I’ve mentioned before that my time as a road whip has acquired me the nickname of “Radio Killer”. However, my time in the hunt field on horseback has also given me the identity of the “Gate Keeper” because Tobey the Wonder Pony puts me closest to the ground, I’m perfectly willing to take on this role. Some parts of Shakerag Hounds’ clubhouse fixture have several gates, so it can be difficult for second and third field to keep up with hounds unless they have at least one designated opener and closer of gates.
Last week, my friend Alyssa hunted Tobey while I rode his stable mate, Bailey. As a Thoroughbred/draft cross, Bailey isn’t the easiest to get on and off of for gates, but he’s great company for Tobey. As a result, Alyssa became the official gate getter for the day while Bailey and I kept them company and led them back to the field after each gate. At one point, Alyssa was struggling to open a notoriously tricky gate, and second field master Maryann Watson lightly teased that she was taking too long, to which I replied, “Give her some time, she’s still in training!” A couple of years ago, there was one day where I got on and off of Tobey 27 times to get gates, so while I’m far from perfect, I’ve gotten pretty good at getting gates. Alyssa jokingly asked me for words of wisdom on opening and closing gates efficiently, which has led me to this blog post. Below, I’ve included just a few things I’ve learned in my time serving as the opener/closer of gates.
- It helps to start with a horse that is fairly low to the ground. This will make remounting and dismounting over and over again infinitely easier. Also, since you have a shorter distance to fall when dismounting, it lowers the risk of collapsing/tripping when your lack of coordination on your own two feet strikes. (This is exactly why I quit gymnastics at the age of 6; nobody warned me that riding/hunting would require much of this same coordination.) At the very least, try to put your horse in a ditch/at the bottom of a hill to make your job easier.
- It also helps to have a horse who doesn’t mind leaving the group for two reasons: you may have to go ahead of the group for a bit to get to the gate first, and you’ll definitely have to stay behind the group to close the gate.
- Teach your horse to be food motivated. Planting your horse’s face in a pile of grass definitely helps him stay still as his friends gallop past and away from him.
- As you approach the gate, try to find the chain/lock, and take a mental picture of it as you dismount/run up to it. Many of these gates close one way and one way only, and if you wrap the chain at the wrong angle or in the wrong direction or around the wrong section of post, it will inevitably take you at least 60 seconds longer to figure it out, and hounds will definitely take off in full cry while you struggle with the Battle of the Rusty Chain.
- The better the run is, the more difficult that gate will be to open and/or close. This always has been and always will be true. It’s best to not fight this simple fact, and just accept it. Silently cursing the chain/gate/lock is completely acceptable in this situation.
- On that note, sometimes silently cursing the locking mechanism really does help. Okay, it probably doesn’t, but it at least makes you feel a little better.
- Swallow your pride. You will never feel weaker as a human being than you do when fighting with a hunk of metal. An inanimate object will make you feel like a total moron as you struggle to make the two ends meet around the post. It’s okay; even though you have opposable thumbs and highly developed frontal lobes, that gate/lock/chain is still putting up a fight big enough to make you question your ability to complete any simple task.
- Leave your horse’s mane just a tad bit long. Do yourself a favor and give yourself some mane to grab onto when you’re trying to get back on!
- For the love of all that is holy, make sure your girth is tight BEFORE you move off for the day. The last time you want to find out that you should’ve tightened it one more hole is when you’re trying to get back on to catch up with the field.
- Don’t think about that mud you’re currently ankle/calf/knee-deep in. Just don’t think about it. Don’t think about how much your boots cost, don’t think about the murky water that is currently seeping through to your socks. Just ignore it all, shut the gate, get back on the pony, and get to the next gate!
- Practice your no stirrup work. There have been times that the run has been so good and I’ve been so desperate to get back with the field and get to the next gate, I’ve just swung my leg over the saddle and kicked Tobey into gear. I have to drop my stirrups to get off pretty soon anyway, so why waste time putting my feet in?
- Work on that cardio! There are a couple gates that are close enough together that it is sometimes easier to just run from one to the other with Tobey in tow than it is to get on and get back off again. However, this is where tip #3 can come to haunt you if done too well; in that case, silently (or not) cursing the pony for refusing to remove his face from the pile of grass can come in handy. It should be noted that extra dismounting/remounting will quickly reveal how strong your quads really are as well.
- Get some grippy stirrup pads, and make sure they get changed frequently enough to stay that way! I guarantee you will not notice they are getting dull/smooth until you’re on a run on a particularly wet/muddy day, in which case you might as well be trying to mount with stirrups made of half-melted ice. More silent cursing can be helpful here.
- If you’re capable, learn how to do that terrifying running-and-jumping-spider-monkey move that all those pony club games riders use to remount their ponies. This will definitely cut down the amount of time needed to remount, and will be useful when your horse refuses to stand still after shutting the gate.
- When you discover that you are not capable of this pony club vaulting movement that simply defies the laws of physics, there are a couple of ways to make remounting easier. Put your horse’s face in a tree to keep him from walking off. When he starts running backwards, put his rump in a tree. When he starts moving sideways, push him into a tree. When he proceeds to dance in a circle as you hop with one foot in the stirrup, say a little prayer and silently curse your steed and threaten to remove all mints from his diet until he stands still. When this fails as well, surrender to his pony attitude plant his chubby little pony face in the grass again.
Here’s to short ponies, extra quad workouts, and all the finicky gates out there!