Horse Training for Working a Gate
Learn how to safely open and close gates from horseback.
August 1, 2017
From “Horse Handling and Grooming” by Cherry Hill
Whether you ride in an arena or in pastures or on trails, it is helpful to know how to open and close a gate safely from horseback. It is not only handy but it can also be the basis for introducing and using a good number of individual maneuvers. If you have a plan in mind before you approach a gate, things will go more easily. Before you try to ride a horse through a gate, be sure he has good manners as you lead him through a gate from the ground.
Especially with a young or inexperienced horse, it is best to begin the in-hand gate horse-training lesson with a halter and lead rope. Once the horse works the gate well with a halter, repeat the lesson using a bridle. When using the bridle, instead of grabbing both reins together and treating them collectively as a lead rope, separate the reins with your fingers and use them in a way that does not give the horse conflicting signals. At all times during ground work, it is advisable to carry a dressage whip in the hand farthest from the horse (the left hand if leading from the near side).
The simplest gate configuration to work from the ground is a gate (when you are facing it) that swings away from you, hinges on the left and latches on the right. With such a gate, you lead the horse from his near side up to the latch, halt, open the gate as you walk the horse forward until his hindquarters have cleared the latch post. Then halt.
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Here there will be some variation depending on your horse's level of training. You will be asking your horse to perform a 180-degree turn on the forehand around the left front leg, with the hindquarters moving to the right. Tip his nose toward you and cue him on the left rib cage with the whip you are holding in your left hand. This will make him move his haunches to the right while rotating around his left front leg.
A variation of the aids for a young horse would be to let go of the gate (you may need an assistant to steady it), change hands on the lead and whip so that you are facing the horse's left side. Tip his nose to the left as you press his ribs with your right hand or butt of the whip. Either method should result in the horse rotating his hindquarters around the forehand so that the horse now faces the back side of the gate. To complete the gate, you simply resume your normal position, if necessary, and walk the horse forward to latch the gate.
If you approach the same gate except that it is designed to swing toward you, lead the horse up to the latch halt, then as you open the gate, ask the horse to back. Then perform a turn on the forehand and finish by backing through the opening as you close the gate. The gate will provide a visual aid for the horse but the gate should never be used to bump a horse that seems stubborn or stuck, as it will make him afraid of the gate and spoil his mounted work. Instead, the horse should first be taught to back in-hand using a fence or the side of a building to help to keep him straight. Intermittent pressure on the noseband of the halter and the chest usually brings the least resistance and the best results.
It is more difficult to work a gate smoothly in hand if the latch is on the left. This means that the handler must change to the off-side to work the gate properly. It is valuable for the horse to be worked from both sides to prevent habits that can lead to stiffness. Working the horse from the off-side also adds to the handler's ambidextrous capacities. The practice of stepping in front of a horse at a gate and then sending him in ahead and allowing him to swing around is a variation of the proper method. The handler's position is not as safe and because a longer lead rope is required to allow the horse to swing through the gate, control is lost.
The in-hand preparation will pay off when it comes time for mounted work, not in that you will use the exact same sequence of maneuvers, but because the horse has been taught to approach the gate as a formal lesson that follows a definite plan. There are four ways to properly negotiate a gate from the horse's back. Which one you use will depend on which way the gate swings, hinges, latches and what types of corners or supports are present near the gate, which may inhibit certain positions.
With a young or inexperienced horse, it is best to take your time with the various components of working the gate so the horse does not become nervous, frightened or anticipatory. For example, ride up alongside the gate, stand and let the horse relax and then ride off. The next time, rattle the gate or latch a bit. The horse needs to be comfortable with the gate so that he will pay more attention to your aids than to the gate itself. Little by little, add the various components described below. Be sure to pause often and add a square halt in between the segments so the horse does not become anticipatory. The criteria for working a gate properly includes: the rider never lets go of the gate, the rider never has to reach for the gate, the rider does not lose position in the saddle while working the gate, and the rider can stop the horse at any moment.
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The simplest way to work a gate is to ride alongside it and stop with your leg at the latch. Give your reins to one hand and with the other, unlatch the gate. Then, while sliding your hand along the top of the gate, back the horse a few steps so that his head is now at the latch. Swing the gate away from the horse so that he sees an inviting opening.
Later, as the horse progresses, instead of swinging the gate away from the horse, you can have the horse "work the gate" with a few steps of sidepass (similar to a full pass) or turn on the hindquarters. Which one you will use will depend on the length of the gate and how close the horse's haunches must work to the hinges - a very long gate will allow the horse to do more of a sidepass while a short gate will require more of a turn on the hindquarters. In any case, once the gate is opened, the horse is walked forward until his shoulder is at the end of the gate. Then perform a turn on the forehand (about 340 degrees) to position the horse parallel to the opposite side of the gate. Then do as many steps of side pass or turn on the hindquarters as is required to close the gate.
Once the horse has mastered the first way, you can teach him a variation by pulling the gate toward you to open it and to close it. Although you might think this would be the easier way to first teach the horse because the gate coming toward him would be a visual cue, it seems that more horses get confused or frightened if this method is used first. It seems to be much clearer to them, initially, to ride through an opening.
The third and fourth methods involve backing a horse around the end of the gate. This is often necessary if the latch is located in a tight corner and the rider can not reach it by riding forward to it. The way to begin is to position the horse alongside the gate and back him into the corner. Unlatch the gate and swing it open (or use a few steps of side pass) so that the horse sees and senses that there is an opening he can back through. Then back the horse a few steps so that his hind foot that is closest to the gate is just a step beyond the end of the gate. Then alternate one step each of a turn on the hindquarters and a rein-back. The result will be that the path of the hind foot nearest the gate will describe a small semi-circle as the other legs work around it. Once the horse's body is parallel to the gate, but now on the back side, a few steps of full pass will close the gate and complete it.
The fourth method would also be used for a latch in a corner and especially one with a restricted area inside the gate. Therefore, the gate is opened toward the horse and utilizes a combination of turn on the haunches and rein back as the horse works around the end of the gate. This last method would be the most difficult to start with but presents no big problem if the horse has been taught the other methods first.
Learn more tips from Cherry at www.horsekeeping.com.
To help prepare yourself for a great trail pattern ride, see how AQHA Judge Terry Cross describes the winning trail run in AQHA’s A Judge's Perspective: 2016 AQHYA Trail World Champion video.