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Seven Tips to Solve Gate Problems for Good

To introduce this week’s Q&A video, I’ll start with a metaphor… let’s say you experience headaches often, that were actually caused by a serious (but unknown to you) health condition. If you were able to completely resolve the symptoms by taking pain relievers, you might think “problem solved!” That is, until some time down the road, when the headaches continue, or become more frequent, and you start having stomach problems from the pain relievers, or the underlying condition gets worse and starts to wreck havoc on the rest of your body and your health.

The same goes for gate issues – they are a symptom of a deeper problem. Those deeper problems are often difficult to recognize. Just because you can get your horse in the gate, doesn’t mean the underlying issue is resovled, or that the symptom (your horse being unwilling to go in the gate) may not occur again, get worse, or that the underlying problem will eventually cause issues in other areas as well.

What is Your Horse Thinking at the Gate?
What is Your Horse Thinking at the Gate?

I feel as though there are three main causes of gate problems.

The first is physical. When a horse becomes unwilling to go in the gate, there’s a good possibility he’s hurting some where. If you had a close up video or photographs of the positions your horse’s body has to contort in as they round the pattern, it would really open your eyes to just how much physical stress they go through.

The second is a fear issue. This is a more common occurrence in horses that by nature are more insecure and nervous. They are the HOT, sensitive horses that if we don’t do our part to meet their needs, will struggle to hold up under the mental pressure involved in such an intense, high speed event. I think of these horses as having a bad case of “stage fright.” They most likely want to please, but their reaction in the alley is akin to a human having an anxiety attack.

The third is a respect issue. This may occur more commonly in horses that are typically pretty confident and secure in their day to day life. If left to their own devices they might become quite pushy and rude. If we don’t do our part, these horses will challenge us, they’ll object to our plans and insist on their own agendas. They’ll test us and if they learn that their tactics are effective, it will become increasingly difficult to get things turned around.




The bottom line, however, is that horses that are normally confident can become fearful, and fearful horses can be totally rude and pushy. Fear and respect issues run together and can look the same. It’s easy to get confused by which is which.

Fortunately, there is a solution for either case that is VERY similar. It CAN be helpful to understand more details about WHY problems occur, but the most important thing we can do is take ONE, specific and effective action. That one action, along with other numerous tips are provided in the video above.

I invite you to check it out and answer one of the questions below in the comments at the bottom of the page…

1. If you have a gate problem, what do you think could be the cause?
2. Are there any additional tips you’ve found helpful to resolving gate issues?
3. What first action will you take to fix your existing gate problem?
4. What do you do to prevent gate or alley problems from developing?

Barrel racing is a competitive sport, but this web site is all about sharing! It’s an opportunity to receive even more help for your challenges, as well as help others in the process! We’d love to hear from you!


Read the Comments or Add Yours

  1. Ruby Hayes says:

    ive had ‘gate issues’ badly with my mare and it has taken us around 12months to sort them out. she might be sore or just sour on the arena im not too sure just yet, she has had 2 months off over winter to ‘just be a horse’ and the only thing i have found that works is a tip that Heather has given me, that is keep there feet moving and there mind on you. if there attention wavers get it back on you as there leader and ask them with a quiet but asertive seat, like sit on your pockets and ask them forward with a bit of energy. im keen to try thia again now as our season is starting again
    thank you once again Heather for such a wonderful website and wise words

  2. Marsha says:

    I had a stud horse that coliced (impaction) July 2011. I gave him several months off and when I got back on him he gradually started balking in the alley and also was getting harder to catch. It kept getting a little bit worse over time but being a stud he tended to have attitude changes at certain times so I chalked it up as that. In May of 2012 he coliced again and I had to put him down. Looking back I never think he fully recovered from the first incident and was telling me in “his way” something was going on. I learned a valuable lesson, to LISTEN to my horse from now on.

    • Sorry to hear about your stud, Marsha, but you’re so right on… I don’t think anyone ever regretted listening to their horse “too much” or taking “too good of care of them!” There is a lesson and gift in every adversity, so I try to keep that in mind. When something happens, there is usually something we can take away from it that will help us to do better next time and prevent problems down the road.
      Thanks for sharing!

  3. Heidi says:

    My mare is 6 now and she loves to do the barrel pattern. I have never had a problem getting her in the arena until just last week when I tOol her to fair. She went on to run the pole pattern and did great after that we were going in to do barrels and she did not want to go in I had to get off and walk her in the arena and when we got in she went around the first barrel good and the second she wanted to go back to the gate. This is the first time I have ever had a problem with her. She usually is all excited jumping around trying to get in the arena.

  4. Penny says:

    I also sometimes have that issue of balking at the gate which i think is totally me just kinda being nervous but i know that keeping my horse moving and listening to me always helps me get him in the gate. I just need to work on me :)

  5. Jane says:

    My mare runs the perfect pattern, but if shes run too many times over two or three consecutive days she will refuse to run a pattern, dropping her shoulder, refusing to run faster than a trot or lope ect. I think this is her just being bossy and wanting control.

    • Hi Jane, you could certainly be right and her tendenacy toward being dominant will certainly show up in other areas as well. The same goes for physical issues, which may leave clues as well, but would also be something to consider if her behavior gets worse the more runs she makes.

  6. Heather says:

    I am a firm believer that most gate issues are caused because the rider is already in run mode. Just like a rope horse that anticipates the sound of the shoot, a barrel horse anticipates with our body language. Sit quiet, go to one hand if possible, and get through the gate and in position before you pick up two reins. If it’s really bad gate issues, go to a few races and don’t run. Just relax around the gate area and walk in a few times if possible.

    • Great advice, I’m with you Heather! If the horse over anticipates, then we must do the opposite to an extreme, which is to say very calm and quiet as we prepare and approach the gate. Approaching with one hand like I’m on a Sunday trail ride has always been very effective for keeping my horses calm and focused. Thanks for sharing!

  7. alyssa brown says:

    My mare has been running barrels for about 4 yrs and she is getting faster and faster. I don’t not push hard but instead I push slowly. She has been good at the gate for the last 3 yrs but this yr we been having problems.

    I do all the exercised that are provided and they are not giving a lot of results. Yes I go in and out of the gate during rakes, when there is no time only I go in and get her relaxed. During this she is perfectly calm and relaxed. I breathe a lot but since its our turn she will balk. All she will do is stop and back up. She doesn’t rear or bolt. I use to be able to back her in, walk her in on the ground, get pony in and led in. But at one event we had a bad experience with someone trying and is scared her to death.

    Now its a struggle to get her in…. u done everything u can think off. All I can do is kick and look and lean forward and when she backs up to give her a tap of my quirt. She will finally lope through the alley and do amazing run.

    She is up to date on everything and has no health issues. What should we do.

    • Hi Alyssa,
      It sounds like you’ve tried quite a few things but I’d still be suspicious of a physical problem if she worked so well for three years. It would be a good idea to have a second opinion and get a thorough exam with an equine performance Vet (it can be soreness that you can’t necessarily see, ulcers, etc.). The other thing you can try is moving her sideways with a direct rein when she won’t go forward – really hustle her back and forth and keep her nose pointed at the gate. When she takes a step forward release any pressure. If she stops, ask her to go forward and if she doesn’t, then hustle her back and forth again.
      If this has become pretty severe you might even ask if you can be put last in the draw so you can actually have time to work on the issue – also think of ways to simulate the competitive environment so you actually have the time get her to understand that there is relief for her in the arena and that it’s a better choice than fighting at the gate.
      At the same time, don’t forget that there is a REASON WHY she is not wanting to go in, and there is usually more to it than them just accidentally picking up a bad habit. When you can figure out what that is, that’s where the lasting solution will be created. Hope that helps! :)

  8. Vick says:

    I have seen this issue a lot, in fact I have had my own issues. What I did was I made it a point to make my horse relax at the gate by simply walking my horse up to the gate stopping, relaxing, dismount & losing the cinch. I try to do this after every run when possible. After my run they usually drag and let others warm up and I take the opportunity to do my relaxing time. The other thing I did was warming up at the gate area but stopping, walking, relaxing at the opening of the gate. I also paid for time onlys to walk my horse in and out of the gate and relaxing as was mentioned in the video. I see so many riders run there horse & tie them to the trailer when their done instead of taking an extra 5 or 10 minutes after their run to let the horse know its not just run as fast as you can and then get tied up.

  9. Tanya says:

    First of all I make sure that the horse has something in it’s stomach prior to racing….either hay, or alfalfa pellets or tums or even all three and 9 times out of 10 that has “fixed” the problem. If it’s still an issue, I then get them checked by either the vet and/or chiropractor and then go to saddle fit, etc…If there is still an issue, I go back to the basics and bring them back slow and add another event that is in the arena, weather roping, goat tying, tracking cattle, etc….If there is still an issue I figure the horse despises running barrels and would probably love doing a different job and then try to fit them with someone else who would use them differently.

  10. sandra says:

    I think it’s cool that you post this right after I’d shared that I want to help barrel horses who have been blown up. This is the #1 problem I’ve come across, and I am helping one that I have taken on for my own now.
    I’ve taken him out of the competition and when we go to an event we only walk.
    We are also taking dressage lessons to teach focus and clarity. These lessons have helped so much.

    I have discovered first and foremost it is as you said a physical problem. He’s been adjusted, has regular acupuncture for different issues and has ulcers that we are treating and he’s a cribber. Until his health is where it needs to be I can’t blame him for not wanting to work.

    • Sounds like you’re on the right track Sandra! We need to remove the reasons our horse’s have for NOT wanting to work before we can expect them to put their full effort forth and not get emotional, resistant or oppositional! I LOVE that you’re hauling to events only to walk around + taking dressage lessons – perfect!

  11. Kendra Jenema says:

    My 16 year old gelding gets sour near the end of the season. he does get his hocks injected and if we have a long weekend of racing I will give him some bute for pain for his ol’ self. :) but I NEVER thought of reason #2! Insecure and nervousness have been part of his personality since the day I got him 8 years ago. After our run, before he’s even cooled down all the way I bring him back up to the gate to rest and undo his cinch. Then I will continue to bring him up to the gate and let him sit and rest during drags or between events. That seems to help at some shows but not all.

  12. Kendra Jenema says:

    My 16 year old gelding gets sour near the end of the season. he does get his hocks injected and if we have a long weekend of racing I will give him some bute for pain for his ol’ self. :) but I NEVER thought of reason #2! Insecure and nervousness have been part of his personality since the day I got him 8 years ago. After our run, before he’s even cooled down all the way I bring him back up to the gate to rest and undo his cinch. Then I will continue to bring him up to the gate and let him sit and rest during drags or between events. That seems to help at some shows but not all.

  13. Lindi says:

    My horse never had issues when my sister ran he a few years ago. She went out to pasture and I started riding her just last summer. Worked mostly on getting back into shape then started going out. At first, I thought maybe she was acting up at the alley (she would run backwards) because she was testing me but now I think it’s more of the whole being in a tight area. Some arenas with a wider alley, it might take a few seconds, but she is alot easier to get in the gate. Others still not so much! Not sure how to help a claustrophobic horse but we’re working on it. Recently got a smaller trailer and it taken a while to get her used to it but she is coming along.

    • Sounds like you’re on the right track Lindi… it could be a combination of needing firmer leadership + the “squeeze” issue (that horses are claustrophobic). When a horse trusts and respects us, they will be more confident in ALL types of environments, but you may also need to help work through his fear of tight spaces specifically away from competition and then in the alley as well.

  14. Brittia says:

    My mare is 15 now and over the last 2 years she has got to where she will just not move, Totally locks up at the gate. When I do get her in she makes a great run. She was diagnosed with laminitis but has since been treated. And even with every pain med, she still does it. I had tried everything like staying away from the arena, staying off her back, staying calm and quiet… But it’s like as soon as she hears my name there is no moving her. We typically don’t see barrels until the race, I do a lot of flat work and pasture riding at home. I am out of options and I am about to just retire her. It is embarrassing and makes me feel like a bad mom, but I promise I have tried.

    • If this is something the horse has done quite a few times over the course of two years, it may be a pretty well established pattern, which needs to be interrupted. Completely resolving the issue is a matter of addressing things from three angles – physical (rule out pain/discomfort), mental (how well educated is the horse?) and emotional (why doesn’t the horse WANT to run barrels?). It’s all about fixing the problem at the source instead of focusing only getting the horse in the arena. The thing you don’t want to do is go up to the alley to see if the horse WON’T go in, then kick, kick, kick and not get a response which teaches the horse that his strategy is successful. Turning a horse to the side to redirect their feet/mind can be effective also. Essentially, going in the arena must be the more appealing option and we have to have a foundation firm enough that we can influence and move their body anywhere, at any time. If we can’t – at least one of those three elements I mentioned is broken. Often times there are little symptoms of the same problem that come up in situations other than the gate, and they be at least in part addressed away from the alley, but they are often subtle. What happens away from the arena impacts what happens IN the arena.

  15. Ali says:

    Hi, I’ve got a 4 year old gelding who I have been running about 6 months. I have just been doing exhibition on him, and I will occasionally enter him. He doesn’t have any issues going through the gate, but every once in awhile after we go around the first barrel all he wants to do is head back towards the gate. I really have to ready for it and push him over. This past weekend he went around 1st and actually tried to bolt back towards the gate. I stopped him, backed him up and continued through the pattern, and he did fine. Do you have any advice on how to fix this issue before it gets out of hand? Thanks!

    • Hi Ali,
      The first think to consider is that you don’t want to ride in a defensive manner to hold a horse on the pattern, but develop them in a way that makes being on the pattern their most appealing and obvious choice. If they are not wanting to stay on track – ask yourself WHY? Is it pain, fear & anxiety, or disrespect? Does your horse REALLY know and take responsibility for his job? When you fix the cause, the symptoms will disappear! You might do a search for “independence” or “responsibility” in the upper right corner and refer to some other articles and/or videos on this subject as well. :)

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