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They are used to keep count when praying a mantra. Its more for repetition. Unlike the rosary the beads don't have a certain order for a prayer. I've seen mala beads with no spacers, or just one set of spacers.
There are different mantras, but basically you start at the bead beside the Buddha bead (or bigger bead, whatever one wants to call it) and say the mantra, slide to the next bead, repeat...repeat till you go around. (spacer beads do not count)
Personally I like the mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum" (Ohm-mah-nee-pahd-may-hum). Saying this mantra is said to invoke the blessings and attention of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion.
There are longer ones and shorter ones for different aspects also. There are bracelets to, made of 27 beads (usually no spacers) and the Buddha bead. For the bracelets you circle around four times to do the full 108.