Rock and rowel

Spurs, in all shapes and sizes, have long been essential to Western horsemen.

American Cowboy Picture

Spurs have been part of a cowboy’s gear from the beginning, with a history that dates to the early 11th century. The Roman legions of Julius Caesar used spurs, mostly made of bronze, to direct their horses with their legs so that their hands would be free to fight.

Spurs have since been fashioned in numerous shapes and sizes, their design constantly evolving to meet new styles and functions. Originally consisting of a single sharp protrusion, spurs now feature a revolving rowel design, believed to have originated in France. Rowels quickly became popular as they did not pierce a horse’s sides yet still got the animal’s attention. Flashy spurs with larger rowels became fashionable in Spain and are still wildly used in Mexico and South America.

O.K. spurs (pictured, circa 1890), manufactured by the August Buermann Company of Newark, N.J., were frequently found in cow camps in the Western United States in the late 19th century. First patented in 1886, O.K. spurs came in several styles, with curved or raised shanks and both two- and four-button models. They fell out of favor and lost much of their popularity in the early 1900s, after custom spur makers made inroads with their high-quality work.

Though styles and shapes are numerous, most modern spurs are small and dulled, as to meet with animal welfare guidelines. And they all serve the original purpose of years past—to help the rider guide his horse. Shanks vary in shape, angle, and length, and rowels range in point denominations from eight to 18.

Fancier spurs that feature more silver and complicated designs are most often worn at horse shows, while the simpler, more functional models are used on the ranch or in the arena. Bill Pickett, for instance, born in Texas in 1867 and the father of steer wrestling, used spurs with small revolving rowels, a design that allowed him more maneuverability to dig in his heels and battle steers once off his horse.

Today, most professional cowboys enlist the services of local spur companies, which are usually run by sole proprietors and promoted by word-of-mouth.

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