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The Magnetic Properties of Open Gates


Kelley Pounds


It's an unwritten law in the West.   If you have to open a gate, you'd better make sure you close it.  It's also an unwritten law that cattle and horses can sense an open gate like they can sense water.  Open gates are livestock magnets.
One day, being in a hurry to run an errand for my husband (and seeing that the cattle and Jenna's horse, Penny, are up by the house--nowhere near the gate . . . for now), I leave the gate open, figuring I'll be right back to close it.  Sure enough, I'm back home within a few minutes, and I see that the livestock are still lounging around the corral after their midday trip to the stock tank.  I figure it'll be safe to leave the gate open again.  After all, I reason, in a few minutes I'll be coming right back out because I plan to head to town before the post office closes.  Well, as usually happens, my good intentions go south.  I get sidetracked and don't make it right back out.

Running late, I race down the road toward the gate, my pickup flying over ruts left by the last rain and washboard sand hills left by too much wind.  I whip through the opening, jump out of the pickup, and close the gate, never looking around to see if the all the animals are still in the pasture.
I'm speeding along when I see something white waaaaaay down there.  One of our cows from another pasture?   Nope.  It's Jenna's horse.  She's walking the fence, ears perked forward, trying to figure out how in the world her companions came to be "in there" while she's "out here."

(Now remember, I'm running late, and I really need to make it to the post office today.   It doesn't matter where you live, things like this always happen when you're running late and really need to be somewhere, don't they?)
Of course driving cattle and driving horses are two different things.  Unless they're really wild, or something happens to spook them, cattle kind of plod along, more or less walking and trotting and grazing in the general direction they're being driven.  Not so with horses.   Horses don't need an excuse of any kind to be spastic.

Penny, high-strung as usual, is frantic when she realizes I've turned the pickup around and I'm trying to drive her away from her buddies.  She threatens to jump the fence, so I stop the pickup and give her some time to calm down.  I get out, talk to her in a soothing voice.  She nickers at me, showing her recognition, so I move toward her and get her headed back up the road toward the gate . . .  which I belatedly remember is now closed.

"I don't have time for this!" I want scream in frustration, but I'm afraid of scaring the horse.
"You should have thought of that when you left the gate open in the first place, Kelley.  It only takes a couple more minutes to close a gate after you open it." 

It doesn't do anything for my mood when I realize my alter ego--the one that inherited all the common sense--is right. 
By now Penny is trotting up the road, far ahead of me, ears still pricked forward and head held high.   I get back in the pickup and drive slowly along behind her, far enough back that I don't frighten her any more than she already is.  After several attempts to turn back toward her buddies, during which I jump out of the pickup and chase after her to get her headed back in the right direction, Penny finally realizes what I'm trying to do.  Unfortunately, she panics again when she gets to the point in the fence where the gate is supposed to be open.  Unable to find her way back into the pasture, she breaks into a gallop and flies past the gate!

By now I've almost decided to give up.   I'm out of breath, sweaty, nervous, and frustrated beyond words.  Even so, I stop at the gate, open it, and then back the pickup about fifty yards back down the road, hoping Penny will realize she's gone too far and try to come back.

Horses may be more easily spooked than cattle, but they're also smarter--thank goodness.  Before long, just as I hope, Penny stops, turns, and starts trotting back, looking for the opening she knows she missed.   The minute she finds the open gate she darts in, nickering at her buddies, who are now half a mile away down the fence line.  She takes off, excited by the prospect of being reunited with her "herd," while I close the gate, turn around, and speed back down the road.

I make the post office with a full five minutes to spare.

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