||Isn't it dandy to
be riding a horse that you can open gates with? Not to mention being able to move him over
to get your Coke off the fence, untie a horse you're ponying, or
smooch your honey on another horse. And, in fact, good leg control of a horse makes him
much safer to ride. He can be aimed away from overhanging branches, kept away from the
edge on narrow trails and drop-offs, and kept straight on steep hills with a minimum of
geeing and hawing on the reins.
horses come into our lives knowing these things, some we are able to maul around and get
to do a passable job of opening gates; if they open the right way, if there are no
complications, if he feels like it, and with lots of precarious leaning and reaching. Many
training methods have been suggested. Perhaps the least likely is one overheard recently.
To get a horse to side pass over a pole, you get somebody on the ground to push him over!
Maybe this could work, but it sounds awfully awkward.
With lots of our high-powered
horses, especially young and green ones, getting them to relax and stand still can be a
problem. When a training method pressures and scares the horse, the problem is compounded.
We need them to stand well to open and close gates. Pulling on the
horse's mouth and kicking him, which is so often resorted to, is not effective. It has
also led to rearing, out-of-control backing up, head tossing, tail wringing, and sometimes
refusal to approach a gate at all.
So, how to avoid all this and get a
horse to obey leg signals, work gates, etc., and like it? Like all
other training projects, it's a step-by-step process. Think of building a house. The roof
can't go up until the walls are up, the walls can't go up until the foundation is built.
The horse will be stressed and the results will be haphazard if steps in the process are
deleted or rushed.
Is the horse comfortable? He should
be well enough started to know basic cues; to move forward from leg cues, to back up
passably, and to be relaxed with the rider. Colts ridden just a few times can be started
on gates if they are comfortable with the basics. Older horses will do fine, too.
How about his back and mouth? Does
the saddle fit well without being cinched too tight? Is his mouth free of damage? Always
check a new horse's mouth for wolf teeth; tiny teeth embedded in the gums just in front of
the upper molars. They interfere badly with a bit and cause lots of mouth problems that
the horse usually gets blamed for. They can be pulled in three minutes by your
veterinarian. While you're checking for wolf teeth, feel the outside edges of the upper
molars. If these are sharp, the bit pulls the lips into them and causes pain. These
edges should be removed by floating. Too often we've heard, "But he just had his
teeth floated!" only to find wolf teeth and sharp places in the horse's mouth. Please
A plain snaffle is the bit of choice
for these exercises. It should fit well; not sloppy and wide or too narrow. The diameter
should be appropriate. A sensitive mouthed horse often does best in a thicker mouthpiece.
Having the mouth kept shut with a bosal or noseband, or not, seems to be a matter of
personal preference. We prefer not to force the horse's mouth shut. If his mouth stays
soft, relaxed and closed without being forced, then you are using your hands correctly.
Many smaller horses need a 4
1/2" or 4 3/4" wide mouthpiece. If the bit is too wide, when pressure is put on
both reins, the joint protrudes forward into the roof of the horse's mouth, causing
discomfort. It will also hang too low and bump the bridle teeth on a gelding or stallion.
Snaffles with a significant curve to the mouthpiece, allowing less pressure on the tongue
seem to work well, as do snaffles with two joints. Any shanked bit, including a shanked
snaffle or mechanical hackamore, will not work for this. What we are teaching is lateral
control, and these bits are not designed for it. Put on a plain snaffle, pull a rein to
the side, and look at the way the bit works. Try the same thing with a shanked bit. The
pull is too low in relation to the mouth, causing the bit to twist. Finally, please no
tie-downs, etc. With no gimmicks, the horse must learn the correct response to the bit and
the end result will be much better.
With the horse's mouth and back
happy, and fitted with all the right gear, go for your usual ride. These exercises work
better at the end of a ride when the edge is off. When you accomplish what was intended
for the day's "gate lesson", dismount, loosen your cinch and leave the horse
tied for awhile to let the lesson soak in. If he really did well, give him a handful of
grain and put him away. Rewards do a lot of good when appropriate to the horse.
STEP ONE - GIVING TO THE BIT
The goal here is for the horse to
bend his head clear around to your leg in response to the rein when asked. Start by
putting light pressure on one rein, holding, and releasing the pressure the instant the
horse responds. At first, be content with a small response, and gradually ask for more. Do
both sides equally. In two or three sessions he should bend easily to both sides. If he
wants to walk around, sit deep and relaxed in the saddle and just wait. The instant he
yields and stops, release the pressure. Don't pull on him! If the horse won't respond to
light pressure, use more pressure at first, then get lighter as the horse gets the idea.
If you're really having a problem , put the horse in a stall or other safe place and tie a
rein to the stirrup or girth straps, just tight enough so that when the horse brings his
face around, the pressure will release. Leave him a couple of minutes on each side. Then
get back on him and try again. You can do this from the ground at first, too, standing by
his shoulder and using the same pressure and release. When he'll give his whole head
softly clear around to your leg and let you hold it there for a moment, he's ready for the
STEP TWO - YIELDING TO THE LEG
Again, at the end of your ride, ask
the horse to bend his head each way. Praise him, then bend his head and squeeze with your
leg on same side he's bent toward, with your leg back a little from where it normally is.
You can use a voice command such as "get over" if you wish. He will step over
with his hind legs, away from your leg. Be content with one step at first. As he grows in
understanding, increase the number of steps until you can walk his hind legs all the way
around in a circle with his front legs staying in place. There are usually no problems
with this step if step one has been done correctly. If he's sluggish and won't move, bump
or kick him while keeping his head bent. Spurs might be OK if you kow how to use them, and
a whip is good, used by your leg, if it doesn't scare him and if you can use it and still
bend his head around correctly. Do all this gently and slowly. He should be able to walk
all the way around with his hind legs in three or four sessions easily.
STEP THREE - TURN ON THE FOREHAND
Same deal; at the end of your ride,
and reward him afterwards. Bend his head just slightly, keeping just enough feel or
tension on both reins to keep him from stepping forward, and use your leg to ask for a
couple of steps of the hind legs around the forelegs. Pet him and go the other direction.
Take a couple of days to be able to do a turn on the forehand all the way around in both
directions. This step takes some finesse in balancing leg and rein pressure so that the
horse doesn't step forward or back. Review earlier steps if you have problems.
At this point it's helpful while on
the trail to practice leg yields. Take a light contact with both reins while at the walk or trot, bend the horse slightly, say, to the left and push him
to the right with your left leg. He should move over diagonally. Ask for only a step or
two at first, and before you know it, you can be doing pretty little forward and sideways
traverses back and forth. Don't overdo it, but it's helpful to do some. This is especially
helpful for the very forward or nervous horse that wants to move forward when he feels the
leg pressure. This way he can move forward and sideways at the same time without getting
STEP FOUR - SIDE PASSING
You can, at this stage, really teach
the horse to sidepass, or just do a little and move on to gates. They seem to get worried
about sidepassing when they see no meaning or reason for it, so we usually just do a
little, then go to gates and later come back to sidepassing when they thoroughly
understand leg pressure.
Once the horse can do a complete
turn on the forehand with his head only very slightly bent to the inside (to the right if
his hind quarters are going left, and vice versa) he's ready to start side passing. Stop
him with his head about two feet from a wall or high fence. (Don't put his head over a
fence.) Using the same cues you used to do a turn on the forehand, plus cueing him to move
his forehand over (slight contact on both reins, slight pressure of the left rein against
his neck by the withers, right rein leading, left leg squeezing - reverse cues to go the
other way.) Sit straight in the saddle or lean a little away from the intended direction
of travel. He will take a couple of steps sideways. At first his front end or hind end
will get ahead, then the other, but as you work at it, he will get smooth and even.
"Feel, timing, and balance" (Ray Hunt) are very important. Go slow, and be
satisfied with small improvements. We would only do this three or four times and go on to
gates. He should get pretty good in a week. Review earlier steps now and then.
STEP FIVE - THE REAL THING: GATES
First, more preparation. Can you
ride him through narrowish places without him jumping and removing your knees? Ride
between horse trailers, two barrels, trees, whatever you have. If he's afraid, start with
wider spaces and gradually narrow them. Stop and back up now and then, and stop and pet
him a lot. If it's hard to get him to stand, ask for only five seconds at first, or two if
need be. Be sure to never let him walk off without a cue. Don't fight the horse, just set
up situations where he'll stand, and build on that. Often in the yard at the end of a ride
he'll stand best. Build on that by moving out from the "safe zone" gradually.
He'll probably stand better with another quiet horse. Use that, but build greater
distances between them. Going away from home makes it easier to stop and stand than when
headed towards home, so use that and build on it, too. Don't fight with him, just keep his
feet moving in circles, back, left, right, then breathe deep and take off all pressure
when he stands for a moment. This process of teaching him to work gates will improve his
ability to stand immensely, if you're patient and keep making a little progress every day.
Once your horse can pass through
narrow openings comfortably, and will stand reasonably well when asked, start stopping him
next to a gate at home, using your leg cues to move him over pretty close to it. Sit
there, pet him, then get off right there and put him away. Do this for a couple of days
and he'll be much more relaxed and happy about being asked to move to the gate.
Now all you have to do is open and
close lots of gates. Move him up against the gate, with his head towards the latch and stop.
Keep remembering to stop. Pet him, then lean over (not too far, he should be right next to
the gate) and shake the gate. Do this until it's easy for him. If he moves off, try to
check him before he's really committed, but don't pull on him. Just turn around and start
again. When he stands for the gate to be rattled, get off and reward him. The next step is
to unlatch the gate and move it back and forth. Next, open it towards you by moving him
over and back. It's important not to go through the gate when it's too narrowly opened
towards you. If the horse jumps he wll squash your legs or his ribs in the gate. So open
it nice and wide, ride through, and shut it. It's OK to let go of the gate at this time.
In fact, it's better than leaning off the horse and letting him get out of control. Stay
with the horse and keep in a good position at all times. The horse matters, not the gate.
Obviously, this is to be done with a decent gate, not a heavy or broken down one.
After awhile you can practice on all kinds
of gates. Be sure to come to a gate on your left side one time, and right side the next
Open some away from you and some towards you. Once you and the horse get good, back up
through them occasionally. The horse will keep getting better, and the delicate control
you have taught him will help with the rest of your work together.
Rebecca Bentley is a free-lance author who has
written numerous articles on horse handling and other subjects of interest to horse
owners. For more information, please write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit the Bentley web site at http://cebentley.tripod.com.
© 1999 C.E. Bentley Farrier Service and
The Bay Area Equestrian Network. Material on this
page is the property of the Author and may not be duplicated or redistributed in any way