Museum’s spur collection displays intricate details, craftsmanship
When Texans think of spurs, they think of cowboys, but the riding devices used to maneuver horses have been part of equestrian cultures across the globe for centuries.
Early spurs, believed to have been used by the Roman Legions of Julius Caesar, have been unearthed in England, according to cowboyshowcase.com. And the British Museum has iron examples, some with silver inlay, dating from the 11th to 13th centuries. The Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan wore similar prick spurs around the year 1200, according to the online resource.
Fancy Western spurs on display, as in The Bryan Museum in Galveston, often are more for show than application. But these intricate tools are synonymous with cowboys and Western wear and each pair is a work of art.
Early spurs were considered essential in battles when warriors mounted their horses and needed their hands to hold weapons, according to historians. It made sense for riders to use their legs and heels to goad their horses and encourage them to move. Those spurs were probably forked sticks attached to the riders’ feet, historians say. Later, the early metal spurs were secured with leather straps to the heel of a boot.
When pressure is applied to a horse’s barrel, it’s a signal to move. Even a subtle or slight amount of pressure can be transmitted to the horse and it will respond. So the ornate and mean-looking spindles aren’t really necessary. Short, dull metal barbs will usually get the animal to react appropriately.
Oilman and historian J.P. Bryan owns about 850 pairs of spurs, although only a fraction is on display at The Bryan Museum, which he founded to present a chronological history of Texas and the American West.
Bryan finds spurs to be an interesting art form, especially the unique rowels, which are the revolving disks at the end of the spur.
“Look carefully at the rowel — they are the most interesting part,” Bryan said. These spikes are connected to the spurs with shanks in designs of legs, ducks, snakes or arrows. The spikes often are adorned with coins or stars.
“You learn to identify the spurs by the people who created them,” Bryan said.
Some are designed with large, frighteningly spiky rowels, ornate inlaid coiled snake shanks, and decorated with buffalo heads, crescent moons, longhorns and people’s names. There’s a commemorative spur set for the Texas Sesquicentennial celebration in 1986.
Bryan points to several pairs designed by prisoners at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City. The prisoners were given the opportunity in the early 20th century to design and create spurs while incarcerated. Today, those spurs are very collectible. Thomas J. Tynan, prison warden at the time, gave inmates at his facility a purpose through work projects and he encouraged them to make crafts they enjoyed, according to historians.
“Some of these are like jewelry,” Bryan said, noting they were intended to be ornamental and for show.
Some of the museum’s collection include cowboy spurs by J.R. McChesney of Oklahoma; Oscar Crockett of Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado; and Texan Joe Bianchi, a Victoria blacksmith who used Mexican coins on the rowels.