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Question from Neil: I have a 2-year-old that is real spur sensitive, and I am working on body control right now – neck shoulders etc., but he only associates the spur with going faster and will tend to brace against especially my left leg. He is a nice colt , nice loper, yet it has been a lot of work to try and get him to drive into the bit with out getting chargey. He has a melt in the ground stop, real cowy. Its like I need to deaden him up to the spurs a bit. Any advise?

First of all let’s address the advantage of spurs and the primary cause of success or failure.
When to use spurs: First off, I can’t remember using a spur a lot on a two year old. Put yourself in the horse’s place – if you are an older horse and you know right from wrong, you know the way you’re expected to respond. If you deny the rider that respect, then you could expect the possibility of be spurred. However, if you’re a young horse, such as a two-year-old, which is comparable to a four-year-old child, you don’t know the rules. So a big or painful reprimand – or even reprimands that are sort of painful and stacked one on top of the next – if you don’t have knowledge, the only thing you have to respond with is instinct. Since horses are flight animals, their instinct is to go ahead.

Any time you start pushing him a ways out of his comfort zone, understand that he’s a flight animal, so he’ll go ahead. The harder you kick and spur, the more ahead he’s going to go, but it’s going to be a blind ahead motion, not a collected forward motion.

First, the horse has to be taught how to respond to the leg properly. Some take longer than others. It will take as long as it takes – one week, five weeks, however long, but that is part of the joy of making a good horse a good horse.

Of course we do need spurs. The effective way we deal with a disrespectful horse, as far as contemporary riding goes, is to have a spur as an enforcer. But you need to start somewhere besides using the spur, so you can save it for when you need it.

I suggest bumping a horse like this a lot with your calves, instead of spurs – with your toe up and your heel down – and if you have to occasionally use some spur then I would, but then again you want to spend some time – you want to take it apart. Back him up to the wall/fence and bump him with your calves, what I call “boot tops”, while moving your reins until he becomes soft and light.

Once he understands that when you start bumping with your boot tops and moving the snaffle bit back and forth, he needs to drop off that snaffle and lower and soften his neck, then you can start to put it into motion. If you try to do it all at once, it’ll be too much. How much motion to start? One or two steps are pretty darn good – you’ve got the job done.

You always have to remember, we’re not trying to create a maneuver that we can compliment him for; we are trying to create a thought pattern. In other words, we want to reward him for the way he thinks, not just hold out for all the big things. Of course we will reward the big things he does too, but your goal is to make him think correctly. In order for your horse to think right, you have to think right. You should to go back to fundamentals.

I suggest trying not to use spurring for now. When you do, definitely don’t stick the horse with the spur. Put the spur under the horses’ tummy with your toe up and out, your ankle bent as far as you can so you’re using the calf of your leg on the horse first, your boot tops.

How to use spurs (rolling vs. sticking):
If you don’t get the response you want, then use your spurs. With your heels down, spurs down, barely touch the rib cage, or barrel, of the horse. Then begin to push your toe down, rolling the rowels upward. The rowels make a series of wrinkles in the skin because you have pressure against his barrel with your foot, leg, and spur. The rowel will roll across those wrinkles, and you should get a response. All of those signals are delivered in a sequence, called “pre-signals”. In other words, the first signal means the second one is coming, so on and so forth.

Aside from it being kinder to the horse, why should you roll and not poke with the spurs? If you use a lot of ankle – in other words, ankle, ankle, ankle, roll, roll, roll – that keeps a horse from learning to hold his breathe. You don’t want to poke a horse with spurs because he’ll begin to brace for that painful jolt. He’ll hold his breath and tense up, the same as you would respond. His neck will become stiff, solid, and rigid. When his neck becomes stiff, you’ll lose your ability to slow the front legs down, and he’ll go where he wants to. He’ll run off. This should all makes sense. It makes really, really good sense in theory. Theory to me is the same as basic fundamentals, and fundamentals are what it’s all about.

Can a horse be more sensitive to spurs on one side more than another?
As far as one side being more durable than the other, horses are not. At least I haven’t experienced one. I have had some that in certain stages would turn better one way than the other; usually the problem in the neck and shoulder area. But as far as just responding more to one spur than the other, it’s probably more of a rider error. In other words, you’re either using or are more aggressive with one leg or spur more than the other, or your spurs could be adjusted, one high and one low.

It is true that when you teach a horse to do something one way, you sure can’t take for granted he’ll just “know it” the other way. So of course you have to work both sides, but look at what you’re doing too. Also like with anything else make sure there isn’t a physical irritation or injury that makes the horse touchier on one side than the other. Hope this helps!

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Question from Mary in Washington: I saw a few wrecks at the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity in Reno this year, which made me wonder, what are the most important things an amateur should be thinking about when learning to go down the fence?

Les: Going down the fence is not all it seems when you first see it. There’s lot more to it; there are a lot of adjustments that need to be made, and a lot of judgments that need to be made or it can be very dangerous.

As an amateur just starting down the fence, you have to learn to rate. There’s a time limit to the time you approach the cow and the time it takes the cow to get to the wall. How do you not hit the wall when your trainer is telling you not to take your eyes off the wall? You need markers – whether it’s flags, cones, gates – anything that will tell you where you are without having to look up.

The second thing is to realize that control of the cow depends on the departure, when the cow leaves the corner. Are you in a position of control, are you up on the cow so that your horse’s eye is between the hip bone and the tail set of that cow as he leaves the corner, and are you going the same speed as the cow?

An expert will run a horse down the fence 4 to 6 feet from a cow. When you’re learning, I would suggest 10 to 15, even 20 feet out from the cow, that way you are safe. If the cow comes to you, simply pull up. I’ve never crossed a cow because I respect how dangerous that situation can be. My mind is always ready to guard against it.

If you see it might happen, if you can’t wave your horse a slight bit away from the cow to save the day, then pull up! It’s pull up to go down the fence another day. Please respect that it’s very dangerous. If you don’t pull up and bulldoze over that cow, your horse will roll over him, and you might end up at the bottom of the heap. You could get hurt or die. If that ever happens, it’s from lack of control or judgment. If you don’t feel like you don’t have enough control of your horse to pull up under those circumstances, than don’t do it. Just don’t do it. Get another horse.

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