Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Etiquette of the Gate

I knew when my husband acquiesced to my demands for a gate between the corral and the pasture that I had to be careful. There would be no opening the stall doors and throwing open the gate so the horses could trample me and do something horrible to their legs by falling into the little drainage ditch. The last thing anyone needs is an injured horse. Plus, the deal was that the drainage ditch must be preserved so that the barn wouldn’t flood. I’ve been really good about watching out for that and shoveling the ditch each time the horses push too much dirt into it. What’s been more of a challenge is the urge that they have to go thundering back and forth between the corral and the pasture.

The purpose of the gate is to allow the horses to come and go from the barn as they wanted. I was tired of the shenanigans of them waiting at the gate to go in and then pacing relentlessly in the corral shortly thereafter so they could go back out again. Bringing Siete in from the pasture to the barn had turned into an opportunity for her to battle with people over who was in charge. I was worried that she would hurt one of us as she raced into her stall to get to her feed bucket. I wanted less drama about something as simple as going back and forth from corral to pasture, especially on days when I’ve got other dramas to handle.

The first time I tried closing the stall doors, opening the gate and then opening the stall doors, the horses got so excited that they exploded out of the barn, stumbled across the ditch and raced around the pasture, back to the corral, into the barn, and then back out to the pasture again. It took my breath away. Clearly, that approach wasn’t going to work.

I also discovered that if the gate is open and I go into the stalls to muck, my curious little monkey, Siete, rushes in to see what I’m doing and whether I need her help. As soon as I shoo her out, her mother has to come and check on us to make sure that she’s not missing anything. Of course, Siete returns to join us. So there all three of us are, in one stall, stirring things up and making my cleaning job that much harder.

So, our safe and sane routine is that I lead the horses out one by one to the pasture, just like I’ve done before the new gate was installed. The gate stays closed, and they enjoy the pasture while I muck. Then, I carefully open the gate, making sure that neither horse seizes the moment to race back into the corral and the barn. After I’m safely out of the way, occasionally they run in to see if there’s something new and important in there. Over time, they’ve learned that I don’t like the running in thing, so now, they meander over. They usually find a flake of hay in each stall, and Silk always goes to Siete’s room instead of her own. Siete eats in her mom’s stall until I show up with their feed buckets. Then, they politely switch and stick their heads out eagerly to show me that they are in their proper places.

You may be wondering why I would bother telling you these mundane daily rituals. The truth is that it endlessly fascinates me to watch my horses interact with each other and with me. Everything they do tells me something about them, and often about myself too. It is remarkable how their inner clocks know exactly when it’s time to go to the barn to eat the hay since that triggers me coming out to feed them. Siete is really learning that it’s not okay to be rude and pushy and run into the corral and the barn. I can tell that she’s trying to please me, and she does. She gets praise and encouragement from me, and she obviously likes it.

Everything is not always perfect. What’s interesting is that when one of the horses does react by running from the pasture into the barn, there’s always a reason. Sometimes, it’s a bug that won’t stop biting or a little argument over territory. I can see how the consistency of what we do helps to ground them.

It reminds me to apply some of the same principles to raising my 13-year old daughter. Navigating around one physical boundary has given me a better understanding of new ways to establish safe and healthy mental and emotional boundaries for horses and people. It’s not just whether the gate is open or shut, it’s all about how we react to it.


Bill Evertson said...

That picture is priceless. It looks like the girls are are caught in disguise on surveillance tape, about to pull a feed store heist :)

Grey Horse Matters said...

It does sound like they are getting the routine down. I love watching horses figure things out and I also like to watch the interactions between them. It's amazing how short a time it takes them to 'get it'. Glad your gate is working out so well now.

billie said...

I loved reading this, and I think you're absolutely right about how much we learn by observing the horses when we give them more options and some freedom to come and go as they please.

While this kind of arrangement isn't practical for everyone, it offers a huge amount of insight into their personalities and an endless source of laughter. I think that's the main thing I've learned about my herd as they come in and out - they have a tremendous sense of humor.

I hadn't thought about it until right this second, but this is probably why our vet goes on and on about how much she loves our horses - she always ends up seeing their humor b/c they're all coming and going on either side of the barn while the "patient" of the moment is in the barn aisle.

At one point on Thursday, in the 4-inch crack of the barn doors at the far end, there were 3 eyes lined up - Salina's up top, then Rafer's, then Redford's. Cody was peering over his stall door, as was Keil Bay, even though either one of them could have been out in the paddock eating hay.

What were they all watching? The pony getting his ear cleaned out. While I think on some level they were concerned, the pony has been known to pick on all of them in some form or fashion, and I think it was just too tempting to miss the sight of him being "subdued" by 4 women wielding Q-tips! (and sedation, ultimately!) Cody (low man in the herd) even seized the opportunity to take a nip at the pony's butt!

I love that Silk goes into Siete's stall first - that is priceless! Ours run in too when they have a horsefly - they will quite literally gallop up, and then slow to a walk and a halt with the part of their body bearing the biting fly right in my line of vision, so I can get it. Trust, communication, and partnership, all in a moment.

I'm glad the gate is bringing so much good stuff to you and the girls!

Lori Skoog said...

Victoria...You came up with just the right solution. I have 7 horses here, and at night I put the grain in their stalls and they all walk into their own area without me leading them. If I didn't put the grain in first and had them go to their stalls, they would try to play musical chairs and I would not put the grain in until they all went where they belonged. They sure are interesting creatures. The important thing is for them not to run in and ignore where you are.

I know, there are many facilities where the horses have to be led out and back in for many reasons. My barn is in the middle of my paddocks, pastures and rings so I control where they go by what gate I open. Also, this herd has been together (some of them for over 25 years) for a long time and they are very calm. They have as natural a life as I can give them, but I still command respect. I'm sure some people think I'm nuts. I have always had mares and geldings together...when foals were born, they were
eventually worked into the herd too. I guess that is enough jawing....Have a great day.

detroit dog said...

I loved reading this post.

Reading about Silk and Siete following you around reminded me of greyhounds -- they like their people!

Have a great Mom's Day. :-)

Pony Girl said...

Your final sentence says it all! ;)
Glad the gate situation is working better for you. I also wish you a happy Mother's Day weekend!!

Paint Girl said...

I am also so interested in how horses figure everything out. I don't have an actual barn, so mine are fed in the pasture. But they do know which grain bucket is theirs. Fritzy always is on the left and Brandy on the right. They get it right everytime. It really shows that horses have their routines and they stick to them!
Thank you so much, for stopping by and leaving your kind comments about my job loss and what I want to do with my life. I really appreciate it!

Anonymous said...

It's fun to watch how the horses figure out what we are doing (they must think we're pretty strange creatures!). Sounds like you've worked out a pretty good arrangement for them and you. I turn out 13 horses every morning, and our layout requires a lot of leading - pastures are mostly very far away - most mornings turn out takes almost an hour or so - so I'm jealous of your set-up!

Esther Garvi said...

I love following your thoughts on your daily experiences and I have been thinking a lot about both Isolde and Kalahari and how to tend to their individual needs. Reading your post is always an inspiration - I am so glad that Siete is learning to that pushy is not okay and that you get to enjoy them both. There are so many things in what you write that I recognize in our own herd, and every horse has its own special character.

Warm greetings from Africa!

dazey said...

How you have solved the problem of gate rushing and have developed the etiquette of the gate is marvelous and such a good illustration of the intelligence of horses. Because I believe the single most important thing to teach a horse is to obey a word for standing still (keeping front hooves stationary) until given an okay to move (I teach the word "stand") I make many tests for my horses so they can always remember and respect this word. For my young mare I sometimes use the gate to the pasture. When it's time for her to go out for grazing I open the gate, while giving her the word-command to stand. She stands, as I open the gate wider, and tosses her head in a happy figure eight. Finally, I'll tell her she's a good girl and then I'll say "okay" and she walks through the opening for her reward.
How I teach this and many other things are in Basic Training for a Safe Trail Horse with subtitle of Eliminating the Fear Factors. It was written especially for recreational riders who keep horses at home and would like to relate to a horse as his alpha mare herd member instead of being perceived as a dominating predator. It is a small paperback narrative available on or from the author at