Question: What is a German martingale and how does it work on a horse? My horse tosses her head all the time and my friend told me to use one. Are they expensive? How much will one cost? What are other types of martingales and how do they compare?
Answer from April Reeves: Wow, lots of questions here! The German martingale is a specialized piece of training equipment for experienced riders. It differs from other martingales as it allows lateral movement with little restriction. Unlike draw reins, which only allow longitudinal flexion and never really gives relief from pressure, German martingales will release the pressure on the bit. They also allow the rider to adjust the level of ‘confinement’ of the head and jaw. It is a multi-discipline tool, used in western and English training. (photo from Larry Trocha)
There is a really great video on what it looks like, how to fit it on a horse, and how to ride with it. Go to this page:
Horseman’s U.com/german martingale video
They cost anywhere from $29 to $140. I would not use the cheaper one, as you are opening yourself up to equipment failure from poorly made products. You can purchase a good quality German martingale from Larry Trocha’s site: Larry Trocha
It is not something I would suggest a beginner to use alone without supervision. My concern for you is that you first need basic instruction to get your mare to relax her jaw and poll, as this is where the problem is. It is not however, where the problem began.
I don’t know what bit you are using, but head tossing is created from the avoidance of pain or discomfort. Is there a good instructor in your area who can help you with this? It’s not an easy fix, and using any form of equipment could create a worse problem or a wreck.
Learn softness from the start
Getting your horse soft and supple, and relaxing at the poll and jaw is a matter of timing and feeling, which I believe every new rider should learn. By setting up the training of the rider to understand timing and feel early in their riding skills will only benefit him/her in all future riding, as it is one of the least understood concepts, yet one of the most valuable. All my students have an excellent grasp of this, and not only have safe and soft mounts, but are able to take this ‘understanding’ to any other horse they ride and produce relaxation and safety quickly.
Function and benefits of German Martingale versus draw reins, standing and running martingales
Let’s look at each martingale. First, Draw Reins. They come up through the horse’s front legs, run through the bit and back to your hands. While they appear to keep the horse’s head in position, they have constant pressure and contact with the bit/mouth. When they are taken off the horse, the horse usually reverts back to old habits, as the rein contact in your hands will feel different to him/her. In the wrong hands, they will eventually over-flex neck muscles and vertebrae and create sore backs. They are not a quick fix for head postition, muscling or softening.
Standing martingale or tie-down
These also come up through the legs, and some models attach by a breastplate, but they keep the head in position by sheer force and restriction. They attach to a noseband, and when the horse throws its head up, they hit the noseband and are unable to go any further. Once again, if you take this off, the horse will revert to its original habit.
This martingale comes up through the horse’s legs, attached to the breastplate. They are 2 separate straps with rings at the end that your reins run through. These are a bit better as they allow for some lateral flexion, and will release pressure when the head is in a desired position. Running martingales can be adjusted to allow for light or strong contact, thus creating another forced position for the horse if it is positioned too tight. Anything forced on a horse’s head is not training. They create a lowered head position when adjusted tight. Running martingales are able to release full rein pressure, allowing the ‘hand to bit’ contact, and when the horse changes his position by bringing his head up, the martingale takes effect and puts downward pressure on the bit.
These come up through the front legs and run through the bit, and attach to rings sewn on to the reins. You can alter the degree of head position by attaching the ends up closer on the rings to your hands.
The best part of this equipment is the ability to fully release. As the horse sets his head in position, the ends that run through the reins ‘disappear’, in the sense that they no longer have any pressure on the mouth. The only pressure is ‘bit to hand’. Now the horse feels exactly what it will be like when the martingale is taken off, and if used sparingly, the horse will stay in position.
Also, when you work laterally, you can release the ‘draw rein’ pressure by bringing your hand forward, thus allowing the movement you need.
German martingales are different from other martingales in that they allow for pressure release in all movements. Instead of restricting the horse entirely or using a more extreme version of pressure, you can use the German martingale to ‘suggest’ to the horse you would like him to position himself in a specific way. I have often used it when trying to keep a horse from ‘bobble heading’, which is a habit some older trail horses get into, where they move their heads about like one of those toys in the back seats of cars. I attach the martingale at the end of the ride for about 5 minutes at a walk and trot, and within 3-5 rides, the bobble heading stops. You can do this with contact also, but I’m working at getting it with a loose rein, therefore ‘suggesting’ to the horse to change. The German martingale has lots of other purposes, but that would be a small book to write.
There are also some very technical martingales, but these should only be used in the most educated of hands.
While I do not like to rely on them, using any form of martingale is often a necessity at times. It is part of a rider’s education, and is a good follow up to teaching and educating with timing and release first. I believe you should strive for education first before venturing into mechanical aids.