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Standing, Running or German – choosing the right martingale for the job.
Doris Eraldi

Martingales are probably the most common training devices used today. Properly adjusted, they can compensate for a green rider’s hands, help teach the horse to give to the bit and keep the horse’s head safely under control. There are two basic types of martingale – those that have a fixed position and those that adjust with the rider’s hands. Each has benefits and drawbacks depending on the situation. Choosing the right martingale for the job, and knowing how to properly adjust it, makes the difference between a training aid or a useless piece of equipment, or even worse a dangerous situation.

Standing Martingale or Tie-DownThe most basic type is the standing martingale, or the tie-down as it known to the Western rider. The standing martingale is a fixed length that goes from the cinch, up between the forelegs and attaches to a noseband. Some versions have a strap around the horse’s neck, or run through a ring on the breast collar but the main feature is that it is a static length and can not be adjusted by the rider’s hands. Standing martingales are particularly useful in situations where the rider might not have fine control of his hands, such as jumping, roping or speed events. The standing martingale or tie-down should be adjusted so that the horse’s head can be held in a comfortable normal position at all gaits, and the downward pressure on the noseband comes into play if the horse tosses his head or tries to raise it above the bit. An overly short tie-down can cause problems by forcing the horse into an unnatural position while working, which can create soreness and stress injuries. Also, there are times when it is vital that the horse be able to raise his head – if a horse stumbles, for example, he will toss his head and neck up to help regain his balance. If the tie-down interferes with this, the horse could fall. A too-loose standing martingale does nothing to help the horse and becomes just another piece of equipment that can tangle up.

Both running and German martingales operate by applying downward pressure on the reins or bit. They directly effect the bit in the horse’s mouth, as opposed to the standing martingale which applies pressure to the nose and does not involve the bit. In order for the properly adjusted running or German martingale to work, the rider must be involved.

running martingaleRunning martingales consist of two rings through which the reins are threaded. The rings are held on a strap that attaches to the cinch or breast collar. Sometimes there is a neck strap. If not the martingale is called a “training fork.” Adjust the strap so that when the horse’s head is in an acceptable position, there is no downward pressure, but if the horse raises his head and neck, the rider can apply some rein pressure and the rings will direct the pressure downward. The rider, by tightening or releasing the reins while riding, can control how much and how long the pressure from the martingale is applied. Running martingales are usually used with direct pressure bits such as ring snaffles. Be very careful about using either running or German martingales with curb bits. Also, always use rein stops with a running martingale. If the snaps on the reins become hooked on the sliding rings, a horse could panic and fall or rear. I routinely use running martingales on colts, so that if a problem happens I will have a tool ready at hand to help me regain control. I adjust my martingale so that it only comes into play if the horse’s head is extremely high.

German MartingaleGerman martingales are the most complicated of the martingales, but also the most sophisticated. Instead of simply sliding the reins through rings, the German reins actually split (usually achieved by hooking the martingale part of the reins to rings sewn onto the direct reins). This second pair of reins continues through the ring of the snaffle, and on down to the cinch. The advantage is that when the horse is responding correctly to bit pressure, there is no martingale effect, but if he raises his neck the martingale reins immediately come into play. When properly adjusted, there is little chance of over-flexing too, as the only pressure will be direct from the rider’s hands to the bit. German martingales can be a bit intimidating to a novice, as there are extra straps and adjustments to get used to, but overall they are very effective for teaching the horse to give to the bit. Another advantage to German martingales is that they do not limit lateral (sideways) movement of the reins.

Keep in mind that a rider should understand the effects of any training device, and have a reason for using it. If your horse tosses his head, rears or gets above the bit, rule out physical causes such as poorly fitting saddles or sore backs. Teeth problems, harsh hands, and severe or ill-fitting bits can also make a horse throw his head, and lack of good training is still the number one reason for problem horses. A properly adjusted martingale can make training easier, but it can’t replace it.

Doris Eraldi of Eraldi Training in Potter Valley specializes in Pleasure horses and Equitation riders. She can be contacted at 707-743-1337, or by e-mail

Read Doris' previous article

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