You’ve been spending time and money getting your farm just the way you like it. Stalls are bright and well ventilated, the horses perform beautifully on the arena footing, your pastures have just the right mix of grasses, and your fencing is immaculate. That paddock gate, however, is another story. Over the years the side posts have become crooked. As a result, the gate is sagging and the far end sits in the dirt, so you have to hoist the gate up to close it. It is definitely time for a replacement.
Any number of prefabricated gates can quickly come to the rescue (see “Commercially Available Gates and Materials,” below). Or, you may decide that you’d like to design, build, and/or install your own gate. Either way, it pays to do your homework first. Greg Nielsen, sales manager at Classic Equine Equipment in Missouri, offers this advice: “Choose materials that can stand up to the rigors of both your environment and your horses. Examine gates or gate plans with an eye toward safety. The old adage, “you get what you pay for” applies here, and it makes sense to purchase or build gates made of quality materials that feature safe, durable hardware—even if it means spending a little more up front.”
There are many types of wood to choose from when building your gate. According to Aimé Fraser, wooden boat builder and master woodworker at Taezo Studios in Ansonia, Conn., the choice of wood is not too important for the gate. “Because it’s suspended in the air and not standing in water, a gate is not prone to rot. However, it’s not a bad idea to choose a rot-resistant wood, since the gate is exposed to the elements. Cedar, yellow pine, cypress, redwood, and black locust are common species. Some of the tropical woods used for decking—ipe, meranti, and cambara—also work well, but they tend to be heavy. Avoid the really rot-prone woods, like poplar, birch, and red oak. Pressure-treated wood is unnecessary, since the gate is off the ground,” she notes.
This is not the case for the gateposts, which must be rot resistant. Here, it makes sense to choose pressure-treated posts, which can last for 10 to 25 years, depending on preservative treatment and soil conditions. Other good choices for posts are cedar, black locust, redwood, Osage orange, or a local species of hardy wood. Fraser recommends checking with your local lumberyard to see which rot-resistant wood is most readily available in your area.
To build the gate, you will need 2 x 4s for the frame, 3/4-inch thick boards for the cladding, and circular or square posts that are at least 8 inches across. It is very important that the 2 x 4s be straight and dry. “Taking the time up front to choose good ones will save you a lot of aggravation down the road, so don’t buy just any old 2 x 4s,” Fraser cautions.
The Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences Agricultural Research and Cooperative Extension offers some general recommendations about paddock gate design (available at: www.pubs.cas.psu.edu/freepubs/pdfs/ub037.pdf).
• Gates should be at least as strong and safe as the surrounding fence.
• Paddock gates that are just for horse and human use ideally should be five feet wide. Nielsen recommends a minimum width of 48 inches. If you are planning to drive a tractor or other vehicle through the gate, allow at least 12 feet of clearance.
• For paddock gates of up to five feet, avoid diagonal cross bracing, because hooves or even heads can get trapped in the angled space. If additional gate support is needed, place a wooden block (short post) under the free hanging end of the gate. This prolongs the life of the hardware and prevents sagging. Larger gates—10 feet or longer—will need a diagonal cross brace and should be built in a way that minimizes the potential for hooves to get trapped.
• Tom Spears of Derby Fence Company recommends always keeping the paddock gate closed. “This helps prevent sagging over the life of the gate,” he explains. Derby Fence supplies a latch with its gates that supports the gate in a closed position.
• Gates should be as tall as the fence. Typically, this is 54 to 60 inches high, or about horse wither height.
• Minimal bottom clearance is eight inches for planks or rails.
Distance between planks should be about 10 inches. Derby Fence allows 10.5 inches between planks.
• Mount the gate behind the support posts so that it swings into the pressure of the horse—in other words, on the inside of the paddock space. This provides extra strength if the horse leans on the gate, and prevents him from pushing the gate open when it’s time to come in. Some people prefer mounting the gate so that it can swing both ways.
• Consider installing a latch on the fence post that will secure the gate in its open position flat against the fence, rather than projecting into the paddock.
• Choose safe hardware that can be used with one hand. Classic Equine Equipment offers two styles of safety latches that can be used on stall doors and paddock gates. As Nielsen explains, “Our flip latch flips down and out of the way, so the horse never comes into contact with it. We also offer an internal plunger latch system, again, designed with the horse’s safety in mind.”
• A quick-hook safety chain is not a bad idea as a backup to the primary latch. William Ash, construction foreman for Kistler Buildings and a farm owner himself, fashions a hook out of a bent horseshoe with blunted ends that mounts on the gate post. He has a chain on the gate, with links large enough to fit over the horseshoe ends. “If a horse is acting up going through the gate, I can quickly grab the chain and hook the gate until I have more time to close it properly,” he points out.
• If you are placing a new gate in the fenceline, Penn State suggests situating the gate in the middle, so that horses cannot get trapped in a corner by the swinging gate. If installing gates in neighboring paddocks, consider placing them opposite each other.
You might want to design the gate yourself. If not, plans are available online and at some farm, hardware, and lumber stores. Your local cooperative extension service might also offer plans. Working from a plan can save time and minimize or eliminate costly waste and mistakes. (See box below for more information.)
8 STEPS TO A NEW GATE
Here is a step-by-step approach to building a four- or five-foot-wide gate:
1. Take accurate measurements of the space, from vertical post to vertical post. If the posts are crooked, the top and bottom measurements may end up being different. Allow 1/2 an inch on both sides of the gate for hinge clearance.
2. Cut the 2 x 4 lumber for the gate frame to the appropriate dimensions. Instead of a diagonal brace, you’ll need a straight vertical support piece to run down the middle of the gate. Make sure all the ends are square.
3. Lay the pieces out on your sawhorses or workbench. Butt the longer sidepieces under the horizontal top piece. Drill at least two pilot holes through each end of the top piece into the upright pieces, and secure the pieces together with screws. (Using modern exterior deck screws, which are self-tapping, eliminates the need to make pilot holes.) Use the builder’s square to make sure all corners are at 90-degree angles. Repeat this for the bottom of the gate frame.
4. Set the middle vertical brace piece in position, check to make sure the corners are square, and screw it to the top and bottom of the frame.
5. Cut and sand the lumber for the cladding. Apply two coats of oil, stain, varnish, paint, or sealer, and let dry.
6. Assemble the cladding on the frame, making sure the smooth side faces the paddock interior. Drill countersunk screw holes to prevent the cladding from splitting. Secure the cladding to the frame using four to six screws per piece of cladding.
7. If the hinge comes with screws, replace the screws with bolts. Bolt the hinges to the gate, at the appropriate location. The larger and longer the hinge and the more bolts you use, the better the support. Bolt the hinges to the gate, and then bolt the mounting piece of the hinge to the post.
8. Install the latch hardware. Make sure that the hinges and latch hardware are aligned with your fence posts and are on the outside of the gate. If you are installing new posts, add the gate hardware after you have aligned the gate with the new posts. If you are planning on riding through the gate, Ash recommends putting the latch as high up as possible—even along the top—so you can reach it easily from horseback.
INSTALLING THE GATE
If you are replacing the fence posts, Ash and Fraser both recommend posts that are a minimum of eight inches in diameter or 8 x 8 inches square. You’ll want to dig your post holes about two inches wider than the post, and at least 12 inches deeper than the frost line in your area. This will vary geographically—if you’re in Florida, for instance, the frost line is often six inches (or less) below the surface. But in Minnesota, it is six feet (or more) down.
Make the postholes wider at the bottom than at the surface. Put about five inches of gravel at the bottom of the hole, then add concrete up to the level of about one inch below the surface. Set the pole in the concrete. Make sure to brace the pole in a level position while the concrete dries.
Once the new gate is hung on the posts, remember to sink the short post to support the bottom of the gate. This will help prolong the life of the hardware and prevent sagging over time.
With time, patience, and proper selection of good materials, you should have a paddock gate that serves you and your horses well—and safely—for years to come.