29 Aug

Obstacle Challenge: The Rope Gate

The Rope Gate. We see them everywhere. Trail Trials, Trail Classes, Ranch Workshops and at Obstacle/Challenge Courses. Why are they everywhere and so popular? Well, in my humble opinion, they are an easy to create “test” of the level of, and the feel communication, handle, feel and timing that the horse and the human have at that moment.

The rope gate requires that the horse and human string together twelve (12) basic maneuvers in a manner that is slow, controlled and that appears to be “easy.” Getting the timing, the placement/targeting and the apparent ease of motion needed is anything but easy. Yet, with practice, patience and clarity we can achieve success in the rope gate.

Before we can do a thing, we must understand that thing and all that it is comprised of. If we look at the component parts of the “rope gate maneuver,” we can see it is more complex than it appears. The parts are as follows:

Walk or trot towards the rope gate

1.      Side Pass towards the rope gate, where the rope is secured (this can be scary for the horse)

2.      Stop

3.      Lift the “scary” rope (this can be REALLY scary for the horse)

4.      Back up

5.      Transition into Yield the Forequarters with Control

6.      Pass through the two uprights (again, this can be scary for the horse)

7.      Yield the Hindquarters with Control

8.      Transition into Back Up (again)

9.      Stop (again)

10.    Replace the “scary” rope

11.    Walk or trot off

Whew…that is a lot of stuff crammed into one maneuver! The additional challenge, especially in a competition or show, is to keep the cue “quiet and subtle.” Oftentimes, our horses have a very different opinion on this and that is the second challenge.

For many horses the upright post and the rope is scary. Then we ask the horse to be close to the scary thing and actually pick it up! The horse thinks we’re nuts!  Then we have the audacity to ask the horse to maneuver its front end, calmly walk through the two uprights, and just as does, we ask for a hindquarter yield. If we try to cram all of this information and stimulus onto one maneuver all from the beginning, we are not setting the horse up for success.

When we begin to practice this, we have to take one step at a time. Practice on the ground first and make sure that your body control is solid. Then practice each maneuver under the saddle away from the obstacle to ensure your balance and cues are solid and quiet.

Then practice near the obstacle, use advance and retreat methods if the horse shows signs of fear. Desensitize often to any aspect of the obstacle that scares your horse. It is the human’s job to set the horse up for success. 

When we practice this, we, the riders, have to think ahead a little bit, especially in the transitions. Hold the cue too long and the horse over-compensates the move. Not long enough and you are out of position. It is tough. Then there is the rope gate itself. If we make an error, just move on. Overcorrection, on the other hand, can lead to fear and frustration in the horse, so be willing to stop, breath, drop the rope and hit the reset button.

As you and your horse learn this, you will reset often. Be mentally prepared for this. We also have to check ourselves! Slow and steady, calm and comfortable while being in balance (on all levels) is a place that is harder to get to that one may realize. We need to stay aware of our seat, legs, and hands. We need to ask not yell. We need to think ahead just enough to create good timing. There are many levels of subtlety and finesse when executing the rope gate.

This is why the rope gate is so popular. It is low impact on the horse and the human, it is easy/cheap to build and when we can do it well, we feel connected to hour horse and pretty darn good about ourselves. The rope gate we made for Lucky Star Horsemanship (see picture) had to be portable so we used old traffic cones and PVC pipe. You do not need to spend a lot of money to create the obstacle, you just need to be creative and think outside the box. All you need are two uprights of some kind, wide enough to let your horse pass through and a length of rope.

Take your time. Progress one step at a time and let the horse gain confidence, while you work on your timing, cues and feel. Together you will perfect the rope gate and your partnership will be better for it!

Here is a short video that breaks it down for you.

Have fun!

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