The in-gate is probably the most dangerous place to be at a horse show: Not only do you risk being trampled by a loose horse, but you also risk being stepped on, kicked or knocked down by horses clustered around the gate. Horses may be herd animals, but not all of them enjoy standing in close quarters with horses they don’t know, especially in the tense atmosphere at a show. Mares in heat, for instance, may be more prone to kicking out than normal. If you’re not familiar with the horses around you, you may not be able to predict which ones will get fidgety, spooky or upset in crowded situations. And when horses act up, humans on the ground (or in the saddle) can easily get caught in the crossfire.
Horse-show organizers often appoint someone to oversee the in-gate area. It’s this person’s responsibility to control the numbers of horses and riders standing at the gate and to disperse the crowd when it gets too big or when a crisis arises. It’s the riders’, trainers’ and spectators’ responsibility to listen to this person and respond to his or her requests promptly.
Though loose horses try to avoid trampling anyone, if a horse is panicking—as he may be if he’s fleeing a fallen rider, stirrups flapping at his sides—and his only escape route is partly blocked by people, he may hurt someone unintentionally. Even though standing in a loose horse’s path and trying to wave him down works in many cases, it’s not worth the risk.
Here are some other things you can do:
• Identify the nearest “outs”—places where you can move to get out of trouble.
• Pay attention to the design of the in-gate area. Is it a chute-like space, as we see in many indoor shows, or a wider open space? The more confined the area, the more dangerous it will be if a horse acts up.
• Estimate the number of horses and people at the in-gate. Be aware that even in a wide-open space, a cluster of more than three or four horses can become a problem.
• Stand directly in front of the in-gate only if you are the next competitor to ride. It’s OK for your trainer to stand beside you to give you last-minute instructions, but no other friends or support people should be in this area.
• Do any final grooming touch-ups well away from the in-gate. Also keep your grooming buckets, extra tack, etc., a safe distance away.
• Keep dogs and small children well away from the in-gate. Not only are both at risk of being hurt in an in-gate crisis, but they can actually cause problems by being in a rider’s way or spooking a horse. (I’ve witnessed baby carriages at in-gates. This is a definite no-no!)
• Pay attention to the body language of the horses around you. If a nearby horse looks extremely tense, swishes his tail violently, pins his ears, rolls his eyes, etc., give him space.
• Alert other riders and bystanders if you’re mounted on a horse who tends to get nervous in crowded spaces. Call “Heads up!” as you approach the in-gate and don’t be afraid to give more explicit warnings, such as “My horse kicks!”
• Never stand with your back to the in-gate. If you’re anywhere in the in-gate vicinity, you must keep track of what’s going on in the ring and around you. If other concerns have you too distracted to do this, move to a safer area.
Top hunter-seat trainer Kathy Fletcher and her husband, Mike, own and operate Grazing Fields in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, where they train equitation, hunter and jumper horses and riders. Their Juniors have won four New England Equitation Championships, including Chris Ewanouski’s 2005 win where he also won the Horsemanship Class. The Fletchers’ 13-year-old daughter, Emma, won the Massachusetts Horse Council Mini Medal Championship and Rhode Island Horseman’s Association Mini Medal Championship in 2013. Grazing Fields also hosts several USEF shows each year.
Skip Social Media
Refrain from being active on social media or your cell phone until you’re away from the busy in-gate area—no texting, Tweeting, cruising on Facebook or surfing the web while on your horse at the in-gate, please! While I understand that trainers, grooms and riders all need to communicate with each other, it can wait until you’re off your horse. People get so distracted at the gate, creating a dangerous situation.
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.