In autumn, the trails are often muddy and the schooling ring ground frozen. This leaves people looking for an off-season, poor-footing training idea to keep them motivated and develop their horses’ skills. In cases like this, I often suggest riders learn the steps to navigate a trail gate.

The goal

Beyond the benefit in learning the ‘phonics’ of manoeuvring his body parts and the patience education your horse will receive to apply to other areas of his life, competing in trail is a blast! Competitive trail is a booming sport. From cowboy obstacle races, to show ring patterns, to Pony Club Le Trec, the common denominator is finesse and efficiency. And most patterns involve manoeuvring through a gate.

The building blocks

Are you able to put your horse’s body parts wherever you want? Can you get him to turn on the forehand or haunches, sidepass, step backward and step forward? Before you approach a gate, have these five pieces in place. If these buttons aren’t working any time, any place, without anticipation, attempting to push them with a gate in hand creates anxiety and claustrophobia in a horse. As a judge, I see it all the time.

Putting the pieces together

Stop with the gate opening near your leg, close enough that you don’t have to reach for it. Leaning to the side puts you and your horse off balance and can cause your leg to slip into your horse as you stretch for it, resulting in an unintentional sidestep.

Depending on what the instructions dictate, you may have to back a few steps to tuck your horse’s head behind the front standard in order to push the gate away from you. Or simply sidepass away from the gate to create an opening for a pull gate. When sidepassing, double check that your leg signals clearly at the girth, not behind it.

Wrap your horse around your inside leg as you step through the opening to create a nice arc as your horse follows his nose. Close your outside leg at the girth to keep him from stepping away from the gate on the other side. Back to latch the gate.


In all competitive trail type events, obstacles are given a mark for finesse and there are deductions for errors or penalties.

Manoeuvre: In the show ring, the manoeuvre score represents the smoothness and softness of the obstacle execution. Riding through a gate without hesitation in the stride or resistance to the aids could earn a top score of 1.5 points on an individual obstacle.

However, tension such as gapping the mouth in response to bit contact or counter-bending in response to a rein cue will result in a lower score. Anything that makes the manoeuvre look ugly – swishing tails or high heads, for example, will earn the lowest mark of minus 1.5.

Penalties. Look in your association rule book for the full list, but here are some highlights:

Backing, balking or bucking. Any time your horse says ‘no’ you will have a five point penalty deducted.

Snacking on the foliage. Every nibble at the flower decorations or equipment is a one point error.

Hitting the standard. A light tick is a half point penalty, a good clunk is one point, and actually shifting the obstacle will cost you three points.

Letting go of the gate. Five points deducted.

Have patience
Gates, side passes and backing obstacles take a lot of patience and pausing between steps, so riders find them boring and many don’t practice (until they get to the horse shows!). Wait between each step until the horse is completely neutral and not anticipating what comes next. Gradually, you can shorten the wait time until it’s no longer visible – the steps become steady, but the pause is still understood. In other words, the horse never initiates a step, but instead, waits to be asked.