If you and your horse head for the trail, the two of you must be prepared for obstacles, both natural and man-made. You can ride around some of them, but when you encounter a gate, you have to know how to work it, dismount and open it from the ground, or give up and turn around.
Working a gate from horseback is usually the best option for you, but what about for your horse? If you haven't taught him how to partner with you to get through it, a gate can appear to be as big a bogeyman to your horse as anything that has ever spooked him in your travels.
Put yourself in your horse's place. He may have docilely followed you on the ground through any number of gates. But now you're asking him to help move this contraption. He sees something that could swing into him and attack him. Or it might swing away from him and then he's expected not only to follow it, but to turn and face the enemy.
Your job is to prove to your horse that a gate poses no threat. The place to do that isn't on the trail, though. You need to train your horse how to move through gates in a more controlled environment, where you can show him the process, one step at a time. That way he'll know what to expect, allowing you to proceed safely and quietly, without incident.
Judy Bonham coaches adults and youths in many horse show disciplines, including trail classes. She is an American Quarter Horse Association world champion in trail and has trained several others to world titles. Bonham built her own facility and barn in Norco, California, from where she trains.
Gates play a major role in almost any trail course. While working a gate on the trail doesn't require the precision needed for a judge in the show ring, the principles remain the same.
"The exercises that you do to teach a show horse are going to come into play out on the trail," Bonham says. In fact, Bonham's former show horses often make excellent trail horses because they already know how to maneuver through gates and other obstacles.
If you have a former show horse that already has this training, great. But you don't need a horse with that experience. You can teach a horse to work a gate by breaking down the process into a sequence of smaller maneuvers. Give him the foundation that he needs, and before you know it, you and your horse will proceed through gates like pros.
You wouldn't jump into an algebra class without first learning to add, subtract, multiply and divide. Don't ask your horse to do what amounts to the same thing. He needs to know the basics before you ask him for a more advanced maneuver such as working a gate. It will help his confidence level and make the learning easier and therefore more enjoyable for both of you.
"First they have to learn to stop, back up and sidepass," Bonham says, "because they do all of those maneuvers in working a gate."
You'll also want to sack out your horse so that he is comfortable with you moving many things around his entire body. Bonham pays particular attention to working over the top of the horse.
"Sometimes they're afraid of you working over the top of them," she explains. "With my 2-year-olds, I will get on my mounting block and stand over the top of them, moving around to get them used to that. Many times I'll pony them also."
By riding a more experienced horse and ponying the young horse at her side, Bonham can run a hand over the ponied horse's head and neck, getting him used to the experience.
You should also get your horse used to you shifting your weight in the saddle. When you unlatch a gate, you're probably going to have to lean down to reach the latch, changing the balance of your seat. A horse feels most comfortable when you are balanced on his back. If you become unbalanced, he will often move to center himself under you.
Spend some time bending over to one side and the other without a gate so that your horse will more readily accept it when you begin working with the gate.
Get Used to the Gate
With your basics in place, you're ready to introduce your horse to the gate. Choose a gate that will be easy for you to open and close. You can tackle the more difficult ones after your horse accepts the idea of you opening a gate from his back.
Here's where trail-class obstacles can be handy. Bonham has several standalone gates that she can place in the middle of her arena. She can ask a horse to approach the gate from any direction and desensitize him to the big, scary object.
While a standalone gate has advantages, you don't need one to introduce your horse to the gate. Above all, choose a gate that's as safe as possible, even if it means taking your horse to a nearby friend's place. It also helps if the gate easily swings in both directions. Not all gates you encounter on the trail will be movable in both directions, so you'll want to teach your horse both the push and the pull maneuvers.
You'll also want a gate that's big enough for the horse to easily move through it, but not so big that it's unwieldy for you. Bonham points out that while a bigger gate might seem easier because there is more room for a horse to move through, the weight of a larger gate means it's easier for you to lose control of it. It's important for you to have control of the gate in these early stages because you don't want your horse's first experiences to include the gate banging into his hindquarters and scaring him.
Walk your horse up to the gate on a loose rein and let him look it over.
"I try to relax them and pet them at the gate," Bonham says. "Instead of forcing them to stand there very long, I'll remove them from the gate and go work on something else for a while. Move them around a little bit and then bring them back. Let them stand there and find out that when they're standing there, they can stand relaxed. This is their relaxing place, while away from the gate is where they work."
Working the Gate
Bonham first teaches pushing the gate. She says that it's easier for both horse and rider because of the forward motion through the gate instead of having to back up while pulling the gate toward you.
"When you're pulling a gate toward you, you're pulling it into the horse," she says. "That could potentially scare the horse more than pushing the gate away from you."
Walk your horse up to the side of the gate or sidepass him to it so that he is parallel with the gate. "If you approach it directly, the horse's head will be facing the gate and you won't be able to work it," Bonham explains. "You work a gate from the side. You can't reach over a horse's head and reach the latch."
Once you and your horse are in position, reach down to unlatch the gate. This will unbalance your seat somewhat, which is where your earlier preparation on shifting your weight will pay dividends. Still, Bonham advises that there is a right way and a wrong way to lean for the latch.
Use your legs to keep your body as centered as possible while you reach for the latch with the hand closest to the gate. Bonham recommends keeping your off leg (the leg farthest from the gate) on your horse, not letting it ride up and outward, which would tip your balance too far toward the gate. Keep your gate leg away from the horse.
"It's very important to remember that the gate leg needs to reach toward the gate and the off leg needs to hold the horse," Bonham says. She demonstrates both the correct and incorrect position above.
Practice this until your horse will stand still while you unlatch the gate. Keep in mind that you don't have to go any further with the lesson. Going through the gate and latching it can wait for another day. It's better to end on a good note instead of taking that extra step, which might frustrate both you and your horse.
Next, move your hand from the latch to the top of the gate because this is how you will control the gate's swing.
"Slide your hand down to the middle of the top rail of the gate so that you have more control of it," Bonham says.
Push the gate open and ask your horse to move his hips over, away from the gate, which will position him to go through it. You're in
effect asking him for a turn on the forehand. In this way, he can walk through the gate without his hips banging on either side of the gate.
Then ask him to move forward through the gate. Keep your hand on the gate so that you can keep the gate open and away from his body.
"If you give the horse a place to go, he's going to go willingly," Bonham says.
As your horse walks through the gate, slide your hand from the middle of the top rail back toward the end of the gate. You want to make sure that you keep the gate open while your horse's hindquarters clear the gate.
"If your horse gets nervous, just let go of the gate and walk through," Bonham says.
Once your horse walks through the gate, ask for another hips over. This will bring his hindquarters away from the gate opening and bring him parallel to the open gate. Slowly swing the gate closed while asking your horse to sidepass toward the gate. Then you'll be able to latch it.
After you teach your horse to go through the gate with the push maneuver, you'll want to teach him to do it while you pull the gate toward you. This requires your horse to move more before you ask him to go through the gate.
Once you unlatch the gate and move your hand to the top rail, ask your horse to back up a step or two while you move your hand down to the middle of the rail. Ask for a sidepass away from the gate while you pull the gate toward you. Ask your horse to move his hips away from the gate-just as with the push, essentially another turn on the forehand-until he can face the opening.
As your horse goes through, you'll have to pull the gate after you. Ask him to back up while you slide your hand back along the gate's rail toward the latch.
Above all, Bonham advises to keep the training sessions fairly short. "Don't just drill and drill and drill," she says. "We want them happy to do their job."
If you take your horse through a gate step by step, he will be happy going through it. Once he's mastered the technique, think of how much farther your trail rides can expand.
Open & Shut Decisions
While you may encounter all types of gates on the trail, some gates are easier to work than others. If you're installing a gate on your own property, Judy Bonham recommends the flexibility of a gate that works in both directions.
"I build all my gates to go both directions so that I can choose which way to work it," she says.
She also pays close attention to the safety of the latches. She prefers a latch that is flush with the edge of the gate in the open position.
"It's very important that the latch be flush with the gate before you work it," she says. "You don't want it to catch in your horse's girth."
Gates on trails are often latched with a length of chain and a snap. Bonham advises examining these latches because sometimes the chains will be permanently attached to one side of the gate, while others will simply be a loose piece of chain wound around both ends.
"I'll often put those around my saddle horn while I work the gate out on the trail," Bonham says. "You have to be careful that you don't drop it while you're working the gate. Then you can go through the gate and tie it back up."
Safe, Simple Passage
• Your job is to show your horse that the gate is no threat.
• You should be able to reach around in all directions toward neck, ears, sides and tail from the saddle before you begin to work gates.
• Make sure your horse is completely relaxed with you shifting your weight and body position in the saddle.
• To open and close gates, you'll need to teach your horse both the push and pull methods.
• Your horse should be skilled in moving forward, backward, and sideways, one controlled step
at a time.
• Your horse should stop and stand when asked.
Gate Etiquette on the Trail
Once you teach your horse to work a gate, you'll want to put that new knowledge to use on the trail. When you and your friends go out for a ride, keep proper gate etiquette in mind so that you're polite not only to the others in your group, but to the land owners.
You may encounter gates on public and private property. When you do, remember the #1 rule: Leave the gate as you found it, whether it's open or closed. Obviously, a closed gate may mean that the land owner is keeping livestock in. However, if the gate has been left open, don't assume that you're doing the owner a favor by closing it. He may have a very good reason for keeping it open. Also, obey any gate closures and regulatory signs.
If you and your horse can open and close a gate without you dismounting, you can provide a useful service to your group. It's best to dismount, though, when encountering a wire fence.
Russell True, owner of the White Stallion Ranch, a guest ranch in Tucson, Arizona, requires his wranglers to dismount at any wire gate.
"We have that rule for the safety of the horses," True says. "We tell our wranglers to dismount and pull the gate all the way back so that the group can go through easily. There are a lot of gates that are just barbed wire strung together with a post at the end, and we don't want the horses anywhere near that."
White Horse Ranch has rides for people of all ability levels. The wranglers must look out for the people and horses as well as guiding the ride, so they will dismount and open the gate on foot if they see any difficulty. Sometimes they are riding an inexperienced horse, and True recommends that they or any rider dismount if they feel it would be better for the group's safety.
It's also polite-and safer-to hold the horse of the person who is opening the gate on foot. That way the person on foot can concentrate on opening the gate and letting people through without having to worry about his horse. Be sure that the horse is comfortable being held while you are mounted. If he isn't, then a second person from your group should dismount and hold both horses.
"We want the gate to swing in the direction that we're going," True says. "Our wranglers will push the gate away from them if they have the choice. Again, it's a safety issue. We don't want anyone to catch a stirrup on the gate." True said that his wranglers will usually dismount if the gate only swings toward them simply as a safety precaution, even though they and their horses are adept at both the push and pull methods of working a gate.
If someone in your group dismounts to open a gate, be sure all the riders go through, clear the gate with room to spare, and then wait for him to latch the gate and mount his horse. Horses in a group can be difficult to mount if they see their buddies heading down the trail without them. And if you're holding the horse of the person opening the gate, take his horse through the gate so that he doesn't have to do it himself.
When you're working a gate in a group, whether on horseback or on foot, handle the gate slowly and quietly. Not every horse will have undergone the training that you've given your horse around gates, so some of them may be nervous or easily spooked. Let the gate person know if you're riding a horse without a lot experience walking through gates.
A gate is like any other obstacle you may encounter on the trail. It has the potential to scare a horse, so the more time you take paying attention to the safety of the group, the better chance you'll have of a trouble-free and pleasant ride.