Opening a Ranch Trail or Ranch Riding Gate

Opening a Ranch Trail or Ranch Riding Gate

Learn how to master this ubiquitous ranch maneuver, opening a gate while horseback, with advice from Randy Snodgress.

Britney Ferguson opens a gate while horseback on the Snodgress Cattle Co. ranch (Credit: Abigail Boatwright)

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Article and Photos by Abigail Boatwright

Britney Ferguson stepped up to the gate with her horse, unhooked the latch, guided her horse through the opening, sidestepped back to the fence and closed the gate. This simple maneuver is repeated over and over on an average working day on the ranch, and experienced versatility ranch horse competitor makes it look easy. Not only is it a necessary move for just about any working situation, it’s also a mandatory Versatility Ranch Horse ranch trail class maneuver and a maneuver you’ll also find in ranch riding patterns. But opening gates horseback can be challenging without proper training. If you’re tired of getting on and off your horse to open a gate, or you plan to enter ranch competition, you need to teach your horse a few things so you can master working the gate on horseback. Britney’s dad, AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeder Randy Snodgress, shares his tips here.

But first things first:

The Rules of Opening Gates on Ranches

Snodgress Cattle Co. has two rules about gates on the property, and they’re good principles to follow at anyone’s ranch.

  1. Don’t stand on the gate – it’ll cause it to sag.
  2. Leave the gate how you found it. If a gate is open, it could be to allow cattle to pass through to get water. If it’s closed, it could be keeping animals safe in one space.

Why Do You Open Gates Horseback?

If your horse doesn’t know how to work a gate, you’re definitely better off dismounting to do it. That works fine if you have one gate you have to navigate. But if you’re on a cattle operation, like Randy and Britney, constantly dismounting and remounting just won’t cut it. 

“A lot of times, we’ll be in the feedlot, feeding pens or going back and forth up and down alleys, and we’d rather be on horseback instead of on foot,” Randy says. “So to be able to open and close those gates on horseback, it makes life so much easier, especially if you’re doing it all day, for days in a row.”

Opening and closing gates while horseback as you go to check on cattle in pastures is made much safer and easier with a horse that knows what it is doing.

“It’s good to have a horse that can maneuver the gate quietly and calmly, if you’ve got cows wanting to come through the gate,” Randy says. “You want a horse that will get around that gate smoothly, not running sideways and opening it up to let the cows out.”

Proper Technique for Opening Gates While Mounted

There are a lot of ways to work a gate, and much of it depends on the actual construction of that gate. If it’s a typical right-handed push gate attached to a straight-line fence, Randy says he’ll most likely approach it simply: Ride right up to it with the horse’s head facing the latch, tail toward the hinges, parallel to the gate with his right hand by the latch. If he’s showing, or planning to show a horse, he’ll take a slightly more formal approach.

“I’ll ride up even with it and sidepass closer to the gate with the gate on my right side,” Randy says. “Then I’ll stop and hesitate for a moment, open the latch, back up until the horse’s head is even with the front of the gate, side pass through, making sure I get the gate open wide enough that I’m not going to hang a leg if my horse moves quickly.”

Keeping a light touch on the gate as you move forward through it, Randy prefers to ask the horse to arch around the end of the gate with his reins, and then he’ll use his left foot by the cinch to bring the horse’s shoulders around to the right, and his right foot further back toward the hip to bring the horse’s hips to the left.

“Moving the horse this way will keep the hole of the open gate blocked the whole time you’re working it,” Randy says. ‘That’ll be the most efficient way of getting the gate closed without letting anything out – like cattle.”

Finish the maneuver by backing your horse until you can close the latch, and then sidepassing away from it. 

Randy typically opens the gate with the horse’s right side next to it, because his reins are in his left hand and he’ll open it with his right hand, but which direction you face can depend on the design of the gate and fence.

If your gate is close to a corner, your horse may need to bend into the corner so you can reach the latch and then back up to open it. This can be difficult for the horse, says Randy, so this type of gate requires a really broke horse.

If you plan to show your horse in ranch trail, it’s possible you’ll encounter a rope gate, so it is best to familiarize yourself and your horse with working the a length of rope strung between two jump standards or posts. Similar to a real gate, Randy recommends approaching the gate parallel to the strung rope, then sidepassing over to it – this is because many rope gates are attached to jump standards with cross posts, which your horse can accidentally hit with his hoof if you walk up to it.

“If you sidepass up to the rope gate, it looks a little cleaner to me, and it shows that your horse is more broke,” Randy says.

Once you’ve lined up with the gate, you’ll lift the loop at the end, sidepass out until you’ve cleared the jump standard, and then ride forward through the opening. Then you will swing the horse’s hip around till it clears the standard and back up until you can re-hang the rope loop on the standard.

No matter which method you use, aim to take this maneuver nice and easy.

“You want to be smooth, but you also don’t want to rush,” Randy says. “You don’t want to get your horse in a hurry or anticipating, but you don’t want to pause too long if you’re in the show pen. Now at home, I pause a lot. Just so they don’t get in a hurry.”

Try this approach to practice sidepasses away from the gate.

Teaching Your Horse to Open a Gate

Randy’s horses all become well-versed in working gates because there are just so many to be opened and closed during the course of a normal workday on the ranch. Most of the gates are horseback-friendly, so it’s easy to practice the maneuver.

Before you ever start working on the gate, make sure your horse knows how to sidepass and move his front and hind end independently in response to your cues.

“Just because you can poke them and get them to move a couple of steps sideways doesn’t mean they are broke,” Randy says. “If they’re sidepassing and can only move their hips and then bump the gate because they’re not able to move everything together to open the gate, that’s going to startle them. It’s like any maneuver – don’t rush it. If you frighten the horse while you’re trying to do it, they’re going to start anticipating and get fidgety, and that’s absolutely not what you want for a trail horse.”

Randy recommends warming your horse up well before attempting a gate in training.  

“When you are first starting on the gate, you don’t want to do it when the horse is fresh,” Randy says. “A lot of times, especially on the young horses, they don’t want to stand by the gate. You want to take your time, because a horse doesn’t naturally want to go up to a gate.”

Once you get your horse positioned, open the gate so the horse sees a way through it. Then start sidepassing. Randy says this will help the horse know that the gate will move.

Pause at each natural step of the process. This will help keep your horse from anticipating the maneuver. But don’t pick at working the gate when your horse is still learning.

“Don’t worry about doing the latch perfectly every time [in training],” Randy says. “If it’s not a space where something is going to get out anyway, that way you’re not spending too much time trying to get it done and you can do it with the least amount of aggravation for the horse. Make it pleasant for them, so when they come back to a gate, they won’t mind.”

Another great way to sharpen your horse’s gate-working skills is to ride up to a gate and point the horse’s head toward the hinges, tail facing the latch. Try opening the gate with your left hand, sidepass and back the horse around the gate to go through it.

“It takes a really nice, broke horse to do that,” Randy says.

After you have curved your horse around the end of the gate and swung his hind end through, bring your horse’s front end around and sidepass your horse over to close the gate.

Troubleshooting the Horseback Gate Opening

As complicated as working a gate can be, it’s easy to get lost in the maneuver. Randy says trouble can ensue when a horse isn’t lined up next to the gate properly to start.

“A horse does not naturally want to sidepass up to a fence or gate, so you’ll see a lot of people that will get two or three feet away, and they’ll lean way over to get to the latch,” Randy says. “If their horse spooks or jumps sideways, they’re probably going to go off.”

With a rope gate, you always want to make sure you keep it from sagging close to the ground where the horse can step into the loop, or allow your horse’s head or tail to get tangled in it. You also want to make sure you open the gate wide enough to avoid hanging a stirrup or other piece of tack.

“A too-narrow gate can cause you to stick a spur in your horse, which will make the horse jump, and can cause a wreck,” Randy says.

Make sure you work with safe gates – wobbly standards on a rope gate, gates with pieces of fence or wire sticking out that can poke the horse in the eye or grab a ring on the bridle can all cause injury or frighten your horse.

Opening Gates in the Ranch Horse Show Pen

Normally your ranch trail or ranch riding pattern will specify if the gate is a right-hand or a left-hand push, but in either case, you’ll want to plan how you open the gate and move your horse around it to make it look effortless, says Randy.

Watching other riders is a good idea, but Randy says to make sure they’re actually doing the gate correctly before trying their approach.

“Plan your pattern, plan your approach to the gate and aim to make it look smooth and effortless,” Randy says. “The approach, and how broke your horse is, and how your horse helped you can make a 10-point difference.”                                                           

About the Source

Randy Snodgress has a background owning and showing pleasure horses, but he started Snodgress Equipment, the maker of arena maintenance equipment Arena Works 35 years ago. An AQHA Ranching Heritage Breeder based in Joshua, Texas, Randy now trains horses for ranch horse versatility and Stock Horse of Texas competition with his daughter Brittney Ferguson and son-in-law Ty Ferguson. The ranch’s horses have won Stock Horse of Texas all-around champion titles and world championships in Stock Horse of Texas competition.