Running or standing martingale: which to use?

Running or Standing martingale: which to use?
STanding martingale
A standing martingale should be adjusted so that it does not interfere with the horse’s head carriage unless there is a problem.

The decision over whether to use a running or standing martingale depends on what you want to accomplish and, so a certain extent, your discipline.

If you are a show hunter, there’s not really a choice. Standing martingales are standard operating equipment, even on horses that don’t actually need them. In competitions, the standing martingale is part of the “look” and people believe a horse looks odd without one.

However, for most people, the choice of martingale, or even whether to use one, is a question of function.

Why use a martingale at all?

Running or standing martingales both serve the purpose of controlling the height at which a horse carries its head. In theory, it is a safety device to keep the rider from being hit in the face if the horse throws its head too high. In practice, riders sometimes adjust the martingale to achieve a “set” head position, which is not an appropriate use because it then restricts the ability of the horse to use it’s neck position for balance.

Although both devices achieve the goal of limiting head height, they accomplish it in very different ways.

Standing Martingale

In this picture, the martingale is too short -- you can see how it restricts the horse.
In this picture, the martingale is too short — you can see how it restricts the horse.

The standing martingale is essentially a strap that attaches the noseband to the girth or breastplate.  It controls the horse’s head position by putting pressure on the noseband. It should be adjusted so that when the horse’s head is in a neutral position, the strap can fit up under the horse’s throat latch.

A standing martingale is particularly useful for a horse that inverts and tosses its head. I had a mare like that once; she must have been part giraffe because she could get her head in my lap so fast that it was frightening. I used a standing martingale on her when I first started riding her so that she wouldn’t hurt me. It also taught her (and pretty quickly) that if she flung her head up and back she would be brought up short.

One of the great advantages of the standing martingale is that is a self-correcting device that is activated by the horse — it is passive. Once the “correction” is made the martingale releases and no longer has any influence. It is more dangerous than a running martingale because in certain situations it is more restrictive — it cannot be easily loosened and if a horse falls or catches a leg it could be very dangerous. Standing martingales are not allowed to be used during the cross country phase of eventing competitions for this reason.

Running Martingale

The running martingale is more complex. It attaches from the girth or breastplate to the reins. It should be adjusted so there is at least an inch of slack when the horse’s head is in a neutral position. Unlike the standing martingale, the running adds leverage to the bit. When the rider pulls on the reins the martingale rings pull down. This adds pressure to the bars of the mouth. One of the disadvantages to the running martingale is that there is always some pressure on the reins due to the weight of the rings unless the rider is riding on the buckle. That’s one reason why many people don’t use a running on a leverage bit like a gag/elevator and why you would always attach the rings to the snaffle rein on a pelham.

A running martingale should have some slack in the forks when the head is in neutral.
A running martingale should have some slack in the forks when the head is in neutral and should always be used with rein stops to keep the rings from getting caught in the bit.

Running martingales are less restrictive than standing martingales and are considered by many to be safer (they can be used in eventing, for example). However, they should always be used with rein stops, which prevent the rings from slipping down and getting caught on the bit. I have seen people ride without the rein stops and that really makes me cringe because they can cause a terrible accident if the bit were to become caught in a ring.

Personally, I hunt with a running martingale. I appreciate the extra leverage that I get from the martingale as it allows me to use a milder bit and out hunting, Freedom can sometimes get above the bit and very excited. I rarely ride with one otherwise. However, I always use a running attachment to a breastplate. Out hunting you don’t want to have a regular martingale where the neck strap doesn’t attach to the saddle. It’s too easy for it to get over your horse’s head if he should trip or drop his head suddenly. The few people I’ve seen with a standard martingale out in the hunt field tie a bit of baling twine around the neck strap and then fasten it to a d-ring.

What about you? Do you ride with a martingale? Which one and why?

9 thoughts on “Running or standing martingale: which to use?

  1. My mom’s horse can sometimes toss her head, so we use a running martingale if Mom rides her. As she rides on a looser rein and asks for less than I do (I’m schooling 2nd/3rd level dressage, Mom is riding a relaxed walk/trot) and the mare tosses her head w/ Mom specifically, just getting her more means of control is the way to go. The more training I put in, the better the horse is, though.

  2. I was knocked right off a horse years ago and a running martingale has become standard equipment for me ever since. I think standings are dangerous in the case of a big stumble since they can stop a horse from getting its head up high enough to save himself. My pet peeve with the running is when it is used to get the head down. It should not engage until the horse is above the bit. Since I don’t do hunters I don’t own a standing. 😉

  3. I’ve never felt comfortable using a standing martingale, but will use a running martingale when I think it may help. Mostly, as a step up in control, especially when the horse is content in the bit it’s using.

  4. I need an stanging martingale cus rocco (my horse) and me need this so he will stop throing his head up and it is ok for him too.

  5. I have an Anglo Arab mare who is always up on her feet and fast, she flicks her head side to side more then she does up. I would prefer a standing martingale as it can limit what she can do more but shes also unsafe and pigroots/bucks quite a bit which could mean a standing could be dangerous but a running might not be firm enough to do the trick?


    1. I’m not sure how it could help your horse develop it’s neck muscles. A Standing Martingale only comes into effect if the horse raises its head/neck too high. It is a great tool if you have a horse that inverts or one that tosses its head back toward your face. I would not use it to develop your horse’s neck. Truly, a horse’s topline only improves when it starts to use it’s body correctly and that means pushing from behind through the back. The head and neck position are the result of a correct body position.

  7. @Moreh King.. You should not be using a Standing martingale for making an outline! Your handler really needs to read some of the articles available & you should too. I use both types of martingale A running for schooling & a standing when out hacking. The running aids your hands & gives extra help when needed. The standing, on a breastplate when fitted correctly stops my mare throwing her head & butting me in the face. She also got into rearing up vertically when she thought we’d gone far enough when hacking out. Mostly we walk & trot out hacking I would never go galloping over fields with a Standing as it’s a danger to both of us

    1. If you use a standing martingale, it’s very important not to have it adjusted too tightly. It should not interfere with normal head carriage, rather, as Pinkee Riches said, keeping your horse from throwing their head back and bopping you in the nose. The advantage of a standing is that it has no effect except when the horse misbehaves. A running martingale always has at least some impact, simply because of the weight of the rings on the reins. However, while I’ll hunt with a running martingale, I think a standing is too dangerous.

Leave a Reply