Tiedowns & Martingales as Aides

By Joyce Loomis-Kernek

Tack can aid barrel racers in getting around the barrels faster. Sometimes competitors overlook this opportunity for better barrels.

Many of the people that come to our Wayne, Oklahoma, ranch for lessons are having problems getting around their barrels fast, expecially the first barrel. One of the most common problems I see are horses coming into the first barrel uncollected with their head up. The rider usually winds up going by the barrel or slicing into it. Some rules of equine motion need to be understood in order to know what happens next.

When a horse pulls its head straight up in the air, you have lost control of the shoulders. You no longer have a soft neck and have lost the ability to maneuver the shoulders for the turn. The horse’s back also hollows out when a horse gets his head straight up in the air and you have lost control of the gather. Let me clarify that I am not talking about a horse barely lifting its head. I am talking about the head going up and its nose tipping into the air.

What do you do to fix these problems? What about preventing them from happening? Riding equipment such as tie-downs and martingales can aid in training and showing. These tack items will allow you to teach and maintain correct head carriage or to correct faulty head carriage while giving the horse freedom. I do not believe in tying a horse’s head down. Remember a horse’s balancing tool is his neck. If you tie his head down too far, his weight will shift to his front end, and he will lose his forward motion and balance. We do want to set our martingales or tie-downs where the horse gets his head out of position. He then learns to travel with his head where it naturally comes out of his neck and body.

If a horse’s head and neck come out of his body high at the withers, you will have more trouble teaching him to gather and turn with his head down than with the horse who comes out lower. (Keep in mind, however, there have been some great horses over the years that have come out high.) The bottom line is – when you have a conformation fault, you have to understand how to train around that fault.

However your horse is built, you will want him to carry his head where it is natural for him to carry it. (See diagram.) It is important that the horse is not behind the bit, or way out in front of it. And you certainly do not want him to have his head up with the nose tipped in the air.

There are many tie-downs and martingales to choose from. I prefer a martingale that buttons onto the reins, giving you the ability to teach your horse to check and gather, while at the same time maintaining a soft neck. Avoid martingales that pull your horse’s head straight down, placing the weight on the front end.

A good place to start when you first try a tie-down is to put the strap loose enough so that you can touch under the neck with it. Adjust from there. Never get on your horse the first time you have placed a tie down on him. Chase him around a pen and let him stop and roll back a few times and feel the tie-down. Back him a few steps and let him experience it. (See photos.)

A few years ago, there was a theory that you couldn’t win using a tie-down. For some time people were not using them as much. In 1998 at the NFR, 11 out of the top 15 ran in tie-downs or martingales. In 1999 at the NFR, is was exactly the same number – 11 out of 15. A lot of great horses use tie-downs. If your horse does not need one, I can see this point. But if you are not collecting at the first barrel turn, then you may want to try one.

The best way to decide if you need a tie-down is to analyze your videos. Play them in slow motion. Stop-action the picture when you are going into your first barrel and study your horse’s head and neck. A tie-down or martingale could change your performance a great deal.

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Copyright © 2004 - 2011 Joyce Loomis-Kernek
Last modified: January 05, 2014