Martingales and Draw Reins: Use and Rules

Martingales and Draw Reins: Use and Rules

Learn more about the different types of martingales and draw reins, how they’re used and the AQHA rules governing them.

(Credit: AQHA Journal)

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Becky Newell
Illustrations by Jean Abernethy

The one thing that martingales and draw reins have in common is that they’re used by the rider as training aids to communicate with a horse. However, their specific purposes differ.

Regardless of the type, a martingale is used to control your horse’s head carriage – primarily using pressure to keep him from holding his head too high or from throwing his head. In short, draw reins are used to help train your horse to gain collection.


The AQHA rules for martingale use vary depending on the type of martingale, the discipline and the class.

Standing Martingale or Tie-Down

In western disciplines, the standing martingale is more commonly called a tie-down.

AQHA rules allow tie-downs in all timed western classes: barrel racing, pole bending, stake race, team penning and ranch sorting.

The standing martingale – or tie-down – attaches to the girth (or breast collar), comes up between the front legs and attaches to the cavesson or nose band on the bridle.

Besides the timed classes, AQHA rules also allow the use of a standing martingale in working hunter, jumping and equitation over fences. Standing martingales are allowed by AQHA as training tools. A standing martingale or tie-down must be made of leather, flat nylon or rope a minimum of 3/8 inch in diameter.

Standing martingale or tie-down

Running Martingale

A running martingale attaches to the girth, runs through the front legs and then forks into two sections, each with a ring at the end for a rein to go through.

“The proper use of a running martingale is to stop the horse from getting to a point where you have lost control of their head,” says AQHA Professional Horseman Kevin Dukes of Weatherford, Texas.

When correctly adjusted, the reins make a straight line from the rider’s hand to the bit ring when the horse’s head is at the correct height. When the horse raises its head above the desired point, the running martingale adds leverage through the reins to the bit on the bars of the horse’s mouth, encouraging the horse to lower his head and find his own release.

“It’s not as much pressure as draw reins produce, so when the horse gives his head, he gets a release because his give relaxes the pressure from the martingale,” says AQHA Professional Horseman Pete Kyle of Amarillo, Texas.

Kevin and Pete both stress that the proper use of running martingales is with a snaffle bit and with a rein stop or keeper to prevent the martingale rings from riding up onto the shanks of the curb bit.

AQHA rules only allow the use of a running martingale in working hunter, jumping, equitation over fences and pleasure driving, says Ward Stutz, AQHA director of breed integrity, animal welfare and education.

Otherwise, a running martingale is an AQHA-approved training tool, acceptable in warm-ups with a snaffle or curb bit, as long as there are rein stops in place.

“When used properly, it’s not a severe training tool; it’s easy to use to keep your horse collected,” Pete adds.

Running martingale

German Martingale

A German martingale looks a lot like a running martingale, except after it forks into two sections, those sections run through the rings of the bit and attach to rings on the reins.

Since the German martingale attaches directly to the reins, it provides even more leverage.

German martingales are allowed in AQHA timed-events (barrel racing, pole bending, stake race, team penning and ranch sorting) and as a training device during warm-ups.

German martingale

Draw Reins

You find draw reins across breeds and disciplines in western and English versions, made from rolled leather, cord and flat nylon. In the Quarter Horse show industry, many respected trainers point to them as a useful part of their programs, for a variety of reasons. But they’ll also point to them as a device all-too-commonly used in an abusive manner, depending on how they are rigged, bitted and whose hands have them.

Draw reins are used to gain collection.

“Collection really isn’t about the horse’s head and neck giving,” Pete explains. “It’s about collecting the horse’s whole body up, essentially tying the horse together head to tail, and you have to use your hands and legs always together. What that does is it enables you to pick up the horse’s head and with your legs, it brings everything together. It rounds up the whole body and really gets them to collect and push up underneath themselves to use their legs better. It’s improving their gait.”

Draw reins help a rider get his horse to collect, but to do it softly without a lot of pressure, Pete says.

“The draw reins give you more leverage and you are able to pick up and pull easier and make that leverage happen softer than if you were using regular reins,” he explains.

A trainer and AQHA Professional Horseman for many years, Pete compares the use of draw reins to having the right tool.

“If you have a wrench that locks onto the nut, then you can loosen a nut,” he says. “But if you have a pair of pliers, and you’re trying to loosen a nut, you’re not going to have as much success. The right tool makes it easy for both the rider and the horse, but you don’t want to overdo it.”

Pete adds that the incorrect use of draw reins causes the horse to drop its head.

“If they are used incorrectly, draw reins will cause a horse to drop his head too low,” he explains. “Then they get down on the forehand. Rather, what you want them to do is to collect up and gather themselves up, then you can drive them forward with your legs. Collection brings a horse’s shoulders up and allows them to really reach with their front legs and lengthen their stride.”

Draw reins are a training tool that the AQHA Animal Welfare Commission urged the AQHA Show Council to address in 2012. The council recommended and the AQHA Executive Committee approved VIO204.13, which lists equipment that is prohibited at AQHA shows. That equipment includes “draw reins that are attached between or around the front legs of a horse.”

Rule SHW305.9.4 states “martingales and draw reins are permitted for speed events, team penning, ranch sorting and cowboy mounted shooting. However, martingales used with curb bits must have rein stops. Draw reins may not be attached between or around the front legs.”

Also, draw reins can be used on the show grounds as a training device so long as they are attached no lower than the elbow of the horse.

Correct vs. incorrect use of draw reins

AQHA Equipment Rules

To learn more about tack and equipment rules, refer to the AQHA Handbook of Rules and Regulations and