Q: My 12-year-old Swedish Warmblood gelding has developed bald spots in the area right behind the girth, where the spurs are. I’ve been riding for more than 15 years, usually with spurs, and have never had that problem. Is this a common issue? Is it my fault or are there horses that are too sensitive to be ridden with spurs? What type of spurs do you recommend for such a situation?
A: First, thank you for being aware and for asking for help. Spur marks are such an important issue that there are USEF and Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) competition rules addressing them. The term “spur marks” can mean a whole host of things—from a raised welt to bald spots to raw skin to bleeding. I had a sales horse once that arrived with what I will call spur sags—the skin was quite loose in the spur area, making him very prone to swelling or marking even if a spur was worn but not used. For this horse, who was competing at the FEI level, it was an issue because spurs are required at that level.
You have not told me what level your horse is schooling or whether he has experienced any recent health or weight changes or if you have purchased a new saddle. I recently dealt with a rider who wore a small Prince of Wales spur that left bald spots on her horse. That horse was suffering from health issues that made his skin sensitive and he had excess weight from his previous situation. The rider had to temporarily use a spur that was not legal for competition. We also addressed her leg position as well as pressure to correct the problem permanently. The horse lost excess weight, and eventually there was no longer a problem using the original, smaller spur.
Sometimes when a horse and rider begin working on collection or are introduced to a double bridle, communication issues can arise regarding contact and throughness, putting the horse behind the leg, which might then be addressed by spur rather than the contact. In this case, make sure that the front door is left open (give the horse space in front) so that energy flows freely forward from back to front, and examine how and why you are riding with spurs.
Spur marks are commonly caused by:
• Health issues that make the skin more sensitive, such as allergies, edema and excess weight.
• Changes in tack (e.g., a new saddle that puts the rider’s leg in a different position due to saddle fit or location of stirrup bar).
• Changes in the rider’s own body (back or hip issues).
• Changes in the rider’s equipment (e.g., new boots, spur position, using half chaps or full chaps, etc.).
• Changes in the horse’s movement.
Most importantly, you must treat the symptom and then get to the cause. If there are issues with the skin or hair, be sure to address them using appropriate topical preparations. Some horses are more or less sensitive depending on winter coat or body clipping. Some swear by a spray-on coat polish to that area while others use a body-glide stick or ointment.
Here is a list of things that you can try to address simple mechanics:
• Try a different type of spur—longer, shorter or the plastic roller type. Sometimes the shape of the spur arm that wraps around your boot can be the cause or a combination of the length of spur, position of your leg and the shape of the horse’s side.
• Raise or lower your stirrup to make your leg placement more correct or effective. Sometimes it’s the boot that a rider wears that interferes with an appropriate leg position.
• Have someone videotape you riding, and see if you have a “noisy” leg. Are you inadvertently spurring your horse or gripping him?
• Check your position. Is it correct? Is your core engaged? Are you sitting evenly?
• Ride with two whips (no spurs) to allow the spur area time to heal while finding alternative ways to keep your horse in front of the leg.
• Teach your horse to respond promptly or be more sensitive to your aids so you don’t need a spur, or if a spur is required, so that you don’t need to use as much spur.
In general, spurs are used as a refining aid, which is why they are required at the FEI level and part of the reason whips are prohibited. It is a demonstration of the highest level of training and understanding between horse and rider. Good training is based on communication. Whisper so that your horse may learn to hear you better. One of my favorite phrases that I use while teaching is, “The less I do, the more I get.” Since good riding and training are all about communication, I try to use the least amount of “words” with the lowest “volume” possible to tell the horse what to do. Horses are magnificently sensitive creatures who are wired to instinctively listen to the most subtle cues of their herd in order to survive.
Kari Garber is a USDF silver medalist and is a member of Dressyringen (Swedish equivalent of USDF gold medal). She has worked at Flyinge, the National Stud of Sweden. A native of Sweden, she relocated to Florida in 2005, where she owns and operates Finesse Farm (finessefarm.com).