Why do hunters wear standing martingales? Are they necessary, or just for looks?
Like everything in horses, opinions vary.
Before you decide for yourself, it’s important to understand the standing martingale’s origins. The “hunters”, as a discipline, evolved from the Field Hunters. A standing martingale was considered part of the correct turnout for a hunt horse as a piece of safety equipment.
Since the hunters evolved into an arena sport, older safety concerns aren’t necessarily relevant now. But tradition defines the modern show hunter and it’s very likely you’ll see a standing martingale as a standard piece of tack. Some even think a hunter doesn’t look “fully dressed” without it.
The discipline is all about tradition and “blending in” is a good thing. A judge shouldn’t penalize for a lack of standing martingale, but to fit in, many people outfit their horses with one. When in Rome, wear a standing martingale?
There’s nothing in the rules of the USEF and USHJA about the needing a standing martingale, even though they’re on many, if not most, hunters in over fences classes. Note: If you’re using a standing martingale, make sure you take it off before an under-saddle class!
Many will argue a standing martingale adds to the aesthetics of a horse. Where it sits helps break up the horse, depending on the horse’s build. Some will argue a standing martingale takes away from the beauty of a horse’s neck and topline. Even George Morris encourages less use of a standing martingale because it can get in the way of a horse’s jump.
It’s important to consider the point of wearing a standing martingale. When properly fitted and adjusted, it’s a tool to help a horse establish boundaries for their frame. A green horse will be guided into holding their heads lower. A horse who flips their head around can be restricted by a standing martingale, providing face insurance. It’s an “oh no!” strap to grab when you need a seatbelt.
There are lots of reasons not to use a standing martingale, especially outside of the hunter ring. Jumpers can only use a standing martingale in classes under 1.30m. Imagine using tack that restricts a horse’s head in cross country. A dressage rider might tell you this equipment serves no purpose and restricts the horse. What’s more? As a prey animal, horses might panic when they feel resistance of the standing martingale.
Poorly adjusted standing martingales can make safety issues which is obvious turnoff. What if the horse loses balance? What if the martingale is too loose, and they get tangled in it after a stumble? If it’s too loose, the judge might even penalize you. A little.