Horse Training Tools: Martingales
What Is a Martingale?
A martingale is any device that is designed to prevent excessive raising of a horse's head when being ridden. Its purpose is to prevent a horse from lifting its head and neck so high it strikes the rider in the face.
This is relatively unusual, but some horses, especially when excited, will throw their heads up so high that they risk causing injury to the rider—I know somebody who broke her nose that way.
There are several different kinds of martingale, which are used in varying situations. In general, martingales should be used as a short-term measure, or only in circumstances when the horse particularly needs them.
No martingale should ever be used to pull or force the horse's head down or be fitted so tightly it interferes with normal head motion.
The Standing Martingale or Tie Down
These are two terms for the same device. English riders call it a standing martingale, whilst western types use the word tie-down.
A standing martingale consists of three straps:
- One goes around the neck
- Another goes between the horse's legs to secure the neck strap to the girth
- The third fastens the neck strap to a noseband
Standing martingales should be adjusted such that the neck strap rests just in front of the horse's shoulders and, when the horse is standing normally, the loop of the front strap reaches the hollow of the throat. No tighter.
A single strap without a neck strap should never be used. There is a very real risk of the horse getting a front leg through it and going down.
Standing martingales are a subject of minor controversy in the English world. Some riders believe that a standing martingale will stop a horse from landing badly and hitting the ground with its nose, whilst others state that a horse should never, under any circumstances be jumped in a standing martingale.
The grounds of the second group are that because the standing martingale also interferes with downward motion of the horse's head, it may make it harder for the horse to judge the height of the fence, increasing the risk of faults, refusals, and even falls.
Many barrel racers are ridden in a tie down, but in this case it is not being used to hold down the head, but rather because the horse can brace on it through the turns and thus turn tighter and get a better time.
Some worry that the horse can become dependent on it and use the tie down only for shows. Another school of thought is that a well trained, talented horse should not need one.
The Running Martingale
Watch eventing and you will see the running martingales come out in the cross-country phase and sometimes the stadium jumping contest. Many show jumpers also wear them and they are almost ubiquitous in the hunting field.
A running martingale is the same as a standing martingale except that instead of the single strap to the noseband, it has two straps ending in metal rings. The reins are threaded through these rings.
Otherwise, it is fitted identically. The rings should touch the horse's throat when it is standing normally. If the reins are being pulled down by the rings, it is far too tight.
The running martingale does not interfere with the horse's head as much as a standing martingale, but will still prevent an accident caused by the horse throwing its head up when excited. It can also help with horses that tend to evade the bit.
However, running martingales also have another advantage. When a horse is wearing one, the reins cannot be pulled over its head. This is actually why they are almost ubiquitous in the hunt field.
They can prevent a bad accident where the rider falls off, pulls the reins with them and then the horse trips on the reins and goes down.
Any horse in the hunt field that is not wearing a running martingale will almost certainly be wearing an Irish martingale, although you might not immediately see it. They are also often seen on eventers and steeplechasers.
The Irish martingale is simply a single leather strap with a ring on either end. The reins are threaded through the rings.
Irish martingales are used on horses that do not need or do not like a running martingale. They have absolutely no effect on the rein contact or on the horse's ability to move, and exist solely to prevent the reins from being pulled over the head in a fall.
I personally recommend using one unless you really find a running martingale gives you more control. They provide the same safety function without any alteration to how you control the horse.
The German Martingale or Market Harborough
I personally dislike the German martingale, although some trainers swear by it as a means to help a horse develop top line muscle.
I dislike it because it tends to generate a 'head set' rather than creating a correct frame that starts at the rear end of the horse.
It is similar to a running martingale, but instead of rings that go around the reins, the two straps hook through the bit rings and then clip to special reins with D rings, usually several to allow for different lengths.
When used correctly, it works in a similar way to prevent excessive head carriage.
However, if it is not being used correctly by somebody who knows how to fit it, it can encourage a horse that is on its forehand and a rider that thinks that if the head is in the right place, the rest of the horse has to be right.
It should only be used as a short term training aid.
If you have to ride your horse in a martingale all of the time, you are doing it wrong. Martingales should only be used:
- As a short term corrective aid to protect the rider from being slammed in the face and to teach a horse that is stubborn about carrying its head unnaturally high not to do so (note that you should always make allowances for natural head carriage).
- In competition or in other circumstances when a horse might become excited, forget itself, and try to feed you its ears.
- For safety reasons, to prevent the reins from going over the head, in which case an Irish martingale should be considered.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.