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All tied up

by Rebecca Colnar, Article donated by the mane points horse resource center.

Before you strap a martingale or tie-down on your steed, make sure the head tossing doesn't have a valid reason.

"Head tossing can have several physical causes," Susan Harris points out. "The teeth may need to be floated, or the animal could have a sore back. A saddle that's pinching and grabbing behind the shoulders will make a horse throw its head and prance around."

The Cortland, N.Y., pony club instructor advises a thorough veterinary and dental check-up first. A thumbs-up on health might lead you to investigate how martingales might mitigate the problem.

"Martingales and tie-downs don't train a horse to keep its head down," the pony club instructor explains; "they prevent him from throwing it. If you need to use one, make sure the horse has had the proper training and that you're using the right bit. Otherwise, you're just sticking a Band-Aid over a nasty wound."

Basically, a martingale/tie-down is a strap that runs from the girth to the noseband.

"All it does is limit how high a horse can raise its head," Harris says. "It doesn't affect the bit."

There are two basic types, the standing martingale--known as a tie-down in the western-riding world--and the running martingale or training fork. The standing martingale is used successfully in fast-action sports such as polo, barrel racing and roping.

"When horses are doing activities at speed and the adrenalin's pumping, a standing martingale is common," Harris notes.

"It not only limits how high a horse can raise his head, but horses also use it for balance when changing speed or direction."

A running martingale starts at the girth, runs through the front legs and splits into a fork for the reins. When the head is in a normal position, the reins form a straight line from the bit, through the rings to the rider's hands.

Martingales are no substitute for good training and quiet hands.

"When a horse throws its heads up there is downward pressure on the reins," Harris explains. "But the running martingale should be used only with a snaffle bit. Keep in mind that it takes a rider with good hands to use it properly."

She insists that a safety rein stop must be used in conjunction with a running martingale. That makes it impossible for the martingale to slide down and catch on the bit fastening when the horse lowers its head.

The Western version of a running martingale is called a training fork. It doesn't always have the strap around the neck, but works the same way. Sometimes they're made from elastic or tubular rubber.

Use a martingale--or any training device that restricts the head--with care, especially the first time.

"The horse's instinct is to fight against anything that grabs its head," Harris says. "It may panic and throw its head hard and high, even to the point of falling over backwards."

Rebecca Colnar is editor of The Mane Points.

Before you use a martingale...
  • Check with an equine dentist.
  • Make sure you're using the right bit, correctly adjusted.
  • Make sure the saddle isn't hurting the horse's back.
  • Have an expert check your hands and balance.
  • Determine whether this is an activity in which a martingale is standard equipment.
  • Be sure you know how to adjust it properly.

Martingales are no substitute for good training and quiet hands.

Read the next horse training article on How to Use Bit While Riding.
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