Some horses have a habit of throwing their heads or not wanting to hold their head in the correct position. This is where many riders may want to consider a martingale.

What is a martingale for horses?

So what actually is a martingale? A martingale is a type of tack used to control head carriage. A martingale consists of a leather or nylon strap fixed to a horse’s headgear, while the other end can be fixed to a breastplate or neck strap. Martingales also ensure the bit stays in contact with the horse's mouth. They are often seen in various disciplines, both riding and driving. The two most common types of martingales are the standing and the running. They control the horse's head height and prevent the horse from throwing its head so high that the rider loses control. When a horse's head gets above a desired height, the pressure from the martingale on the head becomes strong enough that the horse finds it difficult or impossible to jerk their head. Do note that martingales will not increase your horse’s speed, rather, they will rate their speed.

The Different Types of Martingale

There are several types of martingales, but the most common are the standing, the running, the German, and the training martingales.

Standing Martingale

Standing Martingale

The standing martingale is also known as a tie down or a head check. It has a single strap attached to the girth and passes between the horse's front legs to be fixed to the back of the nose band. To prevent it from catching on to other objects, it has a neck strap, and a variation can be attached to a breastplate. The standing martingale is legal in some competitions, such as equitation, show jumping (in some countries), and hunt seat. It is also commonly used in fox hunting and polo. Some military and police horses wear them as well when a horse may be required to deal with an emergency situation and the rider may need to handle the horse in an abrupt manner. These are not legal for flat classes or most Western competitions. However, they may be seen in rodeos.

A standing martingale is more restrictive than a running martingale because it cannot be loosened quickly in an emergency. It is important never to attach the martingale strap to a drop noseband because it can injure the cartilage of the nose. It should also not be attached to any type of figure 8 or grackle noseband because of the risk of nose and jaw injuries. Do not overuse or misuse a martingale because it can lead to overdevelopment of the muscles on the neck's underside, making it more difficult for a horse to work properly under saddle. It can also cause a horse to tense the back muscles and move incorrectly, especially over fences. Make sure that a standing martingale is not too short and is not connected too harshly, as the horse could attempt to rear and fall, injuring both horse and rider.

Running Martingale

Running Martingale

A running martingale consists of a strap attached to the girth and passes between a horse's front legs before dividing into two pieces, like a Y. It is held in position by a neck strap or a breastplate. The reins go through small metal rings at the end of each strap. Each fork of the running martingale has about an inch of slack when the horse holds its head correctly. If adjusted correctly, the reins should make a straight line from the writer's hand to the bit ring. This martingale also creates pressure on the bit to encourage the horse to lower its head. A running martingale provides more freedom for the horse, as a rider can release pressure when the horse is in the correct position. In addition, if a horse happens to trip when landing after a fence, the rider can loosen the reins so the horse will fully use their head and neck. The running martingale is the only style martingale allowed in eventing and horse racing. Running martingales can also be used on young horses trained in saddle seat and western riding, among other disciplines. These martingales are often used with rein stops made of rubber or leather. They are a great safety feature that stops the martingale from sliding forward and getting caught on the bit rings, buckles, or studs.

The risk of these martingales is that a horse cannot lift its head if it starts to buck, which can cause it to fall and injure itself and its riders. As always, it is extremely important to make sure that the martingale is adjusted correctly because if adjusted too short, the use of the reins may be impeded. Running martingales can also be severe on a horse’s mouth, so be sure not to shorten the martingale too much.

German Martingale

German Martingale

The German martingale is also called a Market Harborough in some circles. It is a type of running martingale consisting of a split fork coming from up the chest and running through the rings on the bridle's reins between the bit and the rider’s hand. While it is similar to a running martingale, it has additional leverage. It is not legal for any equestrian sports. This martingale is used primarily as a training aid. The risks that apply to the typical running martingale are similar to those of the German martingale.

Training Martingale

Training Martingale

Training martingales are a practical piece of horse tack that can be allowed in schooling or judged competition. This martingale helps teach a horse how to carry the head during a ride. It can also be useful for warming up a horse before removing it so they can continue to hold the correct position independently. As always, make sure the training martingale is tight enough to frustrate the horse and prevent them from understanding the correct position.

What does a martingale do?

Martingales are an effective tool to increase and promote collection and proper communication and help a rider maintain control with proper head and neck position. Ensure the martingale is fitted correctly so that it works effectively and doesn’t create frustration for your horse.

Maintaining Headset and Collection

When jumping, the collection is everything. The horse needs to return to you after the jump to get the correct strides in and set up for the next fence. Martingales help collect your horse so they don’t start zooming off or throwing their head around, trying to fight for control. It’s a great reminder to them that the job isn’t done!

Encourages Proper Head and Neck Position

A horse with the proper head and neck position encourages them to step under themselves and use the correct muscles during the ride. A horse that is also stepping under themselves correctly helps you to balance better in the saddle so you can give them proper, clean cues. When a horse cannot just grab the bit or toss their head, they are apt to listen better to what is expected of them…which goes into our next section!

Enhances Communication

A horse that is connected on the bit is a horse that is listening to its rider. Dressage riders especially understand this: it is imperative to be able to make small adjustments to communicate with your horse. Therefore, when used properly, the martingale encourages a horse to stay on the bit, so your communication flows effortlessly.