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.
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.
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.
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?