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What Does A Martingale Do For A Horse?

Last updated: December 7, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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Many tools and pieces of equipment are used in the world of horses and horsemanship, each serving a unique purpose and function. One such piece of equipment is the martingale. But what exactly does a martingale do for a horse, and how is it used in the world of equestrian sports?

A martingale restricts a horse’s excessive upward head movement and gives riders better control of their horses. They are primarily used for training horses to keep their heads in the correct position. However, if used incorrectly, martingales can cause pain and damage a horse’s mouth, neck, back, and spine.

Martingales, when used correctly, can be helpful for both the horse and the rider during training and as a temporary measure. They have their uses and are legal and acceptable in many fields but under certain conditions. Now that you have an overview of martingales let’s take a more detailed look at this helpful tool.

Picture of a horse with a martingale.

What is a Martingale?

A martingale is a piece of equipment used on horses to help with training and control. It is a strap or set of straps that attach to the reins then goes under the horse’s chest, and hooks to the girth. The purpose of a martingale is to limit a horse’s ability to raise its head too high or pull against the reins.

This can help to prevent a horse from lifting its head high, which can interfere with its balance and ability to move correctly. Martingales are often used on horses still in training or on horses that tend to pull on the reins or toss their heads.

They are also commonly used in certain equestrian disciplines, such as dressage, where a horse is required to maintain a specific head position. Martingales can help a horse learn to carry its head in the desired position and can also provide the rider with added control in certain situations.

Overall, using a martingale can be beneficial for horses in training or those needing additional control. However, it’s important to use a martingale properly and only as a training aid, as improper use can cause discomfort or pain for the horse.

It’s also important to consult a knowledgeable trainer or instructor before using a martingale on your horse to instruct you on the correct way to use and adjust the equipment.

What are the different types of martingales?

Broadly, there are two types of martingales: standing and running. However, within these broad categories, you get various subtypes of martingales with different designs and purposes.

Some examples include tie-down, German, and Irish. Martingales can also have a breastplate to prevent the saddle from slipping backward, forward, or to the side.

This YouTube explains the difference between standing, running, and Irish martingales.

YouTube video

The purposes of horse martingales.

From a rider’s point of view, martingales have a few uses. They help a rider control their horse by restricting its head movement, and they promote the appearance of a horse’s carriage.

If a horse rears or whacks its head back, the rider could lose their teeth when connecting with the horse’s poll. A martingale reduces that risk. However, what might help the rider doesn’t really help the horse.

The overuse or misuse of a martingale can have the opposite effect on a horse’s carriage, despite appearances. For example, while wearing a martingale, a horse’s head might be in the correct position, but only because it is too painful to move its head freely.

As a result, some muscles that should be relaxed tense up, which is not what we look for in carriage. You can imagine how certain muscles would overdevelop and ache if you were forced to perform with restrictive gear regularly.

Eventually, chronically poor posture will lead to other issues like arthritis or biomechanical changes. It’s not something we want to do to our horses unnecessarily.

If a rider opts to use a martingale on a horse, they should consider the various types available and what they want to achieve. A rider will also need to investigate if a specific martingale is legal for use in their area or riding discipline.

A responsible rider who uses a martingale will give as much slack as possible to avoid hindering their horse’s movement too much and hurting it.

We primarily only use a martingale when training young horses. If one of our horses has a tendency to work with its head high, we will use a martingale. I’ve found that less than thirty percent of our horses need a martingale.

And once they learn to keep their head low, we stop using it. It’s important that martingales aren’t relied on because you can’t race a horse with one.

Picture of a gray horse with a martingale.

Standing Martingales For Horses

A standing martingale is used in Western and English riding. Its purpose is to train a horse to have the correct head carriage – which is a debatable topic all on its own.

A standing martingale is a single strap that attaches to the girth, comes through the horse’s front legs, and connects to the horse’s noseband. It can have extra attachments like a neck strap or a breastplate.

The Western version of the English-style standing martingale is called a “tie-down” or head check. It’s a form of controlling a horse’s head height and is shorter and more limiting. In Western riding disciplines, tie-downs are used during speed and turning events.

They can be much harsher on a horse’s mouth, neck, and back than standing martingales. Tie-downs are show-legal in the United States for hunt seat equitation, show hunter, rodeo, and gymkhana games. They are not allowed in other Western-style competitions.

In the United Kingdom, standing martingales are allowed in show jumping and polocrosse, for example. You might see the military and police using standing martingales on their horses. However, standing martingales are not permitted in flat classes.

The Risks Of Standing Martingales Or Tie-downs

Standing martingales have quite a few risks attached to them. They are as follows:

  • Standing martingales or tie-downs can’t be loosened quickly in an emergency.
  • If a horse trips, it could fall because of its restricted head movement.
  • Misuse or overuse can lead to the neck muscles becoming too thick.
  • The horse could become emotionally stressed because of the pain caused when it moves its head.
  • Combining a short martingale and a harsh bit increases the risk of accidents.
  • The horse’s muscles can become tense and overdeveloped from compensating and trying to avoid painful sensations.
Picture of a horse in training with a martingale.

Running Martingales For Horses

Running martingales differ from standing martingales in that they attach to the reins instead of the horse’s noseband. They offer more slack to the horse when it holds its head in a normal position.

The purpose of a running martingale is to allow the rider more leverage and control over the bit in the horse’s mouth but through the reins. The German martingale is a variant of the running martingale, which offers even further leverage.

Both running and German martingales should be used in conjunction with rein stops to prevent the reins from getting caught in the bit ring. Running martingales allow a horse more head movement than a standing martingale.

However, a rider who is not gentle with their hands can cause their horse a great deal of pain in the mouth area. This is because a running martingale acts as an additional pulley on the reins and bit, causing increased pain in the horse’s mouth.

Running martingales is allowed in eventing and show jumping. They can be helpful when training young horses as long as the trainer knows what they are doing. German martingales are not show-legal but are allowed for training in certain associations.

The Pros and Cons of Running Martingales

A running martingale used carefully and adjusted well is more comfortable for the horse than a standing martingale. It will allow the horse more head movement and freedom because the rider can release pressure through the reins when necessary.

The downside of a running martingale is that it can really hurt a horse’s mouth if the rider is inexperienced or aggressive with the reins. Additionally, if the horse is bucking, you can’t raise its head with the martingale.

You can watch this YouTube video to see how to fit a running martingale.

YouTube video

Irish Martingales For Horses

The Irish martingale isn’t designed to control the height of a horse’s head. Instead, it is intended to prevent the reins from going over the horse’s head, resulting in entanglement. Irish martingales are used in European horse racing and are also called semi-martingales.


The use of martingales is a contentious issue in the equestrian community. Many riders use martingales for increased control over their horses, specifically during training and some equestrian events.

Other riders believe martingales are cruel mechanical devices that limit a horse’s quality of movement. Standing and running martingales are designed to limit the head movement of a horse during riding.

They are helpful for riders but can be counterproductive when training a horse to have a good carriage. Martingales can hurt a horse’s mouth, neck muscles, back, spine, and legs if not used and attached correctly. Therefore, they should be used sparingly for the horse’s welfare.