When you begin to train a horse, you will use your natural aids of hands, voice, weight and legs. Besides those tools, you may find the use of artificial aids beneficial when trying to communicate and train a horse. Although technically, the saddle and bridle and other tack like a martingale could be included in this category, generally speaking, “artificial aids” most commonly refers to crops and spurs.
A crop is basically a whip that varies in length from being rather short, like a two-foot long bat, to rather long six-foot lunge whip. The whip is used to help encourage the horse forward, that is why it is called an “aid”. Crops are NOT for the purpose of injuring or punishing a horse. Too often riders over use a crop and either scare or intimidate the horse, which makes matters worse. Of course, you want the horse to be respectful of the crop, otherwise, it would do no good at all because they would ignore it! But with that said, it is not a tool for punishment when you train a horse. Think of it, rather, as an extension of your arm, giving you greater power to communicate.
Often the shorter crops have wide, flat leather ends that create a slapping noise when it is used on the horse’s shoulder. That noise is usually enough for the horse to come to attention and move forward as you are asking. Always be careful if you decide to carry a crop. Some horses may have had a previous rider who abused them with a crop and their reaction will be to get away from it! With most horses, merely carrying the crop is sufficient encouragement to move on.
If you decide to carry a crop after you have already mounted, have your assistant slowly walk to you carrying the crop vertically at her side and then slowly raise the crop up to your hands. It would be a big mistake to walk briskly toward the horse with the crop clearly visible or moving in any significant way. That would intimidate the horse and you might have your hands full staying on!
Spurs are attached to the back of the heels of your boots and come in various sizes and shapes. The spur is a metal protrusion that extends directly behind your heel. When you use your lower leg on the horse’s side, the horse will feel the added, sharper feeling of the spur, creating further encouragement to move forward. Remember that when you train a horse you are teaching him to move away from pressure, whether that is pressure from the bit or from your legs. In this case, the spur is a punctuation mark, stronger pressure that is motivation to move forward.
You must be very careful wearing spurs when you train a horse. Horses who have been mistreated by a previous rider using spurs may over react to the feel and take off with you. Also, if you forget that you have on spurs and use your legs carelessly, you may find yourself unprepared, with a scared or frightened horse, trying to escape the sensation by running away, kicking or bucking.
Often riders will wrap their metal spurs with some sort of bandaging to soften the effect of the spur. Then, the spur is sharper than your blunt heel, but not as sharp as the metal would be otherwise.
English spurs are usually slender, blunt on the ends and are strapped on your heel and fastened around your boot across the top with a leather strap.
Western spurs are usually larger and heavier and often have rowels. A rowel is a notched disk that can spin around on the end of the protrusion. These can be sharp or blunt, depending on the style. Obviously, if misused they could create a great deal of damage to a horse’s flesh. You rarely see these used and only experienced horsemen who understand how to use the aid properly should use them when they train a horse.