The running martingale is a simple piece of tack that has two rings that attach to a Y-shaped strap that attaches to the girth between the front legs. There is also a neck strap that keeps the running martingale up and out of the way of the front legs. Using a running martingale can give you the extra control you need when you need it, and be passive when you don’t. It is often used for trail, endurance, jumping, eventing, galloping race horses, reining, and training in all disciplines.
Traditionally the running martingale is used with a snaffle bit. When the rider pulls on the reins and the horse lifts his head high enough for the martingale to engage, it will pull on the bars and tongue to discourage the horse from raising his head too high, therefore getting out of the range of control of the bit. It can give you extra confidence to ride your horse down the trail or at speed knowing that there is a control device in place if the snaffle isn’t enough.
The running martingale should be adjusted so that when the horse’s head is in a normal position, the martingale is not in effect. A rule of thumb for the proper length is to put on the martingale and holding the rings, it should reach up to the level of the withers. When the horse raises his head because he is excited, spooked, or avoiding the bit, the running martingale should come into effect. It is not a device for teaching a horse to give in the jaw or poll. It assists the effect and action of the bit and adds power and brakes to whatever bit you are using when you need a little more leverage.
The valuable feature of the running martingale is that the rider has control of how much pressure it will put on the bit by adjusting the length of rein. On a loose rein, it will have no effect at all. When the reins are shortened, and the head goes up above the natural position it will then exert pressure. Being able to release the pressure is useful for when the horse feels trapped. You can release the reins and encourage the horse to continue to move forward, so he realizes the front door is open. With some horses, especially sensitive and hot ones, this is critical. Being able to release the reins is also a safety feature if the horse gets caught on something, or needs to get his head up to regain his balance. When using a standing martingale that is fixed to the noseband, there is no ability for the rider to release the restriction.
Another positive effect the running martingale can have is to help diminish or stop a spook or the 180-degree spin. When your horse spooks, it is an automatic reaction to tighten the reins. When you do so, the running martingale will somewhat restrict the horse’s movement forward and sideways just by putting extra pressure on the reins. It also is helpful to encourage your horse to keep his head straight while going down the trail and not wag his head side to side just by holding the reins with light contact.
There are however, some precautions to take while using a running martingale. The reins go through the running martingale rings, but to avoid the rings from getting caught on the bit (heaven forbid) you MUST USE REIN STOPS. Rein stops can be leather, rubber, or other synthetic material, but are most often made of rubber pieces that slide onto your reins between the bit and your hands preventing the rings from sliding down and getting too close to the bit. The other precaution is to never allow the horse to bend his head so far around that there is a chance he can get the bit, rein, or the martingale caught on your stirrup, girth, saddle, saddle bag or any other piece of tack. This is a precaution even without the running martingale, but with the martingale can really make the horse feel trapped and cause a train wreck. You can also use a rubber martingale stop to keep the piece that goes down to the girth in place at the neck strap.
When you go for a trail ride, gallop cross country, or ride a green horse you can be more confident that you can handle whatever comes up when using a running martingale, or a running martingale attachment to your breastplate. If you don’t need it, it doesn’t bother the horse to have it attached. And if you do need it – it’s a relief that it’s there.
Watch the Action Rider Tack video about running martingales