Getting the Gate

Getting the Gate

Horse-training tips to get you through a gate safely on a ranch-started youngster.
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It’s time for Royal Gin Fletch, aka “Felix,” to open a panel gate - the kind he’d meet in a feed lot or in a versatility ranch trail class.

Bred by Terry Crofoot of Crofoot Ranches LLP in Lubbock, Texas, the 3-year-old has a good handle on him already, put on by Thomas Saunders V of the Saunders Ranch in Weatherford, Texas. Well into the bridle, confident in his rider and in a settled frame of mind, Felix is ready to learn to work a gate.

Using the same techniques they teach in guest lectures at Colorado State University’s colt-starting classes, Terry and Thomas walk Felix through his first gate.

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With Thomas riding, Terry explains what both men want in a youngster before working on a gate.

“You need to be able to move your horse’s hindquarters and place them where you want them,” he says. “Any exercises where you get control of the hind end will help.”

Thomas sidepasses Felix left and right in front of the closed gate. Then he moves the colt to stand alongside and then against the gate on both sides.

“He rides into the corner (of the gate and the fence) so he doesn’t have to worry about forward movement as he moves the colt up beside the gate,” Terry says.

The colt has a lot to take in: the rider’s signals with his leg and rein, the feel of the gate and the sounds. Thomas lets the colt tell him the next step; depending on the colt, this might be all he does in one lesson.

“Be repetitive, but don’t overdo it one time until he gets burned out on it,” Terry says.

Going Through

“There are several ways to go through a gate correctly and safely,” Terry says. “Consider each gate and what’s around it to decide the best way to approach it, whether you go forward through it or back through it.

“You want to avoid getting in a position between the gate and the gate post where you could get pinched or the gate closes and wedges on you and your horse, especially with a green horse.”

This gate is made to swing both ways. For a green colt, it will be easier to ride through the gate forward, pushing it open.

To start, Thomas positions Felix parallel to the gate with his haunches toward the gate’s hinge, head toward the latch. Thomas opens the gate and pushed it away well clear of the post to ride through, around the end of the gate. On the other side, he straightens Felix with his head toward the gate’s hinge and then sidepasses Felix against the gate to close it.

“A finished horse on a gate should arc his body to go around the end of the open gate,” Terry says. “Then he should straighten up alongside the gate and arc his body the other way, with his nose tipped away from the gate, to push the gate closed.

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“Doing that helps the horse use his body and keep his balance as you push on that gate.”

Thomas will gradually work on improving Felix’s body position. And he’ll work on opening and closing the gate from both sides. A rider has to be able to open and close a gate with his left or right hand, depending on how the gate’s hinged.

Riding in a feedlot really teaches a horse,” Terry says. “You open thousands of different gates thousands of times a day in the feedlot. Those horses are probably the best gate horses in the country.”

Other Options

As Felix gains in his confidence with the gate and moving his body around it, Thomas can introduce other options that ask for more handling. For example: What if this same gate did not swing to the inside of the arena?

“Pushing the gate away from you is always the safest way to open it,” Terry says. “But if you have to pull a gate toward you, it is safer to back through.

“If you’re backing through, you are more conscious of it being a more hazardous situation, and you are more apt to keep the gate open farther to create a bigger space and take a bit longer doing it.

“On the horse’s side, if he happens to get hung up, he’s more apt to go forward and away from the pressure and actually open the gate instead of squeezing it shut on you.”

Thomas positions Felix with his head toward the hinge and grabs the gate with his left hand. He sidepasses away from the gate then backs around the gate completely, wide of the gate post. When he’s clear on the other side, he asks Felix to sidepass away to pull the gate shut.

“It’s not the easiest way to open a gate,” Terry adds, “but it’s one that can be used as a training maneuver to gain control of your horse. And in a ranch horse competition, it can show off how much control you have.”

But as with any new maneuver you teach your horse, don’t rush.

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The biggest mistakes happen when the horse really doesn’t understand what you’re asking, in where you want him to put his body, sidepassing, moving off your leg, etc.

“Depending on the horse’s personality, he might get frustrated and mad,” Terry says. “Some just get nervous because they don’t know what you want. Watch for those signals: They tell you when you could be going too fast. You just have to slow down and think of a way to let him understand.”

In that case, go right back to the basics you started with, moving the hindquarters, sidepassing and standing against the gate.


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