Tack & Gear

Knight or Cowboy, Spurs Made the Man!

Spur rowels lined up.

It is unlikely that a cowboy will forget his spurs when he’s within roping distance of a steer or a horse.

When the great motion picture, “Covered Wagon,” came to screen, a studio publicity man got the bright idea of having a real old-time cowboy as a guest at the Dallas showing.

The cowpuncher he found was a Panhandle pioneer who had ridden the trail when the trail was fresh. In Dallas, the old fellow was dined and liberally wined, then taken to the theater to see the picture. Now that cowboy had not seen a lot of movies. He got right into the spirit of the thing and traveled along with the forty-niners, leaning forward on the edge of his seat.

Came the scene where the wagon train forded a swollen river. The cow­boy became excited as he watched the movie riders trying to turn the swim­ming herd. The movie heroes wiggled their knees frantically, obviously try­ing to spur their horses underwater and turn them. The old-timer con­tained himself as long as possible, but when he saw them losing the herd, he stood up and shouted, “Forget them spurs, boys. Splash some water in their faces!”

On many ranches today, “them spurs” have been forgotten, even out­lawed. But, it is not likely that any cowboy will forget them. Spurs are too much part and parcel of what makes a man a man, if he’s within roping distance of a steer or a horse. This is nothing new. The knights of old wore spurs as evidence of their high rank. If they were stripped of their knighthood, one of the steps in the process of demotion was for the king’s cook to strike off their spurs with his big knife. As the knight earned his badges of valor — includ­ing spurs — so a cowboy in America’s west is said to have ‘”won his spurs” when he proves himself a capable hand.

Reading clockwise from the easily-recognizable “gal-leg” spur, these ore O.K. spurs, a home-made spur, o spur made from a Model-T axle, a Chihuahua, and a Petmecky spur.

Strangely enough, spurs have changed only in minor ways since the days of the Roman spikes, simple but vicious metal gouges for horses. Only the details of spurs have undergone alteration through the centuries. Basic­ally, the machine-made spurs used to­day are the same as the earliest types of prods invented to goad a horse to action and solve the problem of free­ing hands for action. Originally, the purpose was to have a hand free for offense or defense. For cowboys, the reason for spurs is, of course, to have a hand free for work such as roping. The cowboys did with spurs what they did with everything else they adopted: they made their spurs one way of expressing their individuality. Minor variations on the basic spur are endless, sometimes astounding.

This is easily seen in the collection of spurs displayed at the Panhandle­ Plains Historical Museum at Canyon, Texas. Called the “Cowboy Museum,” this institution has one of the best col­lections of spurs in existence. Included are more than a hundred varieties of rowels, collected and donated prin­cipally by J. Evetts Haley after visits to several spurmakers. Most of the rowels in Haley’s collection came from John Plyska of Midland, Tex., a well­known, early-day spurmaker.

The museum assemblage includes one pair of spurs made all of a piece from the axle of a Model-T Ford. Dave Boland, who made the spurs in 1939, said he used only a hammer, hacksaw, and file. Whether he thought the automobile was here to stay or not, the spurs ace as shiny and good as when they were made.

The uninitiated shudder when they see the Chihuahuas in the museum cases. The pair displayed was taken from the body of a Mexican bandit killed on the TO Ranch in Mexico, according to Charlie Dublin, who gave them to the museum. Chihuahuas were made in one piece with wide heel bands which often were inlaid with silver designs. They have tremendously long spokes on the rowels, but one old-timer said the long-spoked rowels did not hurt a horse as much as smaller ones which sank into the horse’s sides. Haley said it’s all in how a spur is used — any spur can cut unless the rider uses it properly.

The Panhandle museum does not have an example of the spurs made by P. M. Kelly and Sons of El Paso, the famous spur experts. Kelly is probably the last survivor of the top-notch spur makers of the early West.

Most cowboys in the old days bought themselves a pair of spurs at the blacksmith’s or the general store the first time they could. They wore them until they lost a piece from the pair.

It is unlikely that a cowboy will forget his spurs when he's within roping distance of a steer or a horse.
Some of the more than o hundred types of rowels found in the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum’s spur collection.

Joe Russell, shop foreman for the Crockett Spur Company of Boulder, Colo., which has been in business al­most half a century, said they get a lot of orders for one spur — to replace a worn-out one, or one for which a rowel or other part has been lost.

“One spur, on the left foot, was all a lot of riders ever wore,” one old­ timer said. “One spur will get a horse moving, and an awkward rider never scratched himself getting on and off a horse fast with the one spur.”

Rodeos today bar the use of locked spurs, and Haley said most cowpunch­ers pride themselves now as in the past on never locking their spurs. It’s as bad as pullin’ leather, he thinks. But another man experienced on the west Texas range said it was handy at times to take a bit of rawhide and lock spurs for cutting.

“A fast pony can turn right from under a man,” he said, “and the best way to get the work done and stay with a pony is-to tie those spurs. Then you catch ’em in the cinch and you’re aboard ’til you’ re through with your work.”

Did you actually have to use spurs, or would a quirt do as well? Working cowboys seem to think it all depends on what kind of riding you’re doing, and what horse you’re riding.

“If you’re working cattle, you need spurs,” one said. “The’re the best way to get quick bursts of speed out of a hard-worked ranch horse.”

Not so, scoffs another. A good cow pony knows more about what he’s do­ing than the rider does. Spurs are only confusing and maddening to a well-trained horse.

In brush country, spurs are no good, either, according to a South Texas cowpuncher. A horse that’s getting nicked from all sides by mesquite barbs wouldn’t even feel spurs. A quirt is the solution there.

Most cowboys did not go in for jinglebobs, the pear-shaped danglers that made music when the cowboy walked. In the southwest, these were called “bells,” and were used toward the end of the Civil War. Some of the boys admired the occasional “gal­-leg” spurs they saw. These are spurs with shanks shaped like a girl’s leg, but most of the cowboys got a good, working pair of spurs with small rowels. Sawtooth rowels were and still are most popular. Haley said the “gal-leg” spur originated in Odessa in the 1890’s, and variations on this idea are still produced by spurmakers such as Crockett.

A man who rode herd on a ranch for years told about the time he de­cided he was big enough to wear spurs. In fact, he thought he needed spurs.

His dad had bought a new pair of spurs with long shanks. The cowboy, then a lad of 13, was going out to help one of the seasoned ranch men round up a herd of cattle. He said he thought about it, since his dad was not at home, and decided he would just try out those new spurs. He buckled them on, then went out and got on the old, worn-out nag he rode, and started down the lane to meet the older man. He had no more than climbed into the saddle than the long shanks forced the spurs into the horse’s sides.

Among examples of rowel voriotion is o round metal “blank,” the disk from which the rowel pattern would be cut.

“Old Nellie gave a mighty start, right straight up, then she crow­hopped, stiff-legged and high, all the way down the lane where that man was waitin’ for me. Nellie stopped right in front of him, and I thought he’d fall off his horse laughing at me.”

“You don’t need them spurs,” he gasped.

“I may not need ’em, but I’m a’goin’ to wear ’em,” the boy insisted.

He said he had the devil’s own time trying to keep his toes turned in all during his work, so the rowels would not rile old Nellie again. He got so tired of holding his feet in that position that he found a minute to sneak a hand down and unbuckle one of the spurs, take it off and put it in his pocket. Then he waited until there was another moment and he was sneaking around to undo the other one. He did not want to admit he was wrong, but the old hand saw him and said, “See you learned something to­day, boy,” and they finished their chore.

What he learned was that spurs were made for a purpose, to use under given conditions and for given results, and that they are not always necessary or even desirable. A slick-heeled rider can do a lot better sometimes than one with gut-hooks.

Use of spurs has dwindled, just as the use of the horse has, but anthropologists say the importance of a given thing in a society can be judged by adoption of that thing into the language. If that is true, then spurs can be considered important in America, where we speak of “spurring” some­one on to greater heights, of a “spur” of land, of a “spur” line of a railroad, of doing something in great haste on the “spur” of the moment.

But spurmakers got a blow and lost a big market when the United States cavalry dismounted and became me­chanized during World War II. Until that time, members of the cavalry knew that when they reached the rank of lieutenant they would win the privilege of wearing spurs on their boots. That’s given by some as an ad­ditional use for spurs — to keep the lieutenants’ feet from sliding off their desks!

This article was originally published in the October 1955 issue of Western Horseman

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