When you’re trail riding, the ability to open and close a trail gate without dismounting is a valuable skill. Staying mounted on your horse is safer, faster, and more efficient than dismounting and leading him through. Teaching your horse to respond to your precise cues will reinforce your leadership role in your herd of two. You’ll also need this skill if you ever have an opportunity to lead a group ride.
If you don’t have a trail gate nearby, practice on an arena or paddock gate, as shown here. In a pinch, make a practice gate with two upright standards and a rope looped on a hook.
Here, I’ll teach you how to open, go through, and close a trail gate in a safe, methodical manner.
(Note: You may open a gate with either hand; I’ll tell you how to perform this skill using your right hand to push the gate open and away from you. Always work a gate in a way that it pushes open, away from your horse.)
1. Shorten the reins. Shorten your reins, and then gather them in your left hand so your right hand is free to manipulate the gate. Leave just enough rein length so you can easily signal your horse without putting undue pressure on his mouth or lifting your hand too high to stay in control.
2. Get into position. Position your horse so his right side is parallel to the gate. Stop when your shoulder is even with the latch, so you won’t become unbalanced when you reach for it. Sitting in an unbalanced position on your horse torques (twists) his back.
3. Unlatch the gate. Undo the latch, and then place your hand on the gate’s top rail. (You’ll keep your hand here until you’ve closed and latched the gate. If the gate is likely to splinter, don riding gloves.)
4. Back your horse. Back your horse toward the hinges while running your hand along the rail. Back up far enough so that your horse’s nose will clear the post when you move forward and through the gate.
5. Open the gate. Push open the gate as you cue your horse to walk forward and turn toward the opening. After he turns a step, stop and relax for a count of 10. This will teach him that the gate-opening process is slow and deliberate. Make sure he steps forward only on your command. If he takes an unauthorized step, it means he doesn’t see you as herd leader and will eventually speed through the gate.
6. Walk him forward. Cue your horse to walk forward. Open the gate more, and walk toward the gate’s end. Continue to slide your hand along the top rail, so the gate doesn’t bump into your leg or your horse’s side. Be prepared to stop when you reach the gate’s end.
7. Make a U-turn. At the gate’s end, stop and make a sharp U-turn to the right, pivoting around the gate’s end and your right arm.
8. Walk him forward. Once you’ve completed the turn—allowing your horse’s front and hind legs to move as needed—cue him to walk forward a step or two toward the gate’s hinges. Grasp the gate’s top rail, and begin to push it closed as you move forward.
9. Close the gate. To close the gate, move your horse’s hindquarters toward the gate, completing a step or two of a turn on the forehand. To perform a turn on the forehand, maintain contact with your horse's mouth to keep him from moving forward, and then use your leg and seat aids to move his hips toward the gate.
10. Latch the gate. Back up, if necessary, so that your horse is parallel to the fence line and your hand is even with the latch. Ask him to stand still for 10 seconds or longer so he learns to wait patiently as you take your time to latch the gate.
• Don’t ever allow your horse to nudge open the gate with his nose—this is unacceptable, unauthorized behavior.
• Practice portions of the gate-opening process, then stop, so your horse doesn’t anticipate (and speed through) the process. For instance, begin to open the gate, and then ride away. Or, open the gate, ride through, then stop, rather than immediately closing and latching the gate.
• Never close a gate then ride immediately back to the barn. Work your horse for a few minutes on the open trail, then open and close the gate several times. By doing so, your horse won’t get in a rush, thinking that gate work means it’s time to go home.
Trainer and clinician Julie Goodnight, Poncha Springs, Colorado, hosts RFD-TV's, Horse Master. Her book Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding is available at EquineNetworkStore.com. Learn more about Julie's program and training methods at juliegoodnight.com.