Opening a gate from horseback

It’s convenient to be able to open farm gates without dismounting. Here’s how to teach your horse the trick. Be prepared, though, to invest a bit of time and patience, cautions Dr Mac.

Opening a gate from horseback 17 NOVEMBER
In the show ring, wooden gates are considered dangerous, so a rope gate is used. Here, the ‘gate’ has been opened to allow horse and rider to pass.
Photo: Dr Mac

Before you can open a gate without dismounting, there are a series of manoeuvres that your horse needs to learn.

These include how to stop and stand still while you shift your weight in the saddle; how to move sideways; and how to back up. You will also have to learn how to safely manoeuvre the horse through the gate.

Backing up
Initially, backing up and side-passing should be taught from the ground. To back up, stop your horse and push it gently off balance until it takes a step back.

Say “Back!” and reward it.

Repeat until the horse understands exactly what “Back!” means.

Once the horse backs up easily on command, use the word while mounted. Reward it with

“Good boy!” or a pat when it goes backwards, even if only one step.

As aids to help the horse go back, alternate a gentle pull-and-release on the reins, while gently bumping it on alternate sides with your legs. To open a gate, a horse must back up 1,5m in a straight line.

Side-passing is also taught from the ground. Using the word “Side!”, gently push with your fist behind the girth, where you would put your leg if you were mounted, and pull the horse’s head slightly towards you.

Once mounted, line the horse up parallel with a wooden fence and bounce your leg gently against its side, saying “Side!”until it moves away from your leg.

You can also use a dressage whip to gently tap the horse on its shoulder and then its hindquarter to reinforce the sideways movement.

Using a rope gate
In the show ring, wooden gates are considered dangerous, so a rope gate is used. Use similar equipment – a rope strung between two poles 2m apart – when you start training your horse to open a gate.

  • Walk your horse up parallel with the poles until its inside shoulder is level with the end of the rope looped over one pole. The horse should stand still while you take the rope off the pole with your inside hand.
  • Back up until the horse’s nose is parallel with the pole. Stop. Turn the horse’s shoulder inwards using your reins, then move sideways until its front end is through the poles.
  • Walk forward slowly while turning so that the horse moves between the poles and faces in the opposite direction, again parallel to the poles.
  • Stop. Back the horse up until its inside shoulder is next to the pole where you need to hook the rope end. Stop. Hook up the rope.

The real thing
Once your horse is comfortable with the rope gate, you can train it to enable you to open farm gates. The first step is to accustom the horse to the gate itself. This is best done from the ground.

Lead the horse slowly through a sturdy farm gate, stop, and then gently move the gate to and fro next to it.

Once the horse is confident, mount up and try to open the gate from the saddle.

Dr Mac is an academic, a practising equine veterinarian and a stud owner.