November 03, 2008
YOU CAN TELL A LOT ABOUT A COWBOY BY HIS SPURS
By Jeanne Marie Leach
Anyone can spot a true American cowboy a mile away, but did you know a cowboy’s gear becomes as personal as anyone else’s clothing style? They choose their type of boots, hats, shirts and jeans that best reflects who they are. Their list of gear can go on indefinitely. Much of their gear, clothing, horses, and the things they do as a cowboy are regional and will change depending on where he comes from.
I’d like to focus in on one small piece of the American cowboy’s gear – the spur. This comes from the Spanish word la espuela, and is mostly used to urge a horse onward and to keep him alert. Anyone who has read a western novel or has watched a western movie or TV show has seen spurs on cowboys, but did you know that the earliest spurs were believed to have been used by the Roman Legions of Julius Caesar? They developed them as a way to steer their horses with their legs in order to leave their hands free to fight.
During the Renaissance period, spurs and the type of metal from which they were made marked the rider’s rank. This is where we get the expression ‘to earn your spurs.’ Today they are standard cowboy equipment, and the design varies widely depending upon the region and the wearer.
Spurs are roweled, which is a revolving disk with sharp marginal points at the end of the spur. The influence of ornate early Spanish design is still evident today. Spur design was also influenced by the wearing of chaps. Where long chaps are worn, as in the Northwest, a dropped heel pattern and a chap guard are important. The chap guard includes a curved, blunt projection on the shank just behind the heel which keeps the chap clear of the rowel. In areas where long chaps are not needed, a straight shank without a chap guard can be worn.
The regulation spur worn in the United States cavalry in 1882 was made of solid brass, slightly curved with a small rowel, black straps, and brass buckle, the same type that was popular during the Civil War. Early cavalry officers were required to wear boots and spurs. They had a duty version, a dress version that was lighter, and an extremely light dance spur for social functions.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries some prisons had well equipped machine shops and allowed prisoners to use them. Prisoners had a lot of time to learn to forge and engrave their work. Canon City, Colorado, Walla Walla, Washington, and Huntsville, Texas are a few of the prisons that made spurs.
A person can tell a lot about a cowboy by the spurs he wears. They can be made of the most basic metals or can be engraved or personalized. While sterling or fine silver is used to make today’s spurs, nineteenth century spurs were built using coin silver, a much harder metal. Taking into account the harder silver and the more primitive tools of the time, the engraving on those early spurs bear engraving much coarser and less detailed than today’s work.