You’re leading an unruly horse out for turn-out. You get to the gate and start fussing with a latch that keeps catching, and then you have to lift the gate and drag it back to get it open. Meanwhile, the jittery horse is starting to dance from left to right. You finally get the gate open wide enough and get him through—this time. But wouldn’t it be easier if the gate were operating smoothly?
An easy-going gate—easy for you but not for the horse—results from thoughtful construction, choice of materials and installation.
For adding or replacing a paddock or pasture gate, determine your requirements. “Think about the traffic, who will use the gate, and who has to go through it,” says Bill Mullin of Stockton Fence and Lumber, Unionville, Pa.
Do you need a walk gate for humans and horses, or a drive gate for tractors or trucks? A walk gate should be a minimum of four feet wide. A drive gate should span 12 to 18 feet, allowing for the widest vehicle you expect. Mullin recommends that a pasture have two gates: a walk gate for you and horses, and farther along the fenceline, a drive gate for the tractor. That way you can control the gate and horses as you move one in or out.
If you have a combined walk and drive gate, consider using a double gate. Ephraim Esch, of Esch’s Fencing, Gap, Pa., points out that with a double gate equipped with a drop rod on one side, you have the option of using just one gate without both swinging open.
Ideally, the gate’s height is the same as the fenceline. For horses, a gate usually measures 48 to 50 inches high, allowing for sufficient ground clearance. Estimate the gap between the bottom of the gate and the ground at 4 to 12 inches. You don’t want too wide a gap, so a foal or small pony could squeeze under.
Most livestock gates open to the inside of the enclosure. In some situations, a rolling gate operates easier. If your gate is long and heavy, or lacks space to swing in or out, it can slide back and forth, most often on a pair of rubber wheels.
Like fenceline, you can build your own or purchase a gate. And as with fence, consider the durability, safety and appearance among the available materials, keeping in mind that function is more important than appearance. A fancy gate with even a gatepost finial could snag clothing or lacerate skin.
Gates are typically made of metal, wood or vinyl, and each material has it pluses and minuses. Metal has the advantage of strength and resistance to the elements. Wood can be more attractive, but requires more maintenance. Vinyl is also attractive but can be affected by years of sunlight. And both wood and vinyl can break in a collision.
Keep in mind that the material and size of a gate also determines its weight.
If wood is what you want and doing it yourself is an option, its construction does require some carpentry know-how. To make a lighter-weight gate, use lighter woods like cypress or hemlock. Then, make a frame of 1 x 6 lumber, using decking screws to fasten infill to the frame. For example, for a six-foot-long gate in a four-foot-high fence, join top and bottom rails of 1 x 6, 6 feet long, to 1 x 6 end boards 4 feet high. Butt the top and bottom rails to the tops and bottoms of end boards. On the “horse side,” screw one or two rails onto the end boards to match your fenceline. You can then fill the gate in with one or two more six-foot-long 1 x 6 boards. On the outside, place an angle brace (1 x 6, about 8 feet long) on the end boards, positioned to run up from the hinge post to the gatepost. Mark the brace ends to cut them at an angle flush with the gate; saw ends and bolt into place. (See picture this page.)
If metal is the way you want to go, you won’t lack for options. Manufacturers offer stock sizes to fit most applications (remember that a metal gate usually measures four inches shorter than its stated length to allow for hinges). There are also many different types and strengths to consider.
From steel gates that are welded tubes or pipes to a less expensive farm gate, built of galvanized steel planks with the edges bent over for safety, recognize a quality gate by the gauge of steel and finish. Heavier gauge steel, such as 14-gauge, costs and weighs more, but resists stronger impacts. And to get rid of the industrial look, steel can be painted or powder-coated for a longer-lasting finish.
Some metal gates have rounded corners on the frame. This may look nice, but mounted against the gatepost, a nicely rounded corner creates a gap that can trap a horse’s head.
If you’ve purchased the latest vinyl rail fences, then perhaps you are looking for a gate to match. Make sure the vinyl gate is well braced. Like wood gates, a vinyl one gains strength from one or more diagonal crossbraces, crossed like an X or placed like an inverted V. Also like wood gates, they are not indestructible, so make sure the vinyl is good quality and won’t shatter when the temperature drops.
Whatever the material, make sure there are smooth edges on every surface. Any protruding bolts should face outside, not the horse side.
Mounting a gate correctly will help it last longer.
“A gate is only as good as the post you hang it on,” says Mullin. He recommends using a full-sawn 6 x 6. “Add a beveled top on the gatepost, 6 inches higher, so your post sets 3 feet, 6 inches in the ground. You can hold a lot of gate.”
The gatepost must be absolutely vertical, and anchoring it in concrete assures a solid position. Two metal hinges securely suspend the gate.
L-bolt hinges screw into wood posts, or bolt through metal, secured by washers and nuts. The end of the L is the pin that holds the gate hinge. You can also use metal hinge clamps that bolt onto steel posts.
Be sure to set the post hinges so that the top one faces up, and the bottom one down. That way, if a horse pushes up against the bottom rail, he can’t lift the gate off the hinges.
Place the hinges, and align the gate with its posts to check how it fits between hinges and latchpost. Mount the gate and secure the hinges.
If your gate has a single crossbrace, it must angle correctly to support the gate’s weight. The brace runs from the bottom hinge up to the latch. Thanks to gravity, the gate is always under stress, and the crossbrace transmits downward force through the corner at the bottom hinge and to the gate’s strongest point—the base of the gatepost.
Some wood and chain link gates add a wire tension brace to pull the corners together via a length of wire rope and a turnbuckle. The brace runs from the top rail (hinge end) down to the bottom rail (latch end). You adjust the tension by tightening or loosening the turnbuckle.
Align any gate so it closes level with the ground. For a gate on sloped ground, Esch said, “Your gate needs to fit the ground. We make a gate offset, so the gate isn’t square.
“A square gate won’t fit. It’ll swing back and hit the ground or you.”
The latch is crucial to a gate’s function. Whether you keep your gate shut with a slide-action, lever, fork or positive chain latch, there are several things to consider:
Slide latches are fairly simple with a two-step motion—up and slide—so alignment is crucial. If you are working with a fork latch, secure it with a trigger snap below the fork because horses can easily learn to lift this latch. Keep in mind that in winter many metal latches can freeze, so be prepared. When working with the positive chain latch, it’s good to note that it is a one-hand operation for you but beyond equine comprehension.
In fact, all gates should be able to be opened with one hand. Even better with a drive gate is an electric opener, controlled with an electronic signal.
Gates are constantly being opened and closed, creating a lot of wear and tear. Add to that gravity and destructive horses and you can understand why gates have a tough time of it. But by using strong materials and good installation techniques, a gate can be an asset, not an aggravation.