Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Knights, Cowboys, and Spurs

Imagine it’s 1874 and you’re standing outside the mercantile looking through the front window. You hear the slow measured stride of boot heels against the board walk accompanied by the soft chink of spurs. Horses and wagons passing in the street can be ignored, but that subtle metallic rustle draws your attention. The sound quietly announces the approach of a man of importance, a man with confidence. You can’t help but turn your head.
A cowboy’s spurs were used not only to give gait cues to his horse or help him stay on the back of a bucking horse, they eased the loneliness as he moved about a solitary camp. When he walked around town they gave him a sense of worth which has carried forward through time from the days of medieval knights.
In my new novel, A Tarnished Knight, the first thing the heroine notices about Ryder MacKenzie’s are his spurs, in particular, the buttons which had been forged in the shape of small hearts.
Early western spurs had two buttons at the front of the u-shaped heel band. The spur leather or strap, which was cut to fit over the curve of the wearer’s instep, attached to the button at the front of the heel band. This strap came in two pieces, the long piece, or tongue, and the short piece with the buckle. On the tongue side of the strap where it connected to the button on the outside of the foot, there was often a decorative metal concho or rosette. The buckle was worn on the inside of the foot to prevent it from catching on brush. Spur leathers varied in width and were plain or stamped with intricate designs.
The second strap, or tie down strap, attached to the second button and went under the arch of the boot just in front of the heel. Sometimes heel chains would be permanently attached to the spur and would take the place of this second strap. These chains created a soft chinking noise as the cowboy walked. This second strap or chain could also be left off, leaving the spur to be held in place by the upper strap alone.
To add to the noise of the chains, some cowboys attached two small metal pieces called janglers or jingle-bobs, which were shaped like pears or bell clappers, and clinked against the rowels.
At the back center of the heel band was the shank of the spur. The shank of a western spur, usually about two inches long, curved downward. Some allowed the rowel to roll along the ground while the curve of others raised the rowel up. In front of the rowel, on top of the shank was a small, turned up hook or chap guard, which kept the leather from catching in the rowel.
Rowels were usually not more than three inches in diameter, with most two inches or less. Their shape varied from the blunt-tipped, five point star to an eighteen point sunburst.
Cowboys and vaqueros from the Southwest, Texas and California, wore spurs that had larger rowels (in the early days up to 6" and sharp), than the Northern cowboy, whose spurs were plainer than the more ornate spurs worn in California and the Southwest. Texas style spurs were heavy with the heel band about an inch wide. They were usually plain or lightly engraved. The fancier, more ornate spurs didn’t come into fashion until after the 1880’s.
At the time my story, a good pair of hand-forged spurs would have probably cost my hero ten dollars or more.    


Foster-Harris, William, The Look of the Old West—A Fully Illustrated Guide, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2007

Moulton, Candy, The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West from 1840-1900, Writers Digest Books, 1999

Rollins, Philip Ashton, The Cowboy—His Characteristics, His Equipment, and His Part in the Development of the West, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2007


  1. Kathy, one thing you didn't mention is that the jingle-bobs were generally attached after pay day when a puncher went into town; they announced he had money to spend on the soiled doves et.al. I like nothing better than the sound of spurs on boardwalk. Thanks for an interesting piece

  2. Hi Andrea,
    Thanks for sharing that fun tidbit of info. Writers always know such cool stuff. None of the books I read mentioned it. :( I appreciate your stopping by.

  3. I enjoyed your info about spurs, so fascinating! I'm an ancestor of William Frederick Cody, aka "Buffalo Bill." I would like to someday write a Western novel. I look forward to reading your book, "A Tarnished Knight." It sounds well researched!

  4. That's a new one for me. Size of the spurs...hmmm before I only checked out their feet or hands

  5. The distinctive sound of spurs sounded in my brain as I read you post. Interesting post - thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  6. Hi Susan,
    Thanks for stopping by. That's so cool that you are a relative of Buffalo Bill. Maybe it's in your blood to write a western. LOL! I enjoy doing research so historicals are a good fit for me.

  7. Hi RE Mullins,
    You're too funny. :) Though there have also been references to a cowboy and his gun, ie his shootin' iron. ;)

  8. Hi Ashantay,
    Thanks for stopping and taking the time to leave a comment. I love the sound of spurs too. I was at the county fair one time and heard that sound coming up on my right. I turned, expecting a grown man, and it was a little girl about 3, jeans, boots, spurs and cowboy hat. She was so cute. Her dad said she wanted the spurs so bad they bought them for her and she wears them all the time.

  9. Wow! I loved this blog post! I felt like I was in that old west market square in the midst of the noontime day. The layout and photos really enhance the presentation of your material . I especially like it because I lived in Texas and learned a little about life in the west while I lived there. I love western romances so I'm looking forward to your book coming out! =)

    1. Hi Amy,
      Thanks for stopping. We'll have to touch base sometime about your Texas adventures. :)

  10. What a neat post and interesting description of spurs. I could just see Ryder! :)

    1. Hi Barbara,
      Thanks. I really liked meeting Ryder. He was always so quiet, it took me a while to get to know him.

  11. Good information! The town close to where we are moving you can be sitting in a restaurant or walking down the aisle at the grocery store and hear spurs jingling. It's cow country, and you see cowboys and cowgirls dressed in chaps, long sleeve shirts, scarves wrapped and knotted at their necks, and spurs jingling on boots. Twice a year when going to our property we drive through cattle drives going down the highway. It's a great rural area.

  12. Hi Paty,
    You lead such an interesting life. Not too many people in spurs around here. Lots of pick-up trucks and John Deere caps. The closest I ever got to a cattle drive was when the cows escaped their pasture and we'd have to "round them up" and "drive" them back home.