It’s Important To Mind The Ps And Qs Of In-Gate Etiquette

Jan 22, 2010 - 5:26 AM
Communicating with the in-gate person at the ring in which you'll be showing should be an essential part of your day. Photo by Jennifer Wood.

Work with the in-gate staff, not against them, for a drama-free day at the show.

Like any good circus, a horse show needs a ringmaster.

And, fortunately, there’s one for each ring.

Your friendly in-gate person—usually seated in a little tent or shelter adjacent to your gateway into the ring—is a maestro of time management. It may seem like all he or she does is call out the order of go for the next few horses in the ring and inform the judge of the number entering the ring. But, in reality, they’re the traffic directors of the entire showgrounds.

As a competitor, you have enough stress on a show day. The last thing you need to worry about is being late for your class. What’s the easiest way to make sure your day goes smoothly and promptly? Make friends with the in-gate person at your ring.

The key to winning your in-gate personnel’s heart is really quite simple.

“Be on time and be courteous,” said Pat Dunkin, who has controlled the ins and outs of the Grand Hunter Ring at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.) for eight years. “All I really like is people showing up on time. Call me easy to please, but that right there is one of the things that makes my day. In the long run, it’s so easy to be a good exhibitor. It’s simple courtesy to the rest of the exhibitors.”

A ring without a horse in it is exactly what the in-gate personnel try to avoid. Keep in mind that while your two minutes in the ring is very important, there are also more than 100 other people who want to stake their claim on their time in the ring. With 150 to 200 rounds, or trips, to usher through a ring on any given day on a winter circuit, your in-gate person sees every minute as crucial.

Think of it this way—if you and everyone else in your ring adds 30 seconds to your round by being tardy to the ring, that means an extra 75 minutes added onto a day of 150 rounds.

It’s The Key To Any Good Relationship

You can apply the advice of any marriage counselor to your relationship with horse show in-gate personnel—communication is the key to happiness.

“The biggest priority is the exhibitor communicating with us,” said Dina Happy, who has worked in-gates at HITS Thermal (Calif.) and HITS Indio (Calif.) for nine years. “They need to communicate to us that they’ll be ready to show at a certain time, or that they’ll be at another ring for a while but they’ll get to us. If we get to the end of the class, and we haven’t seen nor heard hide nor hair of them, that gets us a little nervous.”

If you’re new in town and showing somewhere for the first time, go visit the in-gate of the ring where you’ll be showing.

“I’m lucky enough to know probably 80 percent of the exhibitors, but there are always new names and faces,” said Happy. “Walk up and introduce yourself—that’s the best way to go. Then, we have a visual on you and know who to be looking for when you’re close to showing.”

If you have a spot on the posted order and are all ready to show, but your trainer calls you and says he’ll be late to help you, it behooves you to alert the in-gate person as soon as possible.

“The sooner the in-gate knows, the more time you give us to find someone to fit in that spot,” said Dunkin. “A lot of times people are worried that we’re going to freak out and yell at them, so they wait until they’re three trips out and their trainer isn’t there. Then, we’ll really yell at them.”

If you’ve scratched or added into a class it’s vitally important to let the person in control of the gate know. They have a class list in front of them, and their job is to get everyone on that list into the ring and in front of the judge. If you entered the class late, you won’t be on that list and they won’t know you need to show.

“In-gate people hate surprises,” Dunkin said. “There’s always the classic, ‘I’ve added to this class.’ And I ask, ‘Do you have an add slip?’ And they say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s in my pocket.’ That’s information I need to know, and I can’t read it when it’s in your pocket.”

Making A Plan

Most in-gate personnel are proactive when it comes to organizing their day. They have the phone numbers of the trainers and barn managers who will be sending large numbers of horses to them, and they use them.

“I’ll talk to guys like Scott Stewart or Peter Pletcher, who have so many horses, the night before and get an idea what they’re planning, and I’ll make my orders around that,” said Dunkin. “There are also people who I’ll stalk early in the morning for a class in the middle of the afternoon. And I use text messaging a lot. I like to let people have an idea of how the schedule’s going.”

Every morning each in-gate person receives a class list for his or her ring, with the number of entries in each class and their back numbers. Traditionally, the grand prix jumper ring takes precedence. There’s a posted order of go for each class in that ring, and the trainers and riders should consider making those spots a priority. Each in-gate person works his or her orders of go around those times.

In-gate personnel are masters of multiplication. They can tell you within seconds how long a class of 15 first year green horses is going to take, including the jog and under saddle. At the start of each day, they do quick calculations of when each division in their ring should begin, factoring in time for dragging and watering the ring. That way, if you walk up and ask, “When will the older large juniors start?” they have an answer.

“I’m usually pretty accurate with my morning guess,” Dunkin said. “I’m not usually more than 10 minutes off for my whole day, barring unforeseen problems. If at 8:30 in the morning, I say your class is at 3 p.m., be there at 3.”

Happy keeps what she calls a greaseboard, or a dry-erase board, at her in-gate. “I have a sign-up, but I also do a little bit of an order of go. It’s a little bit of a visual for them, and I keep my times as estimated as I can on the greaseboard, so that someone can walk by my ring, look at my board, and not have to ask me a question about where I am in the day. Though they’re certainly welcome to! It just makes it easier,” Happy said.

In bigger rings where it’s feasible, in-gate staff has also started encouraging “pre-loading,” where the next competitor to go walks into the ring as the previous competitor concludes their round. Shaving a few seconds off each round’s time can really add up at the end of the day.

When It All Goes Haywire

Anyone who’s ever been to a horse show knows to expect the unexpected, so it’s no surprise that even with the most meticulous planning, an in-gate person’s day can unravel quickly. One trainer who has students waiting to show at multiple rings can bring the showgrounds to a grinding halt.

“If they have conflicts in another ring, or if they’re running into a conflict they didn’t anticipate, their best option, instead of making the decision themselves, is to go to a gate person and say, ‘This is the problem—I’m needed here, here and here. Where should I go?’” Happy said.

“Then, between all the gate people involved, we’ll make a decision about which ring needs priority. Then it’s our fault if the ring stops. But it takes the weight off their shoulders. If they decide on their own to go to one ring and that means two other rings are sitting dead, then it’s their fault,” she added.

All the in-gate personnel at a show share information constantly. If a trainer is needed at the main hunter ring, that in-gate person will radio to the in-gate people at all of the other rings, looking for him. So, if a trainer has students waiting for him at three different rings, the in-gate people at those rings will ideally communicate amongst themselves and decide which ring should take priority.

“If we know what the problem is, we can solve it for them. As long as they communicate with us and let us know what’s happening in their life, we can make their life easier,” Happy continued.

A Little Thanks Goes A Long Way

The in-gate of any ring at a horse show can be a place full of nervous tension and tempers. But it doesn’t have to be an unpleasant environment.

“I have to say that 90 percent of the exhibitors are excellent,” said Happy.

“There are a couple of people who won’t ever change, and we’ll always have to be hunting them down. But the majority of people are very organized. The exhibitors are great to be around. I enjoy them. I try to be fair to them, and they’re fair with me. I don’t play games or play favorites.”

Being polite and courteous to your in-gate personnel will go a long way to preserving their sense of humor when things go wrong.

“I enjoy my job and the people I work with. Horse show people are crazy—I fit in well with them,” Dunkin said.

A little recognition of a job well done is also highly appreciated by the in-gate staff.

“One of the nicest things I’ve ever gotten was a thank-you card,” Dunkin said. “For WEF, I’ve been tipped. I was given three nights in a king suite in the Keys, which was awesome. It was quite a thank you. But, truthfully, just a simple thank you is nice.

“I helped with the NCAA Varsity Equestrian Finals, and the Kansas State team sent me a thank-you note. And I still have it, sitting on my bookshelf at home. It’s so out of the blue, and they took the time to find my address and send it to me. A genuine thanks for doing your job is very rewarding.”

Did You Know?

There’s a language and math unique to the horse show in-gate. The standard time estimate for a round in the ring is 2 minutes. If the ring is particularly large, it’s 3 minutes. So, an in-gate person sees that there are 12 horses in an amateur-owner hunter division with two over fences classes showing that day. This is commonly known as “12 to go twice.”

They automatically multiply 12 times 2, to get 24, or the number of actual trips. Then, they multiply 24 times 2 again, to get the number of minutes those trips will take, which is 48. Add 5 minutes each for the two jogs at the end of the classes, and you end up with 58 minutes for that division to be completed.

This two-minute mantra becomes second nature—most people on the showgrounds hear “10 left in the schooling jumpers” announced and know that there are 20 minutes before the start of the next division.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “It’s Important To Mind The Ps And Qs Of In-Gate Etiquetteran in the January 22, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

Category: Horse Shows
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