Musings on Martingales

Lately, I have been watching a lot of live feeds of grand prix and other high level jumper classes, as shows are running again. One of the things I perpetually work on is getting Steve light up front, with his hind end under him, so he has all of his power available to the jumps. His preferred way of going is more on his forehand, which works okay until you get past 1.10m…and then it gets harder and harder for both of us. 

For Steve, being on his forehand means that he has to work a lot more to be clear. Given that not touching the fence is one of his personal rules, sometimes he really has to heave himself over, instead of being rocked back and balanced so he can use his hind end. Steve has a lot of scope and always feels like a giant ball, so these extra efforts can throw me out of the tack. In fact, a few years ago I was schooling him at home and we got to a 4’ jump on the forehand.  His compensatory giant effort to get over it without touching the rails boosted me onto his neck and then onto the ground, where I dislocated my elbow!  Side note: this is not recommended! At any rate, if Steve lands in a bit of a heap, we aren’t in a good position to get to the next fence because we have to reorganize ourselves. And so on; the point is that I need his head up, I need to be able to put him in front of my leg, and he needs to be under himself and balanced to jump those big fences confidently.

If one thing is clear to me from watching all of these rounds of many of the top show jumping riders and horses in the world, it is that we all need our horses’ balance to be UP. Why, then, do we use running martingales? When a rider asks the horse to balance up, they run into the martingale loops and sometimes seem stuck in the neck at that point. Obviously this doesn’t affect most of these world-class horses, but it seems like a good question to consider, nonetheless. Why are we using the tack we use?

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge/Unsplash/CC.

When I rode in the hunters as a junior, we all slapped a standing martingale on; that was (and is) The Look, whether one needed it or not. If it is loose enough, there is no interference with the jump for 99% of these hunters. Some of the wilder show jumpers absolutely appear to need a running so they won’t fling their heads up and back too much.  The rider definitely doesn’t want to get hit in the face, either! It is very rare to see anyone doing a GP without a running martingale these days, though, and I have a feeling they are mostly unnecessary.

I am a bit skewed more toward this feeling due to the fact that I rode for many years with Packy McGaughan, sadly now passed, and one of the first things he did when he saw me in that first lesson was to remove my jumper’s running martingale. He asked me why I used it and when I couldn’t provide any real answer other than that “um, everyone does?”…he took it off. He reminded me that one of our goals as a rider is to not interfere with the horse’s jump, and that the running was doing this for mine every time he hit the ends of it. I have not felt the need to use one on any horse since, and at this point I don’t even own a martingale.

Again, this is not to say that some horses don’t need them; a chronic head-flinger can be dangerous to ride. But, as Packy would often say, most tack issues are more of a training problem and the effort to solve them should at least start there. For Steve, putting a running on would be really dumb! Getting him to go with his poll up while he is through his back, as I mentioned above, is a major goal for me every time I ride, jumping or just flatting. Watching these top horse and rider combinations go around, the vast majority of them built similarly to my own bouncy ball of a WB, I wonder how many would jump even better with a simple tack change.

Perhaps this sounds really arrogant! What do I, little Ms. Ammy Rider, know about how someone regularly jumping 1.50-1.60m tracks chooses their tack? I certainly don’t think running martingales are “bad” or in any way harmful to the horse. And, I also have experimented with all sorts of different tack solutions for issues that sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t.  I do see the benefit in those trials. However, considering why we use what tack we do on this or that horse is a basic inquiry we should all make of ourselves, and I am very interested to hear what others have to think about it. Why do you use the particular tack your horse goes in?

Editor’s Note: Especially with show season upon us, we’re super curious to learn about each of our readers’ tack assemblies for their horses — Leave a comment on Facebook; there are no “wrong” answers!  I personally use a standing martingale on one of my mares, as it helps to remind her to stay in a “listening” place even if she’s excited when the jumps go up.  We don’t need one to flat.  If anything, she has her head on the floor from being too relaxed.  I must pick and choose my battles, ha!  My other mare doesn’t go in any sort of martingale.  Both are in basic snaffles.  Neither really need open front boots, but I do put them on both horses for flatting or jumping.  They don’t have any way of going like paddling or winging, but sometimes it’s inevitable that you have a trip or weird step, and then you’re very glad you had the boots on when you remove them after the ride and there’s a big scuff that could have been worse with bare legs!