How Does a German Martingale Work?

Written by rena sherwood
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How Does a German Martingale Work?
Some horses may benefit from a German martingale. (horse rearing image by Clarence Alford from

Martingales are pieces of tack that help a rider get more control of a horse, keep the horse from tossing his head and keep the reins from flipping over the horse’s head. A German martingale is a little different from other types such as the Irish martingale, the standing martingale or the running martingale. It is meant only as a temporary training aid and to work only on the flat or on the lunge line but not over jumps.


A German martingale, also called a Market Harborough, helps to keep the horse’s neck slightly arched and head down in order to keep her collected, balanced and more flexible than when her nose is up in the air. This works by fixing the horse’s head into position but without pulling on the bit, which could damage the horse’s sensitive mouth. It also helps to stop horses that chronically rear.


A German martingale looks like a "Y" at one end, with a thin loop in the middle and a thick loop at the other end. The thick loop first goes around the girth or front cinch. The middle loop goes around the base of the horse’s neck. Each branch of the Y part slips through the rings of the bit and fastens onto itself. The loop around the horse’s neck should not be so loose that it flops about and risks getting caught in branches or other objects, but it should not be so tight where you cannot slip your fingers easily between it and the horse’s neck.


Although martingales are often associated with horse racing or with English style riding, they can be used for horses ridden in the Western style. But they are called “tie downs” instead of “martingales.” Always check the rules of a particular rodeo or horse show event to see if German martingales are allowed to be used. Often, they are not allowed in the show ring but are allowed in the warm-up ring to help remind the horse where his head and neck should be positioned.


Unlike other pieces of equipment such as draw reins, a German martingale helps the horse keep her head in the right position and stay balanced during turns without the rider having to deal with an extra set of reins. When the horse’s head is in the right position, the pressure on the horse’s head is released instead of feeling a constant downward pull. The horse may not know when the martingale is on or off. When it is taken off, he will still keep his head in the position that he learnt and will not feel any pulling.


German martingales come with three or more small settings. The settings closer to the chest mean the horse has to lower and bow his neck more. More is not better in the case of a German martingale. Use only the mildest setting possible in order to stop the horse from tossing his head, to keep him responsive to the bit and to help balance him when making turns. His chin should not nearly touch his chest and he should not be left for hours in the martingale. After the training session is over, either loosen the martingale or unfasten the Y-branches back through the bit and fasten them to the loop around the neck.

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