The ability to open and close gates with ease is an important skill for both rider and horse and is highly recommended for hacking. The training for opening gates will help your horse’s responsiveness generally and being a ‘good gate opener’ is a great credit to you and your horse.
Remember: heels to hinges and practise makes perfect!
If you are struggling with gates when you and your horse ride off-road, perhaps team up with a confident buddy who will ride out with you and practise using them safely.
If riders experience problems with the gates themselves, or encounter one that is difficult to use, please report it to the local authority so it can be rectified. If no resolution is found, contact the BHS Access Department who will support you to rectify the problem. If you are unfortunate enough to experience an incident involving a gate, please report this on the BHS’s dedicated incident reporting facility.
The ‘heels to hinges’ method to operate a gate on horseback
The method recommended by the Society for greatest safety is commonly called ‘heels to hinges’ because the horse is positioned facing away from the gate’s hinges. It is considered to give riders most control during the manoeuvre and it is most likely to avoid tack being caught by the gate or latch.
The rider approaches the gate’s hinges and turns to position the horse alongside the gate, ‘heels to hinges’, with the latch by the horse’s shoulder and the horse’s head and neck extending beyond the latch, parallel to the gate.
Gate opening away from the rider
1. With the horse standing parallel to the gate, heels to hinges, lean over to release the latch and push the gate open far enough to give a safe gap.
2. Back the horse far enough to bring his head into the opening, then turn and ride through the gap, bending your horse around your leg that is nearest the gate.
3. Turn round the end of the gate push the gate closed and secure the latch. Depending on the space, you may be able to do this positioned with the horse’s head or heels to hinges.
Gate opening towards the rider
1. With the horse standing parallel to the gate, heels to hinges, lean over and open the latch, then move the horse sideways away from the gate while keeping one hand on the gate and drawing it with you.
2. Move forwards and turn round the end of the gate when the opening is wide enough.
3. Once through the gateway, you may be able to move your hand along the gate towards the hinges, drawing the gate closed then backing to secure the latch, or you may need to turn the horse heels to hinges parallel to the gate and then move sideways while drawing the gate closed.
Best practice is to keep a hand on the gate at all times to give greatest control over it. If the gate was pushed wide, or taken wide by its weight or the wind, then it takes much longer to ride after it and to close it so stock are more likely to escape. The uncontrolled swing could damage the gate and if the gate swings closed, it could hit the horse or rider’s leg.
Many riders, especially with large horses, cannot keep hold of the gate. In this case, extra care is required, particularly where stock are present and the rider must be ready to prevent the gate swinging wide or closed. Only push or pull the gate as hard as necessary to create a safe gap, never ‘fling’ it wide.
Letting go of the gate to ride through the gap is not safe with gates that close quickly as the closing gap may cause the horse to panic or the horse or rider may be hit by the gate or the post. If the gate closes itself, you need to keep one hand on the gate to hold it open or push it again until your horse is clear. Always check that it has secured before riding away.
Check the closing speed of unfamiliar gates before letting your horse enter the gap, some get faster as they close. A gate closing on a horse is very dangerous. If you cannot reach to hold the gate open, you may be safer to dismount.
Two way opening gates
Two way opening gates give riders a choice of opening the gate towards or away from them. It is commonly assumed that riders will always open a gate away from them given that option but some riders find that they have more control moving the gate towards them, for example, if a horse tends to rush through a gap opening in front of it.
Where the heels to hinges method cannot be used
It may not be possible to use the heels to hinges method if there is no space for the horse’s head and neck beyond the latch, or if there is not enough space to come alongside the gate. Many horses and riders manage to negotiate gates with the horse’s head over the gate, but it is less safe because riders will often need to swap hands so potentially losing control; there is greater risk of the reins or martingale being caught, and the gate or latch may hit the horse’s head. Much depends on the latching mechanism – a latch that has to be held open while the gate clears it is more difficult to open when not parallel to the gate. Self-closing gates with a fast speed can be impossible with this method or take several attempts which is tedious and time-consuming and increases the risk of injury.