Back-Through Gate

Try a new approach to a familiar trail obstacle.

If you’ve competed in a trail class, then you’ve navigated this familiar rope-gate obstacle. Whether you’re maneuvering from the left or right, it’s something you and your horse can handle. (If not, visit Horse this month for trail-gate tips to master before trying this exercise.)

We’ve noticed a trend recently where patterns require that exhibitors work a gate by backing through the standards. We saw it at the 2016 All American Quarter Horse Congress and other shows following. Would you be ready if a judge sprang this on you at your next show? With these tips, we’re sure you’ll ace it.

Use a bit your horse responds to, and begin with two hands on the reins. You can advance to one-handed riding once you’re comfortable. (Jill goes back and forth in these photos because it’s the horse’s first time backing through a gate.) Work slowly. This will give the horse a new perspective that he’s not accustomed to, which can rattle his confidence.

1. In these photos, Jill handles the rope as she works the gate; however, when you’re first attempting a back-through gate, leave the rope unlatched so you can focus on your horse’s position. Once you master that, add the rope to the equation. Getting your horse set up for the obstacle is the most important part for successful navigation. Carefully read the pattern to see which end of the gate you should approach. Line up your horse parallel to the gate standards, close enough that you can reach the rope, but not so close that your horse will hit a standard.

2. Ride your horse forward a few steps, so that his hind end is centered between the gate’s standards. When practicing, pause here to think about your next step and prepare your horse. Keep him straight from nose to tail so that he doesn’t anticipate your next cue to move his hindquarters perpendicular to the standards.

3. Lift your rein hand to block your horse’s forward motion, and use left-leg pressure to move his hindquarters to the right and into position. (Use right-leg pressure if moving his hips to the left.) You’re asking for a turn on the forehand, so his front end stays in place and his hind end moves around his front end. Take one step at a time, and keep an eye on the position of his hindquarters by looking over your right shoulder. This will help your horse stay balanced. Note that when teaching your horse this maneuver, as Jill is here, you can lift your hand higher than you would when showing. In competition, keep your cues as imperceptible as possible.

4. Continue moving your horse’s hindquarters, step by step, until he’s straight between the standards. Stopping squarely sets you up for a straight backup. When you’re schooling at home, pause with him standing quietly with his hind end between the standards to help build his confidence and enable him to become comfortable in the unfamiliar position.

5. Slowly and quietly ask your horse to back through the gate standards. It’s essential that you can confidently back a straight line before attempting this, or you’ll wind up frustrated and possibly scaring your horse. Ask for one step at a time, and offer praise as you go. In this photo, the horse’s head is too low, but he’s listening for Jill’s cues. Jill is letting him look around and get a feeling for where he is. In competition, his neck should be level with his withers.

6. Continue backing on a straight path until the front of your horse’s chest has cleared the standards, then stop and pause to set him up for the next movement. Thoughtfully consider if there’s enough room for your horse’s head to clear the standard he’ll turn toward. If not, back a step or two more. As you practice this new way of working a gate, you can increase his pace when he backs through the gate and add fluidity between the steps.

7. Begin a turn on the hindquarters to move your horse’s front feet around his back feet. In this case, you’d move the horse’s front feet to his left. Place your rein hand slightly forward, and use your right foot to move your horse’s front end to the left. Work slowly, step by step, and be sure your horse’s head won’t hit the standard as you turn. If there’s a chance he will, then you haven’t backed far enough—stop where you are, and start over.

8. Complete the turn so your horse is parallel to the gate. You might need to walk forward a couple steps to reattach the rope to the standard (if you’re using it). Praise your horse for a job well done, and keep practicing at home so you’re ready when a pattern calls for this execution at a show.

Murray Griggs and Jill Newcomb combine their strengths as all-around trainers and experience as active judges to coach all-around riders and train their horses in San Marcos, California. They both grew up riding and competing and have earned top titles themselves in various events, as well as coaching champions. Learn more at

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