Equitation/Chapter 17

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SPURS had, at first, no rowels; but were stiletto-like and long. At that epoch, the bit, called buade, was very severe; and the saddle had high pommels before and behind. The rider's legs, therefore, extended straight down; and since he could not bend his knee, he needed the long spur to counteract the too powerful effect of the bit. Even to-day the Arabs still use this type of spur, called shabir.

But with the progress of equitation, effects of force have given way to force of effects, and the stiletto point has been superseded by rowels, severe, medium, or mild in proportion to the sharpness of their points. The choice of the right degree of severity of the rowels needed for any particular animal is governed by the creature's dullness or sensibility, and determined by the rider's equestrian tact. In any case, the horse has to be first accustomed to dull rowels and trained progressively to those more severe.

A great many sorts of rowel have been used, with various theories to explain their different forms. Practically, it is important to have the rowels turn loosely on their pivots. Otherwise, the horse's hairs may collect around them and prevent their turning at all. In that event, the points, being fixed, are a great deal more severe; and the rider may unwittingly spur much harder than he intends. Motion of the rowel from above downward is likewise more severe than in the reverse direction.

The attack with the spurs, at all periods in the history of equitation, has been considered both as a means of correction and punishment, and as an augmentation of the effect of the legs. It has been shown by writers on the subject that the use of the spurs follows, as a necessary result, the invention of bit and bridle. Evidently, the bit in the mouth, bearing upon the sensitive bars, gives rise to discomfort and even pain, so that the horse naturally hesitates to go forward against the sensation. This was especially the case with the earlier bits, with their long branches and their disks with screws attached to the ports. When the legs alone proved insufficient to push the horse forward against the bit, the whip had to be employed. But this can be used on only one side at a time, and is therefore inefficient. Moreover, the mounted soldier, reins in one hand, lance or sword in the other, could not use the whip. Spurs, therefore, had to be invented to force the horse to go forward, notwithstanding the pain of the bit manipulated by the heavyhanded rider.

The first master to begin to use the spur with moderation and intelligence was Comte de la Guérinière. His principle of the "delicate pressure of the spurs" is still noted by the more progressive schools of equitation. But equitation, with the progress made since de la Guérinière's time, has passed from the instinctive to the reasoned basis, and now to the scientific. It is no longer a question of practicing what our ancestors have done, but of following a progressive education, a sequence of reason, cause, and the effect of the means used by the man on the horse.

Now the first principle of the scientific equitation is the force of effect; it denies forever the effect of force. This being admitted, it is no longer by the severity of the bit nor by the severity of the spurs that we train the horse. I say train, as we still do, mistakenly: I mean educate. Following a progressive education, the horse is first taught by a trainer on foot, by the use of the whip on its flanks, to move forward against the bit. This practice with the whip prepares the animal for the effects of the legs upon the same part of the body, when the rider is mounted and the legs give the impulse to the entire machinery. This impulse of the legs is received by the bit, making contact with the bars, so that there is a continual fluctuation of the equilibrium as the center of gravity shifts backward and forward at each step.

To make this matter clear, suppose a horse to be mounted and standing, its training by the flexions of mouth and neck being so far advanced that it is well "in hand." In order to maintain the animal in this position, the center of gravity at the center of mechanism, the rider is exerting, let us say, a force of twenty pounds, ten pounds on the fore hand to maintain the "in hand," and ten pounds with the legs, to maintain the contact with the bit. Otherwise the "in hand" will cease and the state of equilibrium be lost.

Suppose, now, that, in order to send the horse forward at a walk, the rider, keeping always the pull of ten pounds at the reins, increases the pressure of his legs to fifteen pounds and then to twenty; but the horse still keeps its center of gravity where it was, and remains standing still. If at this point the rider gives the hand, the center of gravity will pass forward and the horse will start; but the "in hand," which is part of the equilibrium, will be lost. If, therefore, the legs alone have not the power needed to push the center of gravity forward while the reins continue to act, the rider must have spurs with which to multiply their effect.

The horse having, if I may so express myself, let the center of gravity pass forward, would fall if it did not at once extend a fore leg to receive the weight. This constitutes one step. As the horse moves forward, the spurs abandon their contact; but the legs still maintain their pressure as before the spurs were applied. The center of gravity will return to the middle point; but the horse will continue to move forward, still in the state of equilibrium. All this is in accord with Newton's first law of motion as set forth in his Principia. The body, once set in motion by a force, continues after the force is withdrawn to move forward in the same direction until another force interferes. The horse, therefore, without further spurring, continues to advance at the same speed, until something else occurs.

This, then, is what we mean by the "attack" of the spurs; nothing brutal, sudden, sharp, or unexpected, merely the supplementing of the effect of the legs, which alone were not sufficient. But the animal has life, and consequently, senses and will. It does, for a time, continue to go forward in a state of equilibrium, under the impulse of the original force. Sooner or later, however, some new sensation becomes a disturbing force. It loses its uniform motion in a straight line, and with it the state of equilibrium. Thereupon, hand and legs, spurs, if necessary, must again come into action.

In such a case, the spurs are a corrective, not by their own direct effect, but because they help to restore the state of equilibrium, and thus to inhibit the animars own will, which is the disturbing force. But though the good-will of the horse is a pleasant state, it really is very little matter what the horse thinks. The only point is submission to the will of the rider, who, by complete and continual control of the physical horse, sets quite on one side the will of the moral horse. Then and only then is the horse an utter captive, unable to disobey, unable to move a limb except at the intelligent command of its master.

On the other hand, we must not forget the great principle, already accepted, that every impression made upon the animal loses its effect progressively as the impression is continued. If legs or spurs are held steadily against the horse's sides, it shortly becomes quite insensible to them. It must, then, have its sensitiveness reawakened by repeated attacks.

For this purpose, while the horse is walking, trotting, or galloping, the rider, taking a firm seat, closes his legs progressively until he presses with his full strength, the hand meanwhile being firm and steady, and the rider cool-tempered and calm, confident in himself and his seat. These conditions realized, the rider turns his toes outward, the spurs touch the flanks near the girths, pinch, and then release, while the legs press with the same force as before the spurs were applied.

The spurs do not remain in contact with the flanks. The touch is brief, but the pressure is repeated again and again, in about the tempo of a quarter-note in music, until the horse, calm and obedient, in a state of equilibrium, stands still or moves forward at the same speed and gait as at the beginning of the attack. If, however, the horse, at the attack, backs or refuses to go forward, then the tempo of the application of the spurs is increased, until such time as the horse advances, always upon the hand, with the bit in contact with the bars. If the horse drops its head when spurred, the rider takes the snaffle in one hand and lifts the head with the snaffle, never with the bit. The attack is completely successful when the horse's head and neck go steadily upward and forward upon the hand of the rider, the face nearly perpendicular to the ground and the lower jaw open.

Thereupon follows a sensation well known to masters of the art. As the attacks bring the hind legs below the haunches, the coupling is lightly opened, while the hand, acting upon the bit, throws back upon the rear legs a portion of the load previously supported by the front pair. The rider feels the weight pass below his seat. He hears the saddle give a sudden crack as the muscles of the trunk contract. Still, it is not absolutely necessary that these two sensations should accompany the collection of the horse into equilibrium. I have found some horses in which they do not always occur.

To a young trainer, these attacks of the spurs appear terrible and dangerous. To the consummate esquire, they are the simplest matter. The scientific equitation does not regard an animal as trained if it does not respond to the attack by collecting itself, or if the attack throws it out of the state of equilibrium.

The attack of the spurs should always be deft le toucher délicat de l'éperon, is the phrase of the Grand Master, Comte de la Guérinière. These are the most exacting of all our means. They act upon the physical forces of the animal, and upon his moral forces. They affect especially his will. They are, therefore, a most important means of control if employed for their strength of effects. But they are most dangerous when used as effects of strength.

Masters of the equestrian art have all assumed that the spurs have two uses - one for conduct and one for punishment. I admit their use for conduct, but I deny their use as a corrective in the sense in which other writers have taught. I admit their use as a corrective in so far as they augment the effect of the legs. I grant that, when the legs alone are not sufficiently powerful, as a means of conduct, to impose upon the horse, by my will, the position of equilibrium, so as to paralyze movements of revolt originating in the animal's will, I employ the spurs. But the effect of these is always to reenforce the effects of the legs, which are of themselves impotent to obtain the position of assemblage. By means of the spurs I am able to correct a wrong position which the horse takes in revolt, and which would otherwise put in jeopardy my control over him, and bring my intelligent will into subordination to the enormous physical strength of an unintelligent brute.

I do not believe that the animal is influenced by sharp physical pain in any such degree as a man is, who by his education is always more delicate physically, and morally more fearful than the animal, who has no dread whatever of death. It is, therefore, not by inflicting physical pain that the man dominates the brute; but rather by the skillful use of the sensations which the man is able to impose. Whenever pain becomes the custom, the animal no longer heeds it. But agreeable sensations are retained in memory, and so dispose the animal to obey for the sake of the caresses and rewards.

I have already explained that the purpose of the flexions is to obtain equal contact of the bars upon the bit by the effect of the two legs used equally. Evidently, if the legs do not act equally, the contact of the bit will also be unsymmetrical. So much the more, then, must the vastly more powerful spurs be used with precise equality if the animal is to be kept straight and equal in all his steps and gaits.

It is for this reason most important that the teeth of the two rowels be equally sharp or dull, and that the spurs be set immovably at the same height; otherwise the attack will occur sooner, or at a different place, or be more severe, on one side than the other. I hold my own spurs in place by having a small piece of leather at the top of the heel, on which the spur rests, and a very short strap which passes in front of the heel below the boot. But the best method is to follow the advice of Fillis and to have box spurs set permanently in the boots. These cannot be displaced and will always act equally. A rider is said to "apply the spurs" when he brings them against the horse's flanks and holds them there. Oftentimes during the horse's education, the rider needs to bring back the animal's attention, which has been distracted by some sight or sound, or has simply lapsed. This moral state of the animal should never be tolerated, lest the horse come to think that he can get away from the rider's control at his own will or because of what he sees and hears. It is essential that the man shall be master of the animal, always and in every circumstance. To apply the two spurs at the slightest distraction is highly efficient, provided their use is moderate and progressive. The legs should be closed first, and the spurs applied without shock, as the legs alone prove insufficient.

A great many poets and other writers speak of riders who "bury their spurs in their horse's flanks," and thereby start them off like lightning. But the fact is that to bury the two spurs brusquely is precisely the best way to stop a horse running at full speed. The prick of the spurs makes him kick out with the hind legs, which, getting no support from the air, can no longer drive the body forward. The horse ought to bear the touch of the spurs as calmly as he bears the pressure of the legs. It is the repetition of the contact that produces the effect, not the single brusque application.

Burying the spurs has nevertheless its place. Certain horses are thoroughly vicious by nature, or through restiveness or laziness are always trying to escape from the rider's control. With such animals, the man must, from the beginning, assert his superiority with intelligent force. It is not, in such cases, a question of training or education. It is a question of taming, yet without creating fear by excessive punishment. The rider must be positive, strict, and severe; but always reasonable and calm.

The result of burying the spurs in the horse's flanks and holding them there is commonly to inhibit the action of the great pectoralis muscles, and thus to prevent the forward propulsion of the body, while at the same time punishing the creature for an act of restiveness. The horse, therefore, finding himself unable to use his members in rebellion, cannot but feel the rider's mastership. But if the horse does not already understand the effect of legs and spurs, surprise may throw him into disorder. Moreover, the sharpness of the spurs, the strength and temperament and training of the horse, and its native stubbornness, all need to be considered by the rider before he buries his spurs in its flanks.

A rider is said to "tickle with the spurs" when he uses these instruments inopportunely and without reason. Certain riders like to exhibit an ill-founded pretense of knowing how to ride, and render their mounts impatient or frantic by continued tickling. Others, who have no accuracy of seat, let their legs flop back and forth with the movement of the horse. Happily for the latter sort, the horse that supports such treatment is too old or lymphatic to mind anything. Otherwise, with an energetic animal, there would shortly follow a divorce by mutual consent. Still a third sort of rider is the one who has so little confidence in his seat or himself that, when occasion comes, he is afraid to use his spurs with justice and energy. He tickles because he has not the faith to use the persuaders firmly.

In short, the man who tickles with his spurs is like the man who teases his friends. The one makes himself an annoyance, and commonly finds his retribution in lack of comrades and true friends. The other is likely to make, of a good horse, either a nervous and excited animal, or else a poor, lazy, confused victim and slave. Spurs on the wrong heels are like matches, knives, and firearms in the hands of children.

On the other hand, certain horses are " ticklish to the spurs." That is to say, they will not accept the contact without showing dislike or fear. Some horses make continual movements of the tail, or turn the head to look at the rider's leg. Some stop; or, if standing, half rear and half back. Some put back their ears, and roar or growl. Some grind their teeth. Some urinate nervously, in small and repeated jets.

Mares are especially liable to this fault. The cause is usually a too great sensibility of the hairs of the flanks and of the panniculus carnosus. The cure is to ride for a time without spurs and with the legs against the flanks. This is followed by spurs with the teeth filed dull and encased in leather, until the horse becomes progressively accustomed to the ordinary sort. The same treatment can be used for horses that have been made ticklish by improper spurring. A few cases, apparently cured, afterwards relapse. Some animals are quite incurable.

In sum, then, the spurs, properly used, are our most powerful means for obtaining, with the help of the bridle, a position of the animal in which all defense, restiveness, disobedience, or signs of fear become impossible. We do not, indeed, alter the horse's moral state; but we force it to assume a position in which it cannot use its members for the acts which correspond.

On the other hand, the spurs are a dangerous tool when used by a rider who employs them without moderation, delicacy, propriety, and discretion, like a monkey playing with a razor. Nothing is more ridiculous than to see either a man or a woman rider, wearing spurs as an ornament of fashion, with the legs so extended as to bring the heels close to the horse's shoulders. It is easy, in such a case, to understand the sarcasm of a certain master: "It would be better for such a rider to buckle his spurs to his own elbows, and use them against his own flanks." Since, then, the spurs are the most powerful means recognized by equitation, their employment demands moderation, intelligence, experience, justness, exactness, propriety, accuracy, equality, precision, and faith, as moral qualifications, and, as physical basis, that sine qua non, the accurate seat, without which the other qualities are of no avail. In fact, the rider needs as much equestrian tact in his heels as in the hands and fingers which manipulate the reins. The difference is that a mistake made with the hands is usually, in large measure, reparable; but an error committed with the heels will occasion disorder or revolt that is not only dangerous at the moment but may make upon the animal a moral impression that is unforgotten and may be forever irreparable.

I have already explained that the effects of the rider's legs on the horse's flanks are indirect. The muscles of propulsion are overlaid by the panniculus carnosus. On this, the pressure of the legs acts directly; but only by education is the effect of this pressure passed on to the pectoralis magnus. But the function of the panniculus carnosus is to contract at the touch of any foreign or strange object, such as an insect or a twig. The young horse, therefore, when mounted for the first time, reacts to the contact of the rider's legs as to any other annoyance. If he is uncommonly excitable, he simply raises a hind leg and makes ready to kick. Only by the process of education does the horse learn to support the contact of the rider's legs calmly and without impatience.

The first effect of the contact is, therefore, to make the horse raise one or both hind legs. But, by our training, we obtain instead the forward movement, the front leg gaining ground on the side of the pressure. After the first step, comes the second, and then the trot and gallop, all associated with a more or less complex system of signs, based on pressures of the rider's legs. This is sufficient for ordinary riding. But when the horse revolts, no matter what the occasion for his disobedience or disorder, we employ the spurs to reenforce the effects of the legs.

What, then, can the spurs do? Without cooperation of the hand, nothing. But the two, hand and spurs, acting together, constrain the animal to a position of equilibium, in which all his bodily forces are assembled under a center of gravity, in such wise that the horse cannot displace this collection of its powers without the rider's permission and intelligent direction. For in order to displace its body, in case of revolt, the horse would have to use its muscles in a way impossible for it by the law of its nature. These powerful effects of the spurs are, therefore, neither brutal, nor abrupt, nor provocative. Their action is entirely mechanical, and therefore rationally calming and pacifying.

In other words, the spurs, as they affect an animal in a state of moral disorder, act like oil poured upon the waters of a turbulent sea. The cause of the turbulence remains; but the local effect is destroyed. So with the horse: its emotions are the same, but it cannot act them out. Its physical strength is locked, like an insane creature in a strait-jacket.

The progress of the animal's education to the effects of the spurs is, therefore, the same, in general, as its training to the effects of the legs, except that it needs even more patience and kindness. In case the horse has previously been maltreated with the spurs, the training is the same, but still more kind and patient.

For this education, every esquire needs three sets of spurs. The first degree is without rowels, the end of the branches being rounded. The second degree has rowels without teeth. A penny or a ten-cent piece answers nicely. The third degree has the teeth short and dull. If when these rowels are pinched between thumb and finger of the gloved hand, the teeth prick through the glove, they are a little too sharp. The length of the branch depends on the length of the rider's legs and on the width of the horse's flanks, the longer-legged man needing the longer spurs. Only experience determines just what the proper length shall be.

The trainer, equipped with spurs of the first degree, mounts the horse, and stops him well away from the wall, if the work is done in a manege, in order that the horse may not try to rub the rider's leg against the barrier or injure itself by kicking. He then closes his legs with all his might, pressing the horse's flanks near the girths, while the reins, held in the left hand, make their effect. The toes are now turned outward, and the right spur is brought close to the right flank, within perhaps a tenth of an inch. The rider soothes the horse with his voice, and as soon as the animal is perfectly calm, he applies the spur progressively - very progressively - and holds it against the flank, meanwhile caressing the right side of the animal with the right hand, and encouraging him with the voice. Be generous with this, not economical. Put your heart into your voice, and your horse will understand your meaning. Very well! The spur has remained a moment. Begin again with further progression. The horse has felt the iron of your spur, and look at his ears! Ah! Ah! They are immobile. He thinks. He thinks something new, a new sensation. Take care, take care, young esquire. Voice! Voice! You have it again; I see it in your face. You smile. Now encourage with the voice; put your heart in it. Caress with the right hand the nearest possible to the spot where the spur has made contact.

Change now the reins to the right hand, and begin the same progression with the left spur, with the same generosity and the same care. You have it on the left as well as on the right. Now ride your horse at a walk, or even at a trot, for distraction and exercise for the animal, and rest for your own legs.

Stop again near the center of the ring. Apply the right spur — very progressively. Encourage with your voice. Be careful now, for, if your horse is young and you are a novice, neither of you yet knows quite where you are going. You have contact with the right spur. Hold it and come - come - with the left. Voice! Voice! You have contact on both sides. Caress with the right hand, neck, sides, croup. Keep the same pressure with the legs, but take away the spurs. Now voice, caresses. Bring both spurs at once into contact. It is the critical moment. But you have it! Then release the contact progressively, cease the pressure of the legs, dismount, open the curb chain, and send your pupil to the stable. In the afternoon, repeat the same lesson three or four times.

When the horse supports the contact standing still, pass to the next demand. From standing, the two rowels in contact, try, by leaning the body forward in the saddle, to make the horse move forward. After a few steps, lean backward and bring him to a stop. Again forward. And again stop. Rest your legs and caress generously. Repeat again and again. Let everything be always calm and quiet, without disorder, and without anxiety on the part of the horse.

Next, take the pupil at a walk near the wall. As he walks quietly, begin the pressure of the legs, and add progressively the contact of the spurs. Hold for a few steps, and then release, but continue the pressure of the legs. Again make contact with the spurs; hold it as before for a few steps; then cease the touch of the spurs, but continue the grip of the legs. Once more touch and release. Finally, make contact with the spurs, lean back, finger the reins, stop the horse, caress again and again, remove the spurs, ease the grip of the legs, dismount, and send the pupil to the stable.

There should be six such lessons at the walk, the legs pressing constantly, but the spurs making and breaking contact every few steps. After six lessons at the walk, give six lessons at the slow trot.

Now that the horse supports the spurs at both walk and trot, it is time to begin the attacks. If the preliminary work has been well mastered, the next step will be easy.

The horse is standing. The rider, by means of his legs, makes the contact with the bit, the horse upon the hand and light. The rider shuts his hand and holds his fingers closed. As soon as the legs are fixed, their pressure begins. The spurs then make contact; and at the same time, the fingers open. Then come: fixity of hand - fixity of legs- the horse at the walk - caresses - fixity of hand - fingering - fixity of legs - caresses. The horse is walking: make contact with the spurs - shut your fingers - lean back - the horse stops. Forward again: open your fingers - spur - lean forward stop. After this work is thoroughly understood, the same series is run through, from walk to trot, from trot to walk, from walk to stop, from stop to walk, from walk to trot, and so on.

Progress thus far has accustomed the horse to the touch of the spurs, and convinced him that nothing will hurt and that there is nothing to fear. We now complete the attacks. The horse is standing. The rider opposes with his hand and finds contact with the mouth. The legs are closed, the spurs near the girths. Then follows a delicate and repeated contact and release of the spurs, at the tempo of an eighth-note. This continues until, by the flexion of the lower jaw and the alto-axoid joint, the bit loses contact with the bars, though the rider's hand does not move. As soon as this flexion of the mouth and head is obtained, the attack of the spurs ceases. The bits again make contact; the attack repeats as before.

In other words, your hand makes five degrees of effect, and your attack with the spurs makes also five degrees. Your two means are, therefore, equal. The center of gravity comes exactly in the middle of your seat and perpendicularly below your spinal column. There is established an equilibrium of all forces. Your horse is in the state of assemblage. But if the center of gravity is under your spine, while the horse is standing still, it is because your body, from head to coccyx, is perpendicular. If, now, that perpendicular is carried forward, the center of gravity also shifts forward. The equilibrium becomes unstable. The tendency is to fall forward. The front legs advance to prevent the fall, attract to their aid the hind limbs, and the walk or trot begins. Then, if walking or trotting, the equilibrium becomes disturbed, fixity of the hand and a light attack of the spurs will reestablish it, while fingering on the reins will maintain it.

When the horse has so far advanced in its education as to understand well the attack of spurs of the first degree, the work is exactly repeated with spurs of the second degree. Following these, spurs of the the third degree will still further augment the effects of the legs, without affecting the pupil's equanimity.

Finally, to student and novice, I give this advice. As you carry on your progressive work with the attacks, certain imbeciles - stable boys, ridingmasters, the ignorant public - will want to know what you are about, and whether you are afraid of your horse. Do not care. Let them criticize: it is very easy. But if you find one of these expert hunters or polo-players who think they have a seat, get them to try the work that you have been doing, keeping their seats while applying and holding their spurs exactly, precisely, justly, equally, and accurately. Then, if they make the attempt, observe them for your amusement!