The Use of Martingales and Draw Reins

Used properly, training devices such as martingales and draw reins can improve a horse’s performance.

You have to know when to use them.

Draw Reins
Taking your time is the most important training device there is. Journal photo.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

A pleasure horse, either under English or western tack, is supposed to be a pleasure to ride. He’s soft at the trot, flexed at the poll, responsive to the rider, looks straight through the bridle and moves with collection.

A horse that roots his nose, moves trashy, fights the bit, throws his head and is rough in a gait is not a pleasure to ride.

Two of the devices many horsemen use to solve such training problems are martingales and draw reins. Used properly, training devices such as these can improve a horse’s performance.

Tommy Sheets, who won his first world title in 1980 junior trail, and Patsy Beever caution that improper use of these artificial aids can quickly destroy a horse’s responsiveness to the rider.

Martin has practical solutions for horse and rider problems that he shares in AQHA’s Horse Training Techniques with Martin Black report.

“You have to know how and when to use them,” Patsy says. “Martingales and draw reins are helpful aids, but they’re neither meant to be used permanently, nor together. Each operates quite differently. A martingale will assist in keeping a horse’s nose down, whereas draw reins will pull the head down and back. Both devices will aid in correcting several head, neck and body problems.

“It has been my experience,” Patsy says, “that in order to train horses properly, using artificial aids or not, it takes 80 percent brains, 10 percent strength and 10 percent horse. By using training devices improperly, no matter how good the horse is, you can absolutely ruin him.”

Patsy continues, “As long as a rider goes about training a horse to do something in a patient and methodical manner, that in itself will help keep him from making mistakes and getting into wrecks. Nothing will last if it is done irregularly. Consistency when giving cues is the key to teaching a horse many maneuvers, whether is it setting his head or moving correctly.”

Patsy explains that when a rider is experiencing a problem with his or her horse, certain elements should be considered before selecting a training aid of any kind.

“The first thing a rider should do when his performance starts sliding downhill is to check himself,” she says. “Check body and hand position and posture in the saddle. Bad habits with riders create bad habits with horses.

“Next, a rider should check his horse. Sometimes a problem can be easily solved by just adding another pad or rubbing a horse down with some liniment after a strenuous workout.”

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When a rider is having trouble locating his or his horse’s problems, Patsy advises going to someone who can help finding a cure. “This doesn’t mean a person has to go to a horse trainer, but it is a good idea to go to someone who knows horses and can intelligently study the problem. Ask the person to watch you ride. Many times, this person can immediately spot the problem and offer some kind of advice.

“Martingales, in addition to draw reins, can be recommended for a horse who will not flex at the poll, will not break at the crest and wither, and will not tuck its nose and carry its head correctly.

“But each of these training aids has different pressure points,” Patsy says. “A running martingale, for instance, is more a basic device than draw reins. Draw reins can be more severe and are used to overhaul a horse’s headset and position. A martingale will help a horse steady his head and bring it down as well as back. The martingale should be set when the horse is standing in a natural position. The rein rings of the martingale should be set at the height of the horse’s chin when pulled up toward the throatlatch. It is important to note that martingales should not be set so short that they interfere with the rein action when the horse’s head is in the normal position.”

Both martingales and draw reins teach a horse to give to the bit. But the severity of the horse’s problem and the experience of the rider will determine which device should be used. Draw reins require a more experienced rider since they are more severe, and a rider can apply twice as much pressure on the horse’s mouth than with normal reins.

20 thoughts on “The Use of Martingales and Draw Reins”

  1. Hello,

    it’s hard to believe that people are still using such training aids. With today’s promotion of natural horsemanship there are other ways to get the same result. I for one only use a full cheek snaffle bit when I train a horse.
    If you spend the time on the ground using your headstall and teaching your horse to give to the bit, flexing and bending at the poll, the transition to the saddle is easy and your horse will carry it’s head properly and collect naturally.


  2. Totally agree with you Larry. I believe these devices are antique and a sign of impatience. And…. Tommy won the the title in “1980”?….that’s over 30yrs. ago. Our relationship with the horse has come along way since then. If a horse is properly trained, patience, time, and respect, these devices are not needed.

  3. Good article about the training aids. It is right, they can be overused as well as misused by riders. But I also agree with Larry, they are not the only way to get correct results. I only use each training aid mentioned when a horse has a hard time understanding what it is I’m asking and I use it to help them achieve the desired result I’m looking for. Once they get it, they go away and I almost never have to go back to the training aid.

    Correctly bitting a horse is also a major factor in how a horse will respond to flexing. Putting “more bit” in the horses mouth will almost never get the results you are asking for, they will only create more resistance. Another thing to look at is a propperly fitted saddle. In order for a horse to flex properly they will use the muscle on the top of their neck, which is connected to the muscle that rounds their back and engages their hindquarters. If the saddle is ill fitting they will not want to round their back up into saddle.

  4. I agree with what all of you are saying…however, my mare can be very stubborn and not listen to those types of training. I used draw reins on her numerous occasions and was always very light with my hands and half way through my ride when she was giving again I would remove them. They are not a terrible thing when used properly.

  5. Artificial aids are useful, temporary trainings aids for some, IF– they are used and adjusted correctly. Having said that, I agree with all the comments above and for myself, there is pretty much no situation in which I would use draw reins; although many show horse trainers that I highly respect use them with success, which indicates they have a place, if used correctly. In my expreince, most people do not use these artifical aids correctly and draw reins in particular can be very cruel when used inappropriately (I once saw a jumping horse stressed to self-mutilation, biting her own shoulders bloody under heavy handed draw reins). I have written and spoken a lot on this subect.

  6. I agree, but given the amount of horses on the market who have gone thru inexperienced hands before they finally get help creates a whole new set of issues when they finally do get to a qualified professional.
    Most of these horses have won all their battles, have learned to push a rider out of their seats by rooting and have learned if they push, their riders will give up and guress who has won? Yup, the horse.
    Now enter the trainer- most of the time we have to come on as the Bad Cop- like dealing with a 16 yo child who has had no rules and is suddenly sent to a boot camp.
    Not pretty, and most horses will push back.
    We have one over at a local rescue who has had bottles broken over his poll. Probably will never get that one over a lot of his issues- well, I take that back, he will never be for a back yard family.
    With the shows wanting such low head sets, (unnatural head sets) this brings on a push to “Make Them Do it” by any means possible.
    In a perfect world horses would get to move naturally & have spot on training from the start.
    We are not in a perfect world- so sometimes trainers have to be the Drill Sargent – as much as we dont want to be.

  7. I agree with Larry and Julie. I have used both draw reins and martingales, periodically with certain horses who either 1) were not understanding how to give to the bit or 2) dominant types who knew very well how to give the bit but were choosing not to (in snaffles). These gadgets were used for 1-3 rides, on loose reins, simply to make the direction of the pressure more obvious to the horse. There should never be tight reins, tugging, jerking, or pulling, and the horse should NOT be forced behind the vertical for any length of time.

    Most people don’t understand the concept of “collection = elevation/impulsion,” nor realize how easily the muscles of the neck and topline can be damaged. You can always tell when a horse has been worked behind the vertical consistently by looking at and touching the neck. Muscle knots, overdevelopment behind the poll, broken curve at C3, and body soreness happen very easily, and take a long time to reverse.

    You can’t take a horse who has rarely or never worked those muscles properly, put him into a set position (even a correct one in some cases) and make him stay there for the entire ride without breaks. Muscles have to be developed and exercised carefully. The muscles become fatigued and can be damaged that way.

    Gadgets that pull a horse’s front end downward are rather counterproductive on horses who are on the forehand, or built downhill in the front end. You need them to elevate the forehand through the entire topline. They can’t do that if you’re pulling them down even more.

    I haven’t used any headsetting gadgets since 2007. I had a couple horses who needed me to become a better rider and use different methods, so I learned how to use my inside leg/inside rein to create a gentle bend through the body and correspond with giving to the bit. Leg goes on, horse bends around it. This eventually turns into a half-halt (legs = impulsion/rounding of the topline). I teach the original bend/give to bit on the ground in a halter. Poke them with your thumb behind the girth, take the slack out of the leadrope. Rinse, repeat. It transfers to under-saddle very easily and the horses learn it quickly. It’s very cross-discipline— my barrel horses learn it, my pleasure horses and english horses learn it.

    Nowadays, I can pretty much get any stargazing giraffe to round up, lighten up, and move properly just by teaching them that. They don’t go behind the vertical. They become consistent and develop healthy muscle tone. Horses who were leg-dead or dull-mouthed become sensitive and responsive again. Horses who were balking, ringsour, and trying to kill their riders actually enjoy riding and become happy ponies. It corrects rooting on the bit, because you’re not giving them anything to lean on, at first.

    The hardest amount of pressure I’ve had to apply is just some heel on rhythym with the stride and a little firmer grip on the rein. Usually, all you need is calf pressure and pinkie-finger jiggling.

    Pretty much eliminates the “need” for spurs, too. Draw reins/martingales have their place, but if you need to use them for more than 2 or 3 rides, you should probably evaluate your riding methods/skills and think about learning some new ones.

    You never know when you’ll get that “weird” horse who only responds to a certain cue system or style, or who’ll try to kill you if you get rough on him. If I can learn something new, gentler and easier to teach, so can you. 🙂

  8. I think tie downs are dangerous and I will never ride a horse in one. A horse needs his neck and head to balance–some people call a horse’s head/neck his “fifth leg.” I imagine tying a horse’s head down is like asking a rider to ride with one arm tied behind his/her back. Of course it’s possible but you are handicapping a horse when you put a tie down on him. And then to ask him to perform high speed maneuvers on top of having his head tied down? It’s unbelievable to me what horses put up with and what riders put them through.

  9. I would like to add that a running martingale is often used for jumping and everyday riding on some horses but fitted longer than above (“rings of the [running] martingale should be set at the height of the horse’s chin when pulled up toward the throatlatch”). This way it only acts when the horse misbehaves or there is a problem so you can get home safely and then address the problem in a more controled environemnt.

  10. I have used those devises with some success but they must be used with someone who understands the proper use and adjustment. I feel better more long lasting affects are achieved using the natural flexion methods. SIDE PULL I LOVE sidepulls. I start all my horses in sidepull and when he understands to give to pressure change to a halfbreed snaffle and then to a snaffle. I also use a side pull on my older horses if a student with bad hands is riding till they understand how to carry their hands correctly.

  11. I start mine with a side pull then go to a half breed snaffle after that and then to a full snaffle after that. I also start them by line driving. There is something to be said about teaching a horse to round up and flex onto the bit during early stages of training, while promoting forward motion using these aids.I would rather teach a younger horse that is carrying a rider correctly with a round back, then a horse who gets a sore back from being ridden with a hollow back and it’s head in the air. When your teaching a young one transitions to lope it’s all about balance, which is easier achieved if they are on the bit rather then rushing with their head in the air. These aids have a place in training horses. Most of the natural horsemenship you see promoted these days is common sense, and I guess if all i did was trail ride I would explore those ideas more, however most well started horses know all that already. I know a gal who only believes in “natural horsemenship” resulting in her having 8 horses between the ages of 1 and 9 that can’t do anything more then walk on a halter, I don’t think she is doing them any favours by abiding by natural horsemenship. Her goal is to sell them as high priced dressage and hunter mounts. Just my opinion

  12. If you dont know and have not researched the unfixable problems these “aids” cause then get out of the horse industry and buy a taxi!
    There is plenty of evidence out there.
    Why not just look closely at the Pro Dressage riders They all use this stuff and they all have bad backs ..Horse and riders.

  13. I stopped using side pulls many years ago. I do use a draw reign and martingale very judiciously and let the horse tell me if he/she can work with it. I currently have a mare that was sent to a trainer who believed in sore mouth/sore sides as a 2 year old. I was the person who sent her and by the time I found out what was happening she was almost lost mentally. I then leased her to have a baby and got her back 21 months later. The rest did her a world of good but I am now working on getting her to relax under saddle. Heaven forbid I use spurs on her. If she even sees them she panics. I did try draw reigns on her ONCE. She told me very quickly that she was terrified of these as well. So I just undid them from the bit and continued with the ride. She is still terrified at the canter (star gazer and fast right now) but the walk/trot are about there. But she will never be a western pleasure horse. So it isn’t just the training aids but the method of training used that can blow a horses mind. She is coming back but it is going to be a long slow road for her.

    What I strongly suggest is to listen to the horse. If you are in tune with your mount then you would be amazed at the conversations you can have and the results that are obtained – with or without training aids.

  14. Draw reins and martingales can be very helpful training tools. I’ve seen top reining , jumping , dressage and all around trainers use them effectively. I myself use draw reins in my program and it’s not just to fix a problem , they can be used just as another training aid. Any training aid or bit including a smooth snaffle can be abusive and can hurt a horse used improperly. If you are into natural horsemanship that’s great en joy yourself but I like to train and enjoy show horses and the level of training say for a lead change is much higher and refined than what you would see in natural horsemanship. It’s all about what style of riding you enjoy.

  15. Great suggestions & points guys, appreciate them. I have a mare I’m trying to train for flex at the poll for better carriage through the back, she’s built capable, I had saddle fit problems preventing her flexion that are not corrected and chiropractor has been seen. However I still fight her to get her behind the bit and flexed, I feel its pure laziness now. I typically do stretches in and out of saddle, halter and bridle. I ride in a eggbutt snaffle, have been afraid of drawrein misuse and haven’t even attempted them. I’m stuck now….so I train with a surcingle and reins on a longe line? use drawreins?

  16. I have a mustang that I am training and I also have a 9 yr old mustang that I ride and she is the greatest! All I have ever used with her is a bosal, no bit. I am wanting to start my 3 yr old with a bosal also. Would I be wise to start with a bit and what type? I know when I had a few problems when I first got my 9 yr old, I used a hackamore, still with no bit. I do have some stopping problems with my 9 year old when we gallop with other horses, but this may be the “herd” behavior taking over. What do you think about starting the 3 yr old with the bosal, especially since that is what I am used to?

  17. Am man Valerie!!! We get more horses in that “natural Horsemanship” users are so tired of getting NO WHERE with their horses with things they should have been taught as a 2 year old and here they are like you said 8 or 9 years old. And they bring it to us and say fix this and you only have 30 to 60 days because that is all I can afford. I look at them and say take the horse home. you want me to fix 9 years of your crap in 60 days. I can do it but you are not going to like it and/or the way I can get it done.

    But that is another issue in itself. People do their own “Natural training they read in a book and think they are world class trainers and it works on ALL horses. Then they bring a fruit loop that has no manners and has an owner as his pet. They talk bad about trainers and their tools until they want a horse that acts and rides right or one that they want to go to the show pen. I hear it all the time. So, when they finally get smart and send their horse to someone that knows what to do then they have to pay. It cost to get an education. I didn’t learn 30 years of horsemanship for free. Tools are used to get the horses doing what their owners want them to do. I know that some people misuse them and I don’t think that is right. BUT NOT ALL TRAINERS ARE LIKE THAT. But, these horses don’t hit the ground or come into this world head down and slow loping ready for the show pen either.

    In our world horses are a business and what we make a living with. They are not to pet on and feed treats too. If they don’t ride or do the job they are meant to do in our barn they find a different address to be.

    Just saying.

  18. Is there a possibility that draw reins used on a horse for the first time, I think they called in a crank and spank, could make the horse stop, sit, and then lay on her side for a second? This “trainer” had my friends horse today and this is what happend. The trainer said my friends horse needed to have a float and her teeth is what caused the horse to go down. Now my friend rode her horse for two hours a few days prior and no problems. Another trainer said the horse was probably cranked so bad that her airway was almost closed and she probably fainted.

    This horse loves her owner, but the horse is not a kisser or lovie dovie. However when she brought her horse into her stall last night, the horse came over to my friend, and put her head on my friends chest, and didn’t move. At that point I cried. I know this mare very well, and for her to submit to her owner to please NEVER take me to that lady again – and I promise I will be good, is a pain some of us know too well. How much damage has this caused?

    Thank you very much!

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