Why Did Cowboys Wear Spurs?

by Courtney Palmbush

The spur is a piece of riding equipment originating in the first millennium, B.C. Through the ages, spurs were used by riders to signal commands to their horses; they eventually came into use by the American cowboy via Mexico, where they had been brought over by the Spanish conquistadors. Spurs were especially useful to cowboys to maintain control over their horses because they could not use reigns when performing duties that required them to use their hands and upper bodies.

Origins of Spurs

Spurs appear to have been first used by the Celts of the La Tene period, named for a region in Switzerland where Celtic culture flourished in the latter half of the first millennium, B.C. The writings of Xenophon indicate that the ancient Greeks used spurs. Excavations in England have uncovered spurs believed to belong to the Roman Legions of Julius Caesar. Spurs were also used during the conquests and wars of the Middle Ages so soldiers could use their upper bodies for combat. During this period, they became a status symbol associated with knighthood.

Purpose of Spurs

A spur can be a small spike of metal or a spiked wheel, attached to the back of a boot for the purpose of guiding a horse, not forcing it to perform. A rider may apply spurs to let a horse know it should increase its speed. Spurs are intended for use only when a horse fails to respond to leg pressure cues. When this happens, riders use spurs combined with leg pressure to reinforce cues.

Conquest of Mexico

The cowboy and his equipment can be traced back to the Spanish invasion and conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortes in 1519. The descendants of the Spanish colonizers settled and developed estates, or ranches called haciendas, where they raised longhorn cattle. In time these men crossed the Rio Grande -- earlier known as the Rio Bravo -- and entered Texas, bringing their industry with them. The "stockman" lifestyle thus spread from Texas to other western states, particularly California. The operations north of Mexico were generally smaller, and the men who ran them were called rancheros. They employed men to handle their range stock, and these men were called vaqueros, or cowboys.

Tending Wild Horses

Wild horses proliferated in the West, particularly when Mexican cattlemen abandoned their holdings -- including their ungelded horses -- upon Texas' independence in 1836. In addition to tending herds of cattle, one of the jobs of the cowboy was to "break," or domesticate, these wild horses, and to this end, spurs were an important training aid. Also, when cowboys were overseeing vast numbers of cattle, they frequently needed to use their upper bodies and arms to perform various tasks and consequently were unable to use reigns. Thus, spurs were the primary means for signaling directions to the horse.

Parts of a Cowboy Spur

The spurs used by cowboys were primarily of three types: the Mexican spur, the California or buckaroo spur and the Texas or cowboy spur. The spur is composed of a heel band with buttons that can be either stationary or swinging; a shank, straight or curved, and with or without a chap guard; and a rowel, that is, a small wheel of various types, such as "toothed," "6-Point Spoke," "5-Point Star" and "Sawtooth."

About the Author

Courtney Palmbush has been writing for twenty years, editing for five years, has been published in USA Today and Middlebury Magazine. She attended Middlebury College where she graduated summa cum laude with a double degree in English and Film Studies, and has recently completed an M.A. in Medieval religion and literature from Yale Divinity School.

Photo Credits

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/abbyladybug/480971094/