Growing up on a Colorado ranch, I learned certain rules. Quite a number of them seemed to be about fences and gates.
- Never climb over or stand on a gate because your weight will make it “fall” – sag so that it doesn’t swing properly or, in some cases, latch properly.
- Likewise, don’t leave a gate standing open for the same reason; close and latch it so its own weight doesn’t bend the hinges and create a permanent sag.
Heavy wooden corral gates you have to lift to move and over-stretched wire gates weren’t just an annoyance when I was growing up. Sometimes they were impossible. And there are times when you really need to be able to open or close a gate quickly, generally either to stop cattle getting through or to let only the right cattle through.
In cow country, you often have to pass through gates to get where you’re going, both on your own property and when you’re visiting neighbors. Get out, open the gate, drive through, get out, close the gate. In all kinds of weather. I always identified with the stories of challenging gates in the stories of James Herriot, who memorialized his adversarial relationship with the gates on one farm in particular.
You learn pretty quickly one very basic rule about gates: If a gate is closed when you get to it, close it behind you. If it’s open, leave it open.
There is nothing quite as frustrating as spending all morning gathering a bunch of cows out of the brush next to the river and finally getting them headed toward home only to find someone has closed the one gate you need to get through – and that you left open for that very purpose. Especially when it’s one of those tightly stretched barbed-wire gates you have to struggle and strain to open and close.
There you are, with this unruly bunch of cattle – the sneaky, wild ones who hid out successfully when you were clearing out the herd for the day-long drive to summer pasture. Now you have to try to ease up through the bunch, get off your horse, open the gate, remount, ease back around the now-spread-out bunch and herd the animals through before that one crafty old cow sees a chance to turn and run like a deer back for the cover of the willow thickets.
Whomever closed that formerly-open gate – little brother on dirt bike being the prime suspect – will get an earful. As will that same little brother when you find out that the back gate to the corral you finally manage drive the cows into (the gate you closed before you went in search of said cows) has been opened in the meantime so the whole bunch runs out into another 200-acre pasture. Hence, the rule.
Gates and fences are equally important focuses for horse people. Ever turned out a horse into a pen, releasing the halter just as you looked up and realized the gate on the other side of the enclosure was wide open? And that your horse had seen the same thing just a split second before you did?
I’m constantly amazed at what people will use for fencing horse enclosures. Horse-shopping clients and I once looked at a young Arab gelding at a backyard “barn” where part of the “fence” around the dry-lot pen was, I kid you not, a bed spring propped up on end.
On the ranch, of course, the fences were all barbed wire – essential to keep the cattle in, but certainly not ideal for horses. I was lucky not to have had any horse badly injured in those fences, though I have doctored many, many superficial wire cuts. I attribute that to the fact that the ranch fences were all very well maintained, a year-round effort. A well-stretched wire fence is much less dangerous than one where the wire is left slack either because it has come unstapled from posts or because the posts have rotted and don’t hold fast.
I have a definite phobia of running horses in pens or pastures fenced with T-posts, even if they’re capped. I’ve just heard one too many stories about horses impaling themselves on those to ever feel comfortable with my horses corralled that way.
But, even when people have obviously chosen safe and appropriate materials to construct horse fencing, there is one maddeningly common construction mistake I see much too often. It’s a matter of good sense and most people, after you point it out, can see the logic and the importance. Can you figure out from the photo what it is?
I’ll give you a hint: Surprisingly, most of the general articles I looked at (and some I linked to above) fail to mention this issue at all. But here’s one that does include this important instruction about how to build a functional fence to enclose horses (or pretty much any animals).