doubt, one month from the moment I suddenly had a feeling that “the odds” weren’t going to apply to us, even when things weren’t necessarily looking good – he was SOUND and well on his way to making a comeback.

These days, now that I’m armed not only with an even more firm belief in the power of prayer and positive expetation, but also with valuable scientific insights and modern technology, I’ve chosen microcurrent as the therapy of choice to make sure he (and our other horses) stay that way.

With so many options out there, after much research and now impressive results in a very short period of time I’m especially enthusiastic about microcurrent or “electrical massage” as being one of the most effective options for supporting my barrel horse’s success in the arena and well-being in general. Read more… »

Conditioning for Quickness – Build Strength and Understanding to Unleash Your Barrel Horse’s Potential

Conditioning for Quickness – Build Strength and Understanding to Unleash Your Barrel Horse's Potential

You may have figured out by now that barrel racing isn’t quite as simple as it looks.
Speed especially, will throw us (and our horses) for a loop if we’re not careful.

Ensuring they’re adequately prepared to perform their best on the pattern starts with understanding the elements of SPEED (which I went into great depth on here).

It’s our responsibility as trainers and jockeys to not only be aware of our individual horses strengths and weaknesses but to embrace and take responsibility for enhancing their innate talents, as well as strengthening the weaker links.

Because of Dot Com’s extreme sensitivity for example, sometimes the communication between my body, Dot Com’s brain, and his feet gets a little “kink” in it you could say – that’s one of his “weaknesses.”

This doesn’t have so much to do with his physical ability, but his mental development – which is something I’m responsible for strengthening.

You see, we have to be aware and advanced enough to realize that what WE might consider “sensitive,” could more accurately be described as REACTIVE, AND most importantly, could be turned into RESPONSIVE, IF we take the correct steps!

While building strength IS an important and necessary part in developing quickness, if the channels of communication are not open and flowing, even the most beefed up barrel horse is going to leave us high and dry. Our horses must be STRONG, but they must also be confident, mentally connected, thinking, and willing to respond in a tiny fraction of a second, together WITH us, both body AND mind.

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