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Horsemanship - The Auxiliary Aids

( Originally Published 1962 )

THE FUNCTION OF THE AUXILIARY AIDS-CURB, SPURS, WHIP, AND martingale is to reinforce the action of the three main aids. They can also be instruments of punishment. For this reason alone they should never be used by beginners or by persons of uncertain temperament. When correctly applied they are of great value; in the wrong hands they will do more harm than good.

Their use demands not only perfect physical equilibrium and co-ordination but also a certain amount of common sense and a well-controlled temper. A spur may accidentally be applied because the rider momentarily loses his balance or for any reason makes a false move. But it is considerably worse when the spurs are used at the wrong time merely because the rider loses his temper or his head. It is the worst kind of horsemanship to punish a horse with spurs or whip when he refuses to respond because he is afraid or fails to understand.

Spurs and sharp curbs should not be used by inexperienced riders. Any horse will submit to torment and abuse for just so long before he rebels.


Some tack rooms resemble museums of instruments of torture dating from the Middle Ages. They display with pride the most incredible contraptions for inflicting pain—bits with sharp steel prods and tongue grips; curbs that with the slightest pull on the reins will draw blood; innocent-looking contraptions, as well as hair-raising ones, that in the hands of the ignorant will mutilate the horse's mouth. The sad part is that these atrocities are not kept merely as curiosities. Some of them are actually in daily use, which is "justified" by the explanation that they make riding safe for beginners. Everything is being done to encourage riding without taking the trouble to give proper instruction. Other fantastic types of curbs are used to train horses in artificial gaits, which ought to be a thing of the past anyway.

There are two kinds of standard bridling that centuries of experience have proved to be the best as well as the most humane—the snaffle used alone, and two bits, snaffle and a mild curb, used together.

The curb must never be used alone. The principal ad-vantage of the two bits is that they will encourage chewing, helping to avoid the dead mouth that makes the horse heavy in the hand and awkward to handle. The chewing caused by the two bits rolling together results in a flexing of the neck, which is the key to the easy handling and balancing of the horse.

The use of the curb to stop a horse from running away is far from reliable, and is also dangerous. Correctly used, the snaffle and curb together will prevent the horse from getting started, by keeping his head down and his neck flexed. Violently applied after he gets into his stride they will frequently make matters worse because of the pain inflicted by the sharp curb.

The curb reins must always be handled with the utmost care and adjusted constantly to prevent them from becoming too tight. One rides with the snaffle and plays gently with the curb, to keep both bits alive.

The closest attention must be given to the fitting of the curb. Its bit should be placed below the snaffle in the horse's mouth in such a way that it does not touch the teeth. The chain will pass beneath the snaffle bit, so that it does not hinder the freedom of this bit. It must be twisted carefully until it is perfectly flat, and be long enough to allow the arms of the curb to form an angle of 45 degrees with the horse's lips when the reins are tightened gently. The shorter the chain is and the lower in the horse's mouth the bit is placed the more severe the effect of the curb will become.

It must be remembered that a curb can be adjusted in such a way that it will break the horse's jaw, and that horrible lacerations of the inside of his mouth may result from rough handling of the reins.


The use of the spurs is as generally misunderstood as is the correct function of the curb—hence the many fantastic forms of this very important auxiliary aid. They run all the way from monstrosities weighing a pound each, with rowels two inches in diameter and teeth that can penetrate the hide of an elephant, to the dummy spur without rowels that are mostly for decoration. The only sensible and practical spur is the standard English hunting spur with small sharp pointed rowels and necks corresponding to the reach of the rider's leg.

The object of the spur is to enforce the quick response of the horse to the boots and to make the work with the boots less strenuous and more effective.

In order to accomplish this purpose the spurs must not be applied so clumsily and roughly that they frighten the horse. On the other hand, they must be used with sufficient determination to inspire respect. Ordinarily the horse will be aware of the spurs, even if they do not touch him, and will consequently obey the boots more willingly.

Some horses will resist the spurs by kicking or leaning against them. The best way to handle this problem depends on the rider's ability and the horse's temperament. The safe way is always to use patience, to work the spurs in gradually and gently until they are accepted. A good horseman who understands his horse and the use of the spurs can, in such cases, get results by one or two quick, sharp stabs. Some horses react sluggishly and indifferently both to boots and spurs. The spurs applied firmly and vigorously will usually soon overcome this tendency. They must, of course, never be used in a fit of temper. Other horses are so afraid of the spurs that they will lose their heads completely at the mere suspicion of their presence. Such horses are usually also afraid of the boots and are dangerous to the inexperienced rider. This type of horse can be cured, too, without much difficulty, but only by using patience. A horse must learn to accept the spurs as confidently as he obeys the boots.

As soon as the horse becomes aware of the presence of the spurs they rarely need to be applied. On less sensitive horses, however, their action should be more pronounced. The main rule for their regular use is that they should ruffle the hair on the horse's flanks without actually touching the skin. The points of a good horseman's spurs are as sensitive as his finger tips.

The importance of the spurs is especially clear in school riding and under conditions when the horse's endurance is taxed to the utmost. They will assist the boots in encouraging the horse's swinging suppleness of action and in balancing him properly. It is the rider's task to force the horse to work in the most economical and effort-saving manner. Spurs used properly on a tired horse can get quite a few extra miles out of him not only because they urge him to go on but principally because they stimulate him to carry on more actively with his hind legs and back.

Spurs are extremely delicate instruments and must be used only as a stimulant. When their potential threat is not sufficient to enforce obedience and action they must make themselves felt, but their effect on the horse must never pass the borderline between inspiring respect and fear. If the necessity to use them for punishment arises they must be used without restraint, but should never be used for this purpose by the inexperienced rider who does not know how to diagnose the trouble before he applies the remedy. To him it makes no difference whether the horse is afraid, playful, balky, or vicious. He will use the same medicine in all cases.


As with the spurs, the raison d'etre of the whip is to enforce respect for and obedience to the main aids.

It is carried in the right hand in a full grip that does not disturb the hold on the reins. For animating purposes it should be used only on the shoulder, which it can reach easily by a slight twist of the wrist. If it must be used for punishment the reins are taken in the left hand and the whip applied without restraint behind the boot.

Many horses are afraid of the whip and beginners especially should handle it with care. It may bring disastrous results when waved about too much, and for this reason it must be kept still and close in when not in use.

The student should be taught the use of the whip at an early stage, and from then on should always carry one.


The purpose of the martingale is to prevent the horse from carrying or throwing his head too high.

There are two kinds of martingales—the standing and the running. With the standing martingale the horse's head is tied down in such a way that it cannot be carried above a certain position. There is no way to adjust it while riding. It is an effective auxiliary in polo, to prevent the horse from throwing his head up and getting out of control as a result of the rough handling of the reins.

For all other forms of riding the running martingale is preferable. It should be used in connection with a snaffle and two pairs of reins. One pair is free and the other runs through the rings of the martingale, is carried in the hand, and, in principle, applied as the curb rein. While the rings of the running martingale are fixed, the severity of its action can be adjusted by regulating the pull on the reins.

The running martingale is easier on the horse and consequently safer than the curb for the inexperienced horseman.

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