Many people misunderstand the purpose of a running martingale for the Western horse. It’s not to trap or confine a horse’s head. The purpose is to use the weight of the rings and the leather fork attached to them to offer a quicker release to a horse when he responds to rein cues, as well as help the horse flex at the poll. When you release your rein pressure, the martingale weighs down the reins, getting the release signal to the horse sooner.
As with all tack, getting the most out of a martingale relies on how the setup is made, correct adjustment, and proper use. I’ll discuss those points here.
Leather Is Best
I prefer a leather running martingale. I’ve used them made of all kinds of materials—nylon, cord, etc.—but leather has the body and life necessary to get the release you’re looking for. A leather martingale hangs better and holds up to use. One made from flimsy materials or even poor-quality leather floats around and doesn’t do the job.
Additionally, choose a martingale with large, heavy rein rings. They add weight, which aids in the quick release of pressure. If you use the martingale with a shanked bit, larger rings won’t get hung up on the shank and lead to problems. This also allows me to skip using rein stops.
Adjust for Function
The strap that runs between the legs and connects to the ring on the cinch is the only adjustment point on a running martingale. You can lengthen or shorten that piece according to your horse’s build. For proper adjustment, snap your martingale to the cinch, then adjust the strap so the rings are 2 to 3 inches from your horse’s throatlatch. If you adjust the martingale too short/tight, you’ll lose all feel with the horse’s mouth. The rings will pull the reins down before they reach your hands instead of your reins being a direct line from the bit to your hands.
On my setup, you’ll see a strap around my horse’s neck. It’s not adjustable, but should fit comfortably around your horse’s neck. When your reins are loose, this piece keeps the fork from getting too low, which the horse could step on or get tangled in.
Remember to check the martingale’s adjustment on each horse before you use it. The first horse you ride might have a shorter neck than the next one, requiring you to lengthen the strap for correct adjustment.
The single most dangerous thing you can do with a running martingale is to use it with reins that snap to a bit rather than attach with leather ties. The martingale’s rings can get stuck on those metal snaps and make your horse flip over on you. Only use a martingale with reins without snaps, whether a single rein or split reins.
Once I have a young horse going in a snaffle, I add a running martingale so he can feel that quick release from my reins and for an aid if he is extremely out of position. I can also use it for aged horses, whether in the snaffle or curb bit for reiterating fundamentals.
Al Dunning, Scottsdale, Arizona, has produced world champion horses and riders in multiple disciplines. He’s been a professional trainer for more than 40 years, and his expertise has led him to produce books, DVDs, and his own online mentoring program, Team AD International (teamadinternational.com).