To hone your basic gate-opening skills (see "Open a Gate," Horsemanship & Maneuvers, The Trail Rider, January/February '10), master a turn on the forehand. In this maneuver, your horse obediently and slowly swings his hips and back legs around his anchored front legs, moving in a complete circle.
Turning on the forehand is crucial as you ask your horse to pivot around the end of the gate while you work the gate's latch.
Note that it's a common misconception that you should practice sidepassing before opening a gate. Sidepassing shouldn't be part of the gate-opening process unless you need to sidepass toward the gate instead of walking up alongside it before you start the opening procedure. In reality, you'll master the gate when you and your horse know how to turn on the forehand.
Here's how to teach your horse to turn on the forehand. (First, tack up your horse, and head to an enclosed work area with good footing. Then warm him up for at least 20 minutes so he's mentally and physically prepared for the exercise.)
Step 1.Block forward motion. Halt your horse, then "close the front door" to forward movement. To do so, apply rein pressure, and sit up tall so you don't' inadvertently prompt him to go forward or back with a seat or weight shift.
Step 2.Move his hips over. Start by moving your horse's hips to the right. Reach back with your left leg, and apply pulsating leg pressure just behind the cinch/girth. At the same time, lift up, in, and back with your left rein while keeping your right rein close to your horse's neck. Your leg and rein aids tell him that the only open door is to the right, not forward, back, or to the left. You're blocking both forward and sideways movement.
Step 3. Release and repeat. As soon as your horse takes a step over with his hip, release the cue, and repeat Steps 1 and 2 to ask for another step. Maintain rein contact to keep his shoulders and front end in place.
Step 4.Reverse direction. When your horse learns to take one step to the right, reverse the cues and ask for one step to the left. Practice the one-step/release procedure to the left several times, then the one step/release procedure to the right the same number of times. Then reward your horse by ending the session, and giving him rubs and praise. Always end a training session on a good note.
Step 5. Ask for more steps. When your horse readily takes one step to the right and left in response to your cues, request more than one step before releasing your cues. Work up to a quarter turn and ultimately a full circle. To make sure he isn't inching forward, align his body with an arena marker so you'll have a visual aid.
The turn on the forehand is a great skill to have on the trail, whether or not you're working a gate. Practicing the maneuver will help you control your horse's every step, which will help you negotiate around obstacles in tight places.
You'll also become more aware of how your well your horse can feel your subtle posture changes. Just by changing the location of your leg pressure and shifting your weight, you're telling your horse which legs to move, how much, and when. That's true horsemanship: You're learning a classic skill that will help you better communicate with your horse.
Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She's also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).
Heidi Nyland (www.wholepicture.org) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Longmont, Colorado.