AskDefine | Define rowel

Dictionary Definition

rowel n : a small spiked wheel at the end of a spur [also: rowelling, rowelled]

User Contributed Dictionary



Old French roel, from late Latin rotella, diminutive of Latin rota ‘wheel’.



  1. The small spiked wheel on the end of a spur.
    • 1819, The deep and sharp rowels with which Ivanhoe’s heels were now armed, began to make the worthy Prior repent of his courtesy — Walter Scott, Ivanhoe
    • 1936, The dry desert of my native land, her men grey and gaunt, their spines twisted, their feet shod with rowel and spur. — Henry Miller, Black Spring
    • 1973, The Lone Ranger will storm in at the head of a posse, rowels tearing blood from the stallion’s white hide, to find his young friend, innocent Dan, swinging from a tree limb by a broken neck. — Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
    • 1992, He nodded at the Americans. Buena suerte, he said. He put the long rowels of his spurs to the horse and they moved on. — Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses


  1. To use a rowel on something, especially to drain fluid.

Extensive Definition

The parts of a spur include:
  • The yoke, branch, or heel band, which wraps around the heel of the boot.
  • The shank or neck, which extends from the back of the heel band and is the area that usually touches the horse
  • The rowel, seen on some spurs, a small revolving wheel or disk with radiating points at the end attached to the shank.
Spurs are usually held on by a leather or leather-like strap, called a spur strap, that goes over the arch of the foot and under the sole in front of the boot heel. Some western designs have a leather strap that goes only over the top, with a heel chain or a rubber "tiedown" instead of a strap under the boot. There are also styles with no straps where the heel band simply is very tight and slips on wedged between the sole and heel of the boot. Some spur designs have a slot for running the spur strap through, others have "buttons," sometimes on the heel band itself and sometimes attached to the heel band by hinges, that allow a strap with buttonholes to be attached.
When used in military ranks, senior officers, and officers of all ranks in cavalry and other formerly mounted units of some armies, wear a form of spur in certain orders of dress which is known as the box spur, having no spur strap but a long metal prong opposite the neck, extending between the arms of the heel band, which is inserted into a specially fitted recess or "box" in the base of the boot heel. Due to the prong, such spurs can only be worn with appropriately equipped boots. This construction is shown in the illustrations of the swan neck and waterford spurs below.
Spurs seen in western riding may also have small curved-up hooks on the shank in front of the rowel, called "chap guards," that were originally used to prevent the rider's chaps from interfering with the rowels of the spur. Some cowboys also added small metal Pajados, also known as Jingo Bobs or Jingle Bobs, near the rowel, to create a jingling sound whenever the foot moved.
In the history of veterinary science, the word "rowel" described a small disk of leather or other material that was used as a seton stitch.


The spur's use cannot with certainty be traced further back than Ancient Rome. Early spurs had a neck that ended in a point, called a prick, riveted to the heel band. Prick spurs had straight necks in the 11th century and bent ones in the 12th. The earliest form of the horseman's spur armed the heel with a single prick. In England the rowel spur is shown upon the first seal of Henry III and on monuments of the 13th century, but it does not come into general use until the 14th century. The earliest rowels probably did not revolve but were fixed.
Spurs in English riding tend to use a spur that is very sleek, slim and conservative in design, with a shorter neck, as the saddle and leg position is closer to the horse. They usually have a rounded or blunt end. Rowels are not as popular as the plain blunt end, although there are types that include a rowel or smooth disk on the end. When used in sports requiring finesse, such as dressage, the spur's purpose is not to speed up a horse, but to give accurate and precise aids in lateral and complex movements, such as pirouettes, travers and renvers, and the airs above the ground. Dressage riders tend to ride in "Waterford" style spurs with a rounded knob at the end. Conversely, show hunter and jumper riders may use a flatter end to encourage forward movement, such as the Prince of Wales design.
Modern types of spurs also includes motorcycle spurs. They are basically rowels worn as foot jewelry, hung off of boots. They can be similar in appearance to spurs worn by equestrians. Some designs may improve motorcycle safety, when their bright material attracts motor vehicle drivers to the presence of motorcyclists, especially to their feet where riders are most vulnerable when stopped in traffic. Their owners will further customize them by adding miniature strobing LED lights, or rare-earth magnets that activate traffic lights.


The spur is a refined tool, designed to allow the rider to transmit very subtle signals to the horse that are nearly invisible to any other observer. No matter the discipline, it is important that a rider has a correct position before using spurs, with a deep seat, legs lengthened to the extent allowed by the stirrups, heels down, with knees and thighs rolled in so that the rider has a solid base of support. A swinging or unstable leg may inadvertently jab the horse with the spur as the rider sits, thus irritating, distracting, or frightening the animal, and chronic misuse may deaden the horse to the leg aids. Improper use may also provoke dangerous or undesirable behaviors such as bucking or running away.
Spurs are rarely used in sports such as horse racing, where the rider's leg is not significantly in contact with the horse.
Most spurs are activated by the rider flexing the heel slightly up and in. A roweled spur permits an additional type of action; a rider can roll the spur lightly against the side of the horse rather than being limited to simply pressing inward.

Rodeo spurring

The exception to the use of spurs in a subtle fashion is in the rodeo events of bull riding, Saddle Bronc and Bareback Riding, where the rider is required to spur in an elaborate, stylized fashion, touching the horse or bull at every stride. This requirement is designed to resemble the behavior of old-time horse-breakers who would deliberately provoke a horse to buck. In modern times, riders are required to use spurs in a manner that is merely encouraging an animal that is already predisposed to buck; they are not to produce pain. Spur design and use is strictly defined by rodeo rules, spurs are dull and rowels must turn freely. In fact, the way spurs are to be used in bucking events generally makes it harder for the rider to stay on: in bareback bronc competition, the spurs must be above the point of the horse's shoulder at the first jump and remain forward at all times, deliberately creating a very awkward position for the rider that requires both strength and coordination to stay on the horse. In saddle bronc competition, the rider must make a full sweep with the spurs from shoulder to flank with each jump, requiring great concentration and any error in balance putting the rider in a position to be quickly unseated. Bull riders are allowed a position that is the closest to that of classic equestrianism, they are not required to spur the bull, but if they choose to spur, may do so with their legs down in a style that approaches a normal riding position.

Types of spurs

Spurs are divided into Men's, Women's, and Children's, according to width (which must fit on the heel of the rider's boot). Spurs are further divided into length of the neck, with 1/4" being relatively small (and a common size in children's spurs), with some being 2-3" long. Many competition rules limit the length of the neck.
  • Round end: end is a metal ball about the size of a small marble, making it one of the milder spurs
  • Knob end: end of the spur is squared off but blunted at the edges
  • Prince of Wales: has a flat end, making is slightly sharper. This is a popular spur.
  • Rowelled spur: the end of the spur has a toothed wheel which spins. This is the most common western-style spur, although it is seen on some English-style spurs. Teeth are dulled at the points. A rowel with many small teeth is milder than one with only a few, larger teeth. Most rowels have at least eight teeth on each wheel. Other variations, more common in English riding, include:
    • Disc: the end has a small rowel-like rolling disc without teeth, which allows the spur to roll on the horse's side when applied, decreasing chance of spur marks. Popular in dressage. Severity depends on thickness of disc.
    • Roller spur: end of the neck has a plastic "roller," which moves as the horse's side is touched. This spur tends to reduce spur-rubs on sensitive horses. It is considered very mild.
  • Swan-neck: the neck of the spur goes upward at an angle, before leveling off, looking similar to the neck of a swan. This is commonly seen in dressage.
  • Waterford: the end of the neck has a large, round metal ball, making the spur softer and less likely to cause spur rubs.
  • Le spur (English) or Barrel Racing Spur (Western): a spur with small "teeth" or ridges on the inside of the heel band, instead of a neck. For use, the rider does not have to turn in the heel. A quicker and more subtle design, but also more apt to be accidentally used when not intended.
rowel in German: Sporn (Reiten)
rowel in Esperanto: Sprono
rowel in French: Éperon
rowel in Dutch: Sporen (paardrijden)
rowel in Japanese: 拍車
rowel in Polish: Ostroga (jeździectwo)
rowel in Romanian: Pintene
rowel in Swedish: Sporre
rowel in Chinese: 距
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