Horse Training Tools: Martingales

Horse rider, role-playing gamer, and science fiction and fantasy fan. Also married for fifteen happy years.

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.

Irish Martingale

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.

Final Notes

If you have to ride your horse in a martingale all of the time, you are doing it wrong. Martingales should only be used:

  1. 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).
  2. In competition or in other circumstances when a horse might become excited, forget itself, and try to feed you its ears.
  3. For safety reasons, to prevent the reins from going over the head, in which case an Irish martingale should be considered.

© 2012 jenniferrpovey

jenniferrpovey (author) on February 08, 2012:

I personally haven't ridden a horse in a martingale for many years. This is partly because I don't jump, and partly because as far as I know neither the barn I ride at, nor the trainers, nor any of the borders own any. There is not a single martingale on the property.

Which I consider ideal unless you're riding in circumstances where the reins going over the head is a risk, in which case the Irish martingale is perfect.

However, I'm not going to criticize somebody for using a correctly fitted martingale if they feel they need one. (Key word being correctly fitted).

Flickr on February 08, 2012:

hmm interesting I've never heard of one. i don't think i would use one but thank you for the read.


What Not to Use, and Why


Please Note!

This chapter is about the inventions of riders and saddlers, the things that are created and used to get the head down. They all do the same thing - limit the height of the head of the horse, and leave him to figure out how to deal with the pressure that they create. Hopefully, the horse will discover that to lower the head will make it go away.

I want riders to know that there are other ways. I want riders to understand that it's not about mechanically getting the head down - it's about stretching the neck out to stretch the back and make the horse "decontracted". And there are other options to accomplish that. So before you read about all these inventions, please either realise that there is another way, or just read that section first to reassure yourself. Instead of Gadgets>>

A Definition of Gadgets

Gadgets can be defined as any piece of equipment stapped to the horse, except a normal saddle and bridle with a regular snaffle bit, or a double bridle with a normal curb and a bridoon. It can also be defined by "things that influence the horse mechanically" as opposed to aids-wise. It can also be defined by specific names and functions, such as running reins and martingales, rein-aid inserts and grackle nosebands. This last definition is not very smart since it calls for a constant update on what's in and what's out, and what they are called, and all their names, new and old. I'd rather go along with the definition of mechanically influencing the horse, although the borders are fuzzy. In some instances, something outside the normal bridle and saddle can be very good for the horse, and not of any "use" to the rider, Such as a bit ring stabilizer that stops the snaffle from being pulled out on one side. Is that then a gadget?

The most common gadgets, or auxiliary equipment as they are called by those who use/sell/approve of them, are drawreins and side reins, crank nosebands and gag bits. And they are legio! I shall try to explain.


The absolutely most talked about auxiliary equipment in use for dressage is the drawrein. In the German language they are called Schlaufzugel = Loop Reins, and ironically mispronounced Schlafzugel = Sleeping Reins. No gadget is more routinely and habitually used or abused for dressage training. Some barns even harbour the myth that you actually need them, or the horse won't work correctly. And maybe their horses really won't.

They are really very simple things. They are long reins that attach to the girth, either at the sides or between the frontlegs. From there they run through the bit rings to the hands of the rider where they are adjustible. This fixed length between girth, bit and hand, prevents the horse from raising his head or poking his nose further than the drawreins allow.

They appear to have all sorts of uses. Many riders I have met have used them as a last resort to stop their horses from running away with them. Yet others have used them to stop the horse from breaking free when starting to learn the flying changes. And one because the horse was supposed to have that outline anyway, so why not? Yet others, I guess, use them because they can't really ride their horses on the bit, or are embarrased for those times when the horse throws his head up because of loss of balance or other difficulties. Anyway, there's no need to further explain the uses of something that shouldn't be used, so I'll continue to explain the downsides, instead.

Force and Entrapment

The running function of the drawreins, and the fact that they attach in two places juxtaposed (down and back) to where the horse wants to put his head (up and out) make them many times stronger than the rider could otherwise be. With only regular reins the horse can raise his head as long as the distance from head to hand remains the same. To overcome the horse with force the rider has to try to pull the head down by pressing the hands down (see photo right). Without adequate skill, this is not a strong position.

So the drawreins are an instrument of power and not one of understanding, cooperation and trust. But trust, how do you make a distrusting horse, with a back pain or a generally inverted body, that rushes and gazes at the stars, compliant? Well that's the challenge that makes most riders haul the drawreins out of the tack box.

But if we instead look at what the drawreins really do, opposed to what they are ideally supposed and believed to do, and we begin to estimate the risks, then maybe this option does not seem so good anymore.

The active drawrein, pulling the bit down and in, in a direction between the attatchment at the girth and the hands, trap the horse. There is room to move inside the confinement, but not in the desired direction - forward-down-out, the horse can however curl back in (green position) . It can also shorten the neck and elevate the head some (red position) , in trying to relieve the action of the bit.

In order for the horse to be able to relax the jaw and poll, and stretch forward-down-and-out as one would wish, the rider needs to give the drawrein out of the hand more than an equal amount, and to be honest - this is not something drawrein protagonists tend to do! Instead, much of the problem seems to originate with a non-feeling hand that reluctantly gives, and rarely with any good timing. Stretching is not a priority for these riders, as much as pulling together and shortening the frame.

It is a hassle to try to give with the drawrein while maintaining contact on the regular rein. At its best, the draw rein can be used so that it is taut when the horse tries to poke his nose, and loose when he relaxes the jaw. The greater part of the work must naturally be done relaxed, and not "fighting" the drawreins. This is not the norm, when riders use drawreins, and no wonder. If it were, they wouldn't need them!

The use of the drawreins as a backup is, however, not desirable either, because one would ideally like to be able to change the length of the neck forward-down-out during the entire riding period. The slack drawrein that comes into action when the horse pokes his nose also comes in to action when he stretches forward-down-out. The solution would then be to change the grip of the drawrein everytime you let the horse lower his head and neck. And shorten it as you ask the horse to come up, because otherwise it would be useless, and allow for stargazing on the longer drawrein.

Triggering the Hollowing Reflex

Just like pulling the reins down along the sides of the shoulders on a stargazing horse will not help the outline, the horse's first natural instinct is to fight the pull form the drawreins, pulling down on his mouth. What the regular reins are supposed to do is not place the head down, but merely relax the jaw and tongue so that the horse will stretch the rein. The horse is the one lowering, not the rider or the gadget!

The short drawrein will do exactly the same as the underline muscles during rollkur work - they will shorten the underline and pull on the nuchal ligament to be wrapped around the spinal column lengthwise, and compress it. The bottom of the S-curve will push out, and the horse will hollow. Added to this, the exaggerated pressure on the tounge will cause stiffness in the jaw and poll, which will tense the topline in the same way as a stargazing horse tenses his topline. Wether the horse actually holds his head way up, or is striving to move his head upwards but stopped by the drawreins, it's all the same. The same hollowing reflex is at work.

Rubberband Neck Extender

This device is a mechanical drawrein that is not directly adjustable during riding. It goes from the girth area through the bit rings to the poll. It never reaches the hands, and the distance from hands to head has no impact on the horse's mouth. It is also elasctic, and can thus invite the horse to take contact. It's biggest drawback is that it is not adjustable from the riders point of view, so the rider cannot give, to reward the horse, or allow a full stretch. This is quite inflexible, and does not teach the horse much other than to lower his head. It relieves the rider from the task of holding and organizing the drawreins, but this only inclines even poorer riders to use them. The fact that there's no connection to anything at the withers, such as hands or surcingle, speaks for them. The fact that they are mechanical and not something a skillful rider can use in his conversation with the horse speaks against them.

The distance where the rubberband is taut can be stretched and elongated some, and the horse can actually stretch forward-down and outish. That is, if you don't adjust them too tightly before getting on. And being loosely enough adjusted, this device will not prevent a stubborn horse from shortening his neck and inverting totally. And the only use left in defence of this thing, is the fact that the horse can use it to quiet the bit from rattling in his mouth, because the rider has unsteady hands. A hard, steady pull is at least less unpleasant to the horse than hard snatches on the reins, going from slack to taut, to slack, to taut. The horse can lower the head and steady the bit against the elasticity of the rubber band.


At the Spanish Riding School, tradition has it that sidereins have always been used for lungeing and to a certain extent for long reining. How and why they do so is out of my sphere of knowledge since I did not attend the school, so I will not go into it. But for those of us not attending the school, this is really nothing to much consider using for any purpose. Instead of lunging endlessly with sidereins, having a horse that fights the sidereins or goes behind the vertical/bit, or as is most common - learns to hang on it to make it stop bouncing the bit in his mouth, time is wiser spent trying to learn long-reining, or simple work in-hand. Most riders can accomplish a lot more with only a bridle on working their horses in hand with their feet on a track 3 feet to the inside of the horse's track, working the horse by bending and stretching at the walk. Bending and shoulder-in at walk is often more useful than trotting in sidereins.

Some users say they must longe in sidereins to get straightness. They adjust the inside rein shorter to get the right bend on the circle, and then they longe. But the sidereins do not sit on the horse. They cannot feel the straightness/crookedness of the horse, nor can they drive on either side with the legs or release to get a stretch. They can only fix the head. I see so many horses lunged in sidereins that are overbent to the inside, push the shoulders to the outside and set the haunches on a track inside of the forelegs. That's a blueprint for crookedness.

Stop fixing the horse's head into positions! Learn to do the Shoulder-In Volte in hand, then to longrein, and ride the horse to get rhythm, relaxation, contact and schwung as a riding horse before you work on straightness. Straightness cannot be found in a position that you can adjust with straps any more than "on the bit" can be found in strapping the head down.

Sidereins are as inanimate a gadget as anything else, and does not improve the stretching forward-down-out but rather teaches the horse to keep the shape of the neck and jowl and drop from the withers. This is NO STRETCH!

The sidereins fix the distance between the horse's mouth and and a point on the girth or roller. The horse can handle that in many ways, by shortening the neck, by curling down, etc. To make a horse go "on the bit" in sidereins, you need to be expert in driving it forward just so on the lunge, you have to release him often to save him from cramps that cause resistances, and have the horse quite well schooled. So what's then the point, if you have a well-schooled horse and know how to drive correctly? If you can do that, you can longrein successfully, too! Or why not ride?

The horse in the picture is well schooled. He is in sidereins that appear way too short for any productive work. In walk he is overbent and curling in. When he arches the neck upwards enough to piaffe, although this piaffe is not engaged enough, the hindleg is raised higher than the foreleg, the reins are of adequate length (although one would wish for a longer neck). So using this for short bursts of work on extremely collected exercises has some kind of purpose. But they can equally well teach the horse to curl behind the contact.

Simply using them for shortening the horse is counter-productive, since the horse soon learns to stiffen against the mechanical non-yielding lines attached to the bit, and thus learns to resist.

Sidereins also block the head and neck movements of walk and canter gaits, which leaves trot as the only option. In trot, with its sometimes rather jarring up and down movement, the straps and rubber doughnuts, weighing considerably more than the desired "weight in the reins", jerk up and down with the gait. The only thing that helps the horse evade this rather unpleasant effect on the bit is to heavily lean onto it.

There's also the problem of the horse stumbling, losing balance, being frisky on the lunge line. And what happens? The fixed leather siderein will snatch the horse in the mouth as hard as he moves his head. This RUINS the mouth of the horse, and makes him utterly insensitive. The possible benefits you can have from sidereins are overshadowed by the fact that they harden the mouth in many intricate ways.

Some say the horse can learn "proper contact" with sidereins. I guess that depends on what you mean by "proper contact". If you mean that the rider should be able to hold the reins at a fixed length for lengthy periods of time, and that the horse has to be the one who adjusts to it all the time, then the horse can learn that from sidereins. If "proper contact" means that the horse always tries to stretch the reins, and that the rider adjusts the length to suit the activity of the back and hindquarters, to reward or bend, and places the head higher and lower with the same amount of rein traction, then the horse will only learn from the sidereins not to mess with the hands.

Sidereins also cannot position the horse at the poll, or rather the C1/C2 joint. You can buckle one siderein shorter than the other, but lunging, you have no control over whether the horse bends off at the shoulders, mid neck or at the correct spot.

No control, is actually the theme of sidereins. You can't control their length from the end of the lunge line, you can't control the horse's shoulder, or bend. You can't release, or even shorten momentarily. So why use them? So unless you attach them to a cavesson and take care to chose the lightest doughnuts, release them frequently, drive carefully, leave them.

Thiedemann Reins

Thiedemann reins are semi-drawreins which the unskilled rider can use without actually having to hold the extra straps in the hands. Some riders praise these contraptions and call them horse friendly and the best thing since sliced bread. I have even ridden for instructors who insisted I use them before they had even seen me ride, meaning they go on her horses by default. Oh dear!

But some argue they are kind. They only apply until the horse has the head set, and then they automatically relax. These advocates probably love drawreins for the same reason, the head set, but are not dexterous enough to use them. These advocates don't realise that the proper head carriage is not achieved by pulling the bit downwards until proper position is taken (the head set). Proper head carriage is achieved by activation from behind which results in the back and the base of the neck lifting, the neck arching and all things perfect.

So why the reins at all!? Why don't riders ride without reins if that's so damn correct. Well. Before "all things perfect" in the sentence above comes "the poll relaxes and drops the head to near vertical by the action of the bit on the jaw". This is what the hands do, in the case of "on the bit" and front end poise. They ask "Please relax your jaw, please position at the poll, please elongate the neck, for I will give you plenty of rein if you do it."

This must be possible whereever the horse has his head. That's why we ride with adjustable reins in the hands and not sidereins. High or low, in, down or out, you must be able to feel the mouth of the horse, and quickly ask it to relax if clenched. Is this done by set-length reins pulling the bit down until you have exactly the same head position every time? No, that is automating the head set.

Thiedemann reins and metal loops for adjusting them also add weight to the reins. These unskilled riders are not only heading for a head set and a tense neck, their reins also flap and flop by their sheer weight, jerking the horse in the mouth.

The Rein-Aid Inserts

These are basically short extensions of the reins that have been intersected by a piece of elastic. Or, intersected may be the wrong word. The firm leather rein is looped in the background, and the elastic stretches between this leather rein looping (slight tension on reins) and the elastic being stretched out so that the firm leather rein is taut (quite firm rein tension). There may be somewhere around 1-2 inches of "give" in these things.

I'm not going to barf all over this stuff. They're OK, especially from the horse's point of view. They are used by riders who are unable to have an elastic, living contact coming from the feel in their hands and relaxation. Those whose hands are not independent of the horse's movements, and thus the rider's own seat. These people know that, hopefully. They just use them to help their horses.

What they will not help in the long run, is the problem itself. If you use these inserts, they will do the elasticity for you, and you will only reinforce by habit that a tense grip on the reins is OK, and the subsequent bobbing of the hands is OK, since the rein-aids soften it before it reaches the mouth. You will never learn to feel the soft chewing of the horse being on the bit.

Chambon & De Gogue.

Recently, in the perspective of dressage, inventions and developments have been made to the drawrein. The idea has been to actually achieve the gradual release that is needed to encourage the horse to stretch forward-down-out for the bit. They are quite more elaborate than the drawrein, and function by tackle action. These are really lunging devices, much the same as the traditional sidereins are used at the Spanish Riding School, but many people use them for schooling and riding in general. I personally find it incomprehensible, that riders think themselves less equipped for making the horse stretch forward-down-out from straightening, driving and rein manipulations, than a simple string that gives mechanically at the right angle. I mean, they seem to have no problem with the fact that this effect is created by something which affects only the head of the horse, so it's not a noveau "Look, Mama, no hands!" kind of thing. It's "Look, Mama, this string can do what I can't!" One can only hope that these rides realise their need for further education and the danger in thinking that an auxiliary rein can ride for you. A couple of tied knots on a string will not cure neither a painful back nor poor education.

Out of all of them, the chambon is the only one which really works satisfactorily in its true context - lungeing. The chambon is the only device that lets the horse stretch fully forward-down-OUT.

The Chambon is really a simple thing. You could make it yourself if it wasn't for it being so cheap that it's less expensive to buy the finished product, than buying leather straps, rings and a string. You need a girth for attaching the main strap ( blue ) to, and if you don't have a lungeing girth, use your saddle and its girth. Next, there's a short strap ( green ) across the crown piece of the bridle (that you really need to have on). There's a ring ( yellow ) at each end of the crown piece, through which the string ( red ) runs from the attachment to the bit.

The function is as such:
As the horse lifts his head and pokes his nose, tensing his back, the device applies because the strings are pulled taut. The distance to the raised head (poll) becomes longer than in a relaxed state, and the poking nose uses up its share of the string as well. So the string pulls on the mouth, but not only that. It presses the crown piece down. Any attempt in the right direction is rewarded instantly. If the nose is dropped there is a release, and especially, if the poll is lowered there is a release. In a full stretch forward-down-out the distance from girth to poll to mouth is still shorter than when the horse has inverted. The device is slack.

Horses usually don't even initially fight this device, because its action is quite soft. Compared with a Harbridge or a standing martingale which the horse can have slack, and then as he raises his head it can snatch taut, and cause panic or fits. I have personally seen a horse and rider topple over because of a harbridge. The horse got upset by something and threw her head up, so that the harbridge snatched at ther mouth. From this she paniced and started fighting it, which resulted in her rearing and toppling over.

The 2 Part Chambon Lunge Device

If you necessarily need to use something to get your horse to stretch down, please use a kinder and cheaper gadget than the Pessoa System or The Abbot Davies. Remember that patent holders make mega-bucks out of your desperation, and sell a bunch of strings for $150 or more. The money you spend will not do your horse any good. Construct a cheap and kind homemade thing instead, and spend the money on a chiro for your horse, or longlining lessons.

Use a chambon in front and simply sling a rubber neck-extender around the hocks and attach to the girth on both sides. I guarantee the horse will feel just as much behind is rear end, but the chambon will have mercy on his mouth and allow him to stretch all the way forward-down-out!

Remember also, that it is the innate drive forward from the hindquarters that create the stretch, so teach your horse to drive forward without rushing.

The Pessoa System

During the Pessoas' total reign in showjumping in the 80's and 90's many "inventions" came from their barn. One was the Pessoa Gag Bit, which I speak of elsewhere, which is a combination of a driving bit and an elevator gag, and then the Pessoa Training System used for lungeing. This system is supposed to get the horse to stretch down AND engage the hindlegs forward, and thus be good for the back. I have seen it at work several times, and whilst it does get the horse to lower his head on the lunge, the most glaring effect of this contraption is that it succeeds in jabbing the horse in the mouth with each push of the hindlegs.

It has a semi-intricate pulley system that via a lunge-girth connects the gaskins with the mouth. I guess the rope is supposed to encourage the horse to grasp forward with the hindlegs as it tightens around the hindleg and at the same time limit the height of the head. But which is more sensitive - the skin on the hocks or the mouth!? The horse will be encouraged to roll down but not stretch to the bit, because the bit jabs at the mouth with each step. Now this is mechanical if anything!

I have also never seen any horse truly engage in this "system", only go on the forehand and curl behind the bit. It can be adjusted lower (for more stretch) and higher (for collection) but it seems to have very little such effect.

The Hock Hobbles

Some of these devices seem to be so ignorant of the horses mouth, that I simply cannot think they are. It must certainly be intentional to jerk the horse in the mouth, if you use something called hock hobbles to connect the hocks to the bit. Now, this is apparently some kind of western training gadget, but it's worth mentioning, because it sooner or later seeps into mainstream riding, anyway. Hock Hobbles.

The Abbot-Davies Balancing Rein

Another version is the Abbot-Davies Balancing Rein, which connects the bit to the tail of the horse. I don't know if anyone uses this kind of contraption, at least not whenever they can be seen by someone. It is in practice a standing martingale that pulls the tail in between the buttocks. One might think that the horse would tuck his croup from the pull on the tail in between his hindlegs, but I hardly think so. A horse must be driven to place his hindlegs further underneath himself in course to tuck the croup. And the most impact will still be on the mouth, when the entire weight of the straps under the belly flap with each step. Also, it does not allow for the neck to stretch forward-down-out, only to curl towards the knees.

The "Cowboy Dressage" Tie-Down Device

Eitan Beth Halachmy calls his kind of horsemanship "Cowboy Dressage" because he was first "Taught lots of discipline and dressage by a Hungarian Cavalry Officer". Note he says dicipline first. Then, he also loves the American Cowboy, so he mixes the two. He finds it necessary to tie the bit to the tail around the side of a horse to force it to bend and be obedient. Dicipline, no doubt. Or torture.

Martingales & Tie-Downs

There are several different more or less intricate tie-downs to use, that limit the height of the head. The simplest ones just go from the bridle to the chest, being strapped to the girth or to a harness around the shoulders. Some attach to the bit rings, some to the cavesson and some attach to the reins via running rings. The running martingale has been frequently used by jumper riders for quite some time, and are more or less standard issue nowadays. They are really quite useful in jumping situations, especially with horses that tend to evade the rein aids approaching a fence.

Hot or stubborn horses tend to throw their heads up, and I mean really throw their heads up. Not like going 'above the bit' in a dressage situation, but more at nose-the-highest-point running like mad. And the sporthorse breeds just keep getting hotter. The good thing about a running martingale, is that it is adjusted to come into effect only when it is needed. When the reins are pulled up above a certain level, the rings hold them back. This also makes the reins pull down, instead of back.

When the horse has thrown its head up really high, the reins only pull the bit towards the ears (head horizontal) and anything one can do with the reins in that angle will be useless. When the horse has its head in a more normal position, the straps are loose and do nothing. It also serves to keep the reins from going over the horse's head and hinders him some from stepping on them, should the rider suddenly dismount.

The irish martingale has the same function of keeping the reins. And there is a simple piece of equipment, if ever there was one. You run the reins through the rings while the strap is under the neck of the horse. This makes the strap go against the underside of the neck if the horse raises the head, and this is where the rings will offer resistance. When the horse behaves well they come out of action. Just one problem.

Most martingales are not long enough, or split enough to allow for an opening rein aid. That might be fine in show jumping, but in dressage it is disasterous. The irish martingale allows almost nothing of movement sideways, and can sometimes hold the reins together closer than the rider would in a neutral position. So they are for jumping and not for basic training on flat ground.

There are numerous tie-downs, or standing martingales around. These are static length straps that go from the head to the chest. The harbridge rein is one such tie-down. It either attaches to the noseband, like any standing martingale. It sounds quite innocent, and truthfully, it's not that bad. A real downer about it is that it doesn't have any elastic, so when it comes into action, it can to so with quite a snatch.

On a very few horses, with vices such as rearing, this can be life-threatening. There's enough room for the horse to gain momentum with the neck, and when it is pulled taut, the horse can freak out, and rear and flip over. Scary.

With a simple extra converter it can be attached to the bit rings, too. That is naturally much harsher, and naturally, the same thing can happen as with the regular attachment as described above. But with this attachment something much more severe happens - the bit rings are pulled down and together, creating a nut-cracker effect with the point of the joint of the bit going straight up into the pallet. That, if anything, can cause the horse to rear or run away with its rider.

Alliance Back Lift

I have now found my way into the English part of the website and read about this thing, finally. I'm a little less confused now.

I have of course still not tested this "auxiliary rein", but some things I can still say about it.
1 It appears to work on the right influence on the front end - it attempts to lift the base of the neck.
It is not attached to the mouth, and does not appear to make the horse curl in behind the vertical.
3 It is still a static contraption that CAN be used to force the head down, instead of "asking" for a stretch. Read further here.

Throughout this reading, you must have by now realised that all these contraptions are concentrated around one specific part of the equine anatomy - the head.

Instead of Gadgets

I'm searching for the lost "positioning" at the poll. Everywhere I go, everything I read, it's about bend, flexion, contact, activity, drive-drive-drive etc. But nowhere does the old concept of positioning near the poll emerge. I think it has been totally forgotten.

At the same time, I constantly observe what Paula Kierkegaard (US judge and trainer) refers to as precipitous flexion, premature flexion or direct flexion, for those of us less steeped in the English language. Direct vertical flexion of the head to make the horse come to the bit. When I was at riding school as a kid, we were NOT ALLOWED to pull alternately at the reins to get an outline. We were not allowed to shorten the reins strongly and kick on until we got an outline, either. We weren't taught about outline at all. No riding teacher ever mentioned "on the bit". We were taught to ride careful corners, with positioning at the poll just before the corner, careful bend through the corner and a tad of a release after the corner. In every corner. The same for circles, voltes, turns on haunches and forehands. Even the dreaded leg-yield.

I can't remember ever talking about "on the bit" as a child or teenager. But I was a child, and don't remember all of it, anyway. But I do know, that from riding these exercises with careful positioning, the horse got really soft, and comfortable to sit on. I rode Jino, dreaded for his schwedengang and hard-to-sit trot. He was really nice. There was an x-competition horse that the school had bought. I never managed to ride him well, to sit his trot, because the corners and figures never worked to get him soft and comfortable. He was resistant, and stiff in the back. My guess is, he had been the victim of premature, direct vertical flexion in his previous career as a competition horse.

Horses that are "forced" to flex by pulling the nose in or pulling the head down, flex behind the 2nd vertebra. They stiffen between the 2nd vertebra and the poll in self-defence. Good positioning, with the bend between the 1st and 2nd vertebra and a release of the outside rein, will decontract this stiffening of the poll and stretch the neck out. If you manage to move the inside hingleg to step further in under the body and towards the midline (aim for the outside fore) the release will come from the pelvis and hip, over the back and to the mouth, and be a mature flexion (as opposed to an immature one).

I was on a mission in Finland in the early spring of 2005. I had not been there before and did not know the riders or the horses. They didn't know me either. Theory-wise we went through the bio-mechanics of the "shoulder-in volte" how to get a stretch and how to alternate between working and stretching. They all agreed and understood the theory.

Then we got into the riding arena. It was harder than it sounded to convert the theory into the real thing, and mainly because of one thing. The riders were terrified of opening the inside rein. They had been yelled at for doing so, probably, or repeatedly informed that it is Verboten! And now I asked that they commit the forbidden act.

The next hardship was to actually release the reins forward when the horse began to stretch. Many riders had the well cultivated reflex of snatching the reins back as soon as they were released a little. Probably because they had previously been instructed to Shorten the reins!

Practice makes perfect, and although most of the riders didn't arrive at perfect just yet -) they got to feel just how the back feels as the horse releases it into a stretch. The ball was set a'rollin'. It was hard for all of them, however, because riding is soo much about aquiring the right set of habits and cultivating them to work without having to think of every little thing every time. Then to change that. Well, they did good.

Almost all horses respond to positioning in the poll and crossing over with the hindlegs. I have dealt with extremely thick-throated ponies, where it was really hard-won to get first a lateral flexion in the right place, and then a stretching release. But that's both conformation, as well as being ridden by an uneducated kid with a sharp pelham for 10 years. And still they would generously release when the rider got the coordination and timing right

Rider Gadgets?

Yes, it's true. We attach straps and stuff to the rider in orser to get the bodyparts to go where they should as well. It's only fair.

I almost fell off my chair laughing, surfing the internet, finding just one of these things.

The Sit Strap

I know many riders have a problem to sit well, especially in trot and on well-moving warmbloods with big gaits. And what can you do if you can't manage to learn to sit, and at the same time feel that it is much simpler if you pull yourself down into the saddle with one hand around the carrying strap? Well, you realize the need for a saddle seat belt. Then you professionally construct one, and sell it to your fellow riders with the same problem. And hey, compared to finding the one in a million instructor that can actually help you to a good adhesive seat, a few bucks seems like an inexpensive option.

Fact is, I'm not totally against this kind of thing. You can't get away with it at competitions and you are always embarrasedly aware of your shortcomings while wearing it. It's not like drawreins that "are OK in the hands of experts" and since they're in your hands, you're an expert. This is for non-experts. So you won't use it instead of learning to sit. You will use it until you learn to sit. And here's the second part of why I'm not totally against it.

The fact that this strap will stop you from bouncing and give you a feeling of security might help you to relax and come down into the saddle. Much of the clamping that less than wellseated riders do, they do to stay on, or at least because they think they need it to stay on. This one could possibly help them losen the vice some, and find their relaxed seat.

The Arm Stabilizer

Well, yes. These might do it. At least they relieve you from clamping your elbows tensely to your hips to keep them in position. You can now focus on your hands and the feel in the reins to keep up a good cantact, and the straps around your waist and upper arms will remind you each time you deviate from the vertical or flap your arms. And you will look like an old clerk from a 50's movie doing it!

The Leg Stabilizer

There are also some quite expensive little straps that you can buy that fix the stirrup leathers to the girth at a certain distance. This, to "stabilize leg position". This is totally absurd. This strap will hinder you from placing your lower leg further back to give a sideways aid, and it will hardly help with leg position since 99% of problems with leg position concerns legs too far forward, and this strap only limits leg deviances bacwards, unless you suffer from having the leg on the shoulder. The freedom of the legs is needed to serve as a check that the legs hang draped, and do not bounce because of tension, or are pushed forward from an unbalanced seat, or are drawn back because the rider squeezes the horse like a lemon.

The Extras

There are a lot of additional little extras that people use on their horses, that does not influence the horse's way of going nor the rider's. These extras are usually harmless to the horse but somewhat detrimental to your wallet. They can however be an extension of your aids or a great mental support.

Martingale (tack)

A martingale is any of several designs of tack that are used on horses to control head carriage. Martingales may be seen in a wide variety of equestrian disciplines, both riding and driving. Rules for their use vary widely in some disciplines they are never used, others allow them for schooling but not in judged performance, and some organizations allow certain designs in competition.

The two most common types of martingale, the standing and the running, are used to control the horse's head height, and to prevent the horse from throwing its head so high that the rider gets hit in the face by the horse's poll or upper neck. When a horse's head gets above a desired height, the martingale places pressure on the head so that it becomes more difficult or impossible to raise it higher.


The standing martingale, also known as a "tiedown" or a "head check", [1] has a single strap which is attached to the girth, passes between the horse's front legs and is fixed to the back of the noseband. To prevent it from catching on other objects, it also has a neck strap. A variation is attached to a breastplate in lieu of a neck strap. When correctly fitted for English riding, it should be possible to push the martingale strap up to touch the horse's throatlatch.

A variation of the standing martingale, called a tiedown, is seen almost exclusively in the western riding disciplines. A tiedown is adjusted much shorter than a standing martingale and is intended primarily to prevent the horse from flipping its head up when asked to abruptly stop or turn in speed events. Users also claim that it gives the horse something to brace against for balance. It consists of an adjustable strap, one end which attaches to the horse's breastplate and the other which attaches to a noseband on the bridle. The noseband can be of leather, but may also be of lariat rope, or even plastic-covered cable, which can make the western tiedown considerably harsher than the English-style standing martingale. It is properly adjusted when it puts no pressure on the horse's nose when held at a normal position, but will immediately act if the horse raises its nose more than a few inches.

With both pieces of equipment, the slack is taken up out of the strap when the horse raises its head above the desired point, and pressure is placed on the horse's nose.

The standing martingale is competition legal for show hunter and hunt seat equitation riders over fences in the US, show jumping competitions in the UK, and is permissible and in common use in fox hunting, polocrosse, horseball, and polo. It is also seen on some military and police horses, partly for style and tradition, but also in the event of an emergency that may require the rider to handle the horse in an abrupt manner. It is not legal for flat classes. The tiedown is commonly seen in rodeo and speed events such as gymkhana games, but is not show legal in any other western-style horse show competition.

Safety and risks Edit

The standing martingale is more restrictive than the running martingale because it cannot be loosened in an emergency. A horse that trips in a standing martingale could potentially fall more easily because its range of motion is restricted. If a horse falls wearing an incorrectly fitted standing martingale, the animal cannot extend its neck fully, plus will have a more difficult time getting back up.

Due to the risk of injury to the cartilage of the nose, the martingale strap is never attached to a drop noseband. Because of the risk of both nose and jaw injuries, it also should not be attached to any type of "figure 8" or "grackle" noseband. A standing martingale can be attached to the cavesson (the upper, heavier strap) of a flash noseband, but not to the lower, "flash" or "drop" strap.

Any martingale may cause pain to the horse if misused in combination with certain other equipment. If used in conjunction with a gag bit, a standing martingale can trap the head of the horse, simultaneously asking the horse to raise and lower its head and providing no source of relief in either direction. This combination is sometimes seen in polo, in some rodeo events, and occasionally in the lower levels of jumping.

Overuse or misuse of a martingale or tiedown, particularly as a means to prevent a horse from head-tossing, can lead to the overdevelopment of the muscles on the underside of the neck, creating an undesirable "upside down" neck that makes it more difficult for the horse work properly under saddle. It may also lead to the horse tensing the back muscles and moving incorrectly, especially over fences. This may put excessive pressure on the horse's spine, reduce the shock-absorbing capacity of the leg anatomy, and can over time lead to lameness. There is also a risk of accidents: If a horse is sufficiently "trapped" by a combination of a too-short martingale and too-harsh bit, the horse may attempt to rear and, inhibited by the action of the martingale, fall, potentially injuring both horse and rider.

The running martingale consists of a strap which is attached to the girth and passes between the horse's front legs before dividing into two pieces. At the end of each of these straps is a small metal ring through which the reins pass. It is held in the correct position by a neck strap or breastplate.

A running martingale is adjusted so that each of the "forks" has about an inch of slack when the horse holds its head in the normal position. When correctly adjusted, the reins make a straight line from the rider's hand to the bit ring when the horse's head in at the correct height and the running martingale is not in effect.

When the horse raises its head above the desired point, the running martingale adds leverage through the reins to the bit on the bars of the horse's mouth. The leverage created by this pressure encourages the horse to lower its head. A running martingale provides more freedom for the horse than a standing martingale, as the rider can release pressure as soon as the desired result is achieved. Additionally, if a horse happens to trip on landing after a fence, the rider can loosen the reins and the horse will have full use of its head and neck.

Because of this safety factor, the running martingale is the only style of martingale permitted for use in eventing competitions and horse racing. Some show jumpers also prefer the running martingale due to the extra freedom it provides. Running martingales are also used outside of the competition arena on young horses being trained in the Saddle seat, western riding, and many other disciplines.

The German martingale, also called a Market Harborough, consists of a split fork that comes up from the chest, runs through the rings of the bit and attaches to rings on the reins of the bridle between the bit and the rider's hand. It acts in a manner similar to a running martingale, but with additional leverage. It is not show legal and is used primarily as a training aid. [2]

Safety and risks Edit

A running martingale is generally used with rein stops, which are rubber or leather stops slipped onto the rein between the bit and the ring of the martingale. Rein stops are compulsory at Pony Club and British Eventing Events. They are an important safety feature that stops the martingale from sliding too far forward and getting caught on the bit ring or on the buckles or studs that attach the reins to the bit. Sanctioning organizations require a running martingale to be used in conjunction with rein stops if the reins are buckled to the bit. [1]

The primary difficulty in use of a running martingale is the inability to raise the horse's head in the event of the animal bucking. If adjusted too short, lateral use of the reins may be impeded. If used improperly, the force exerted by the running martingale on the horse's mouth can be severe and for this reason the standing martingale is preferred in some circles. Improper use includes use on the reins of a curb bit adjustment too short, so that the equipment pulls the horse's head below the proper position.

The Irish martingale is not a true martingale in the sense of a device that affects the rider's control over the horse. Thus, it is sometimes known as a semi-martingale. It is a simple short strap with a ring on either end. The reins are each run through a ring on either side before being buckled. The Irish martingale's purpose is not to control the head, but to prevent the reins from coming over the horse's head, risking entanglement, should a rider fall. It is used mostly in European horse racing.

Martingales Buying Guide

There are a large range of different martingales available, this can make it difficult to choose the right one for your horse so we have put together this buying guide to help you decide.

At Equus we have a range of martingales from top brands including Shires Equestrian, Busse and Collegiate.

How this guide is structured

This buying guide tells you everything you need to know about buying a martingale - which ones you can get and which one is suitable for you and your horse.

Be sure to bookmark this page - we'll update it from time-to-time so it's always got the latest information you need to make the right choice for you and your horse.

How to use this guide

You can either read it from top to bottom or click on the links below to go straight to the section you want. At the end of each section is a handy link that'll bring you back to the top. Know what you're looking for? Shop our full range of martingales and breastplates now and remember, we offer free UK delivery on all orders at EQUUS, with no minimum spend.

Purpose of a Martingale

A martingale is a piece of equestrian tack designed to control a horse's head carriage and act as an additional form of control besides, for example, the bit. It prevents a horse from throwing its head so high that the rider gets hit in the face by the horse's poll or upper neck.

There are three main types of martingales: the standing, the running, and the German martingale. Each of these three types of martingales are used in different ways, for different reasons, and in different equestrian disciplines. A martingale is used to protect both horse and rider from injury. It also helps to either prevent bad head carriage habits from forming or to train a horse out of bad head carriage habits.

Martingales are usually made of leather, although they can also be made of strong synthetic material. It’s not essential to ride with one and it’s very much down to a rider’s personal preference. Hacking, hunting or even jumping tend to be when they’re often seen.

Knowing about the differences between the types of martingales available, including how they work, the benefits of each type, and when to use the different types is useful so that you can recognise when one might be required.

The Running Martingale

The Running Martingale is designed to work in conjunction with the bit. It features a long-looped harness strap that is anchored to the girth and a strap that fits over the horse's head and sits above the shoulders, as with a standing martingale. The running martingale differs by having two forked straps that are attached to the reins by metal rings. Sometimes a running martingale is referred to as "training forks" in western riding. It is important for riders to know how a running martingale works, the benefits it offers, as well as the safety issues associated with it.

How does a Running Martingale work?

The way a running martingale works is that when the horse raises its head too high, pressure is placed into the mouth through the reins and into the bit. This pressure encourages the horse to lower its head in order to release the pressure it feels in the bit.

What are the benefits of a Running Martingale?

A horse that carries its head too high can benefit from the use of a Running Martingale. Some riders like to use one on a horse that tends to speed up and get away from the rider. A Running Martingale is often preferred over a Standing Martingale, as the rider is able to offer more freedom to the horse, although there is less control of the horse's head movement.

When should a Running Martingale be used?

A Running Martingale is accepted under British Show Jumping and Bristish Eventing (in the show jumping and cross-country phases) rules. Running Martingales, just like Standing Martingales, cannot be used in dressage events. A running martingale can also be used by Pony Club riders and for hacking.

What safety issues do I need to aware of with a Running Martingale?

A Running Martingale is considered to be safer than its counterpart the Standing Martingale, as the rider has more control over allowing or restricting the horse's range of head movement. When using a Running Martingale, it’s important to use rein stops. These are placed between the martingale rings and the bit, and they stop the rings from dropping down to the bit and interfering with the lips and mouth of the horse.

It's important to measure the length of this martingale correctly. If the martingale is too short, then the horse's lateral head movement will be too restricted, and if it's too long, it will be ineffective in maintaining correct head position.

The Market Harborough

The Market Harborough, also called the German martingale, is similar to the Running Martingale except that the fork straps run through the rings of the bit and then attach to the reins.

What are the benefits of a Market Harborough?

A Market Harborough provides greater control of the horse's head than a Running Martingale by applying pressure through the bit and into the horse's mouth. The rider has a greater feel of the horse's mouth than when using either a Standing or Running Martingale.

When should a Market Harborough be used?

The Market Harborough is used as a training aid in order to teach a horse to flex at the poll and to relax to the feel of the bit, while still maintaining maximum appropriate head movement. Riders find this martingale very useful when trying to teach a horse collection.

This type of martingale cannot be used in competition events. It is used primarily as a training aid.

What safety issues do I need to aware of with a Market Harborough?

This type of martingale should always be used with a snaffle bit, not with a Pelham bit. The Market Harborough is considered a safe option for restricting horse head movement as it is, effectively, operated by the horse, not the rider. As the horse moves its head out of position, it feels pressure through the bit, and as soon as the horse corrects its head position, the pressure eases.

The Standing Martingale

The Standing Martingale consists of a neck strap that attaches to the girth and runs between the horses legs, through the neck strap up to the back of the nose band.

What are the benefits of a Standing Martingale?

The standing martingale is designed to encourage the horse to lower his head by putting pressure on the nose. When the horse lifts his head the strap puts pressure on the noseband encouraging the horse to keep his head lower. It can prevent the rider from being hit in the face when the horse throws his head up and prevents the head from going up past the point of control.

When should a Standing Martingale be used?

It should be used on a horse that puts their head up past the point of control, this is where the bit is no longer working correctly as the horses head is too high. It can be used on horses that constantly through their head up to prevent the rider being hit in the face. The standing martingale should only be used if the running martingale does not work.

What safety issues do I need to aware of with a Standing Martingale?

The standing martingale should only be used with a cavesson noseband. The standing martingale can restrict the horses movement, especially if it is not fitted correctly. If the standing martingale is too tight it can cause your horse to feel restricted and be uncomfortable.

Other Martingales

There are a handful of other martingale types available, although these are not as commonly used as the Market Harborough, Standing or Running Martingales. The Irish, Bib and Hunting Breastplate Martingales complete the list!

Irish Martingale

The Irish Martingale is used in horse racing and is designed to prevent the reins from sliding over the horse's head should the rider fall. The Irish martingale does nothing to restrict the horse's head movement and offers no control of the horse for the rider. It’s simply a safety precaution. For this reason, the Irish martingale is sometimes referred to as a semi-martingale. It is simply a short strap that connects both reins together in front of the horse's neck.

Bib Martingale

A Bib Martingale is a combination of Irish martingale and Running Martingale. It is commonly used for race horses and acts to keep the horse's head low while offering the same safety provided by the Irish martingale.

Hunting Breastplate Martingale

The Hunting Breastplate Martingale is a combination of breastplate, which helps to keep the saddle in place, and either Running or Standing martingale. The breastplate can be used on its own. The Hunting Breastplate Martingale is used in hunting classes or out in the hunting field.

Visit our specially curated collection of Martingales and Breastplates here.

Watch the video: Horse Training using the German Martingale, part 1

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