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.