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In-Gate Tips with Tom Carlson

by Kathleen Landwehr | Aug 2, 2022, 3:00 PM

In-gates at horse shows are busy locations, which is especially at Pony Finals with hundreds of kids, ponies, trainers, grooms, family members, and friends. Tom "Tom Tom" Carlson, an ‘R’ hunter course designer and in-gate worker from Hernando, Fla., is a familiar face at the in-gate at Pony Finals and other horse shows along the East Coast. He offered a few tips to keep in mind at the in-gate and what it’s like to be a course designer.

Tom "Tom Tom" Carlson (left) recommends being early when heading to the ring and remembering to have fun.
(Taylor Pence/US Equestrian)

Tell us about your horse industry background. You've traveled a lot on the hunter jumper circuit, not just for Pony Finals.

My mother was a bookkeeper at a farm, the Westbrook Hunt Club in Westbrook, Connecticut, and they were looking for some help. They had this little summer series, so as a summer job to make some money between freshman and sophomore year, I started there. I actually never went back to school, and I just stayed on the circuit. That was 15 years ago, and I've been working for shows ever since.

I met [horse show manager and course designer] Rian Beals at Westbrook, and I went to Saugerties from there and then just kind of a kept horse showing. I worked for HITS for eight years, and then I spent my winters in Wellington after that.

When I started doing courses at HITS, I would in-gate the pony ring and do courses for that ring. Then when I went to Wellington, the in-gate that I did was Pony Island, which is Ring 12. I do the in-gate for Pony Finals as well, so I kind of see a lot of the same pony people.


How do you keep things running smoothly at the in-gate?

For me, it's just staying organized. Depending on which in-gate you talk to, they all have their own system. But for me, it's just staying organized. The cell phone really has been the greatest tool, just being able to text and call and kind of get an idea of where everybody is.


What do you like about working the in-gate at Pony Finals?

It's my favorite show of the year, because I think all these kids have worked so hard for it and it can be really rewarding. And when a kid does way better than they expected, it's pretty awesome to see that in real time.


What tips do you have for kids and parents at their first Pony Finals?

Don't be afraid to ask questions. That's what the staff is there for, that's what your other exhibitors are there for. Everybody's pretty friendly at Pony Finals, so if you have questions, don't be afraid to ask. You don't want to miss your spot or you're under saddle section.

Be early, always. It is better to be early than late obviously. Have fun. Stay hydrated. A lot of kids get nervous and forget to breathe as well. All the little things. Little things make the big things happen; I say that a lot. I guess in the end, it's to have fun. You're there to have fun. You work really hard, and you don't want to forget that part.


What are some general tips to keep in mind at the in-gate at any show?

I guess when you're talking with in-gate they're trying to organize however many rings at a horse show and however many trips a day, so for your conversation, you have to multiply that by how many other trips they have in the ring. Keep that in mind when you're talking to an in-gate.

I guess I have a good rapport with people, like an air traffic controller. It can be a lot on those days when you have 200 plus trips. It can be a grind, but we're all there for the same thing at the end of the day.

Most of the time when I'm yelling “get off the ramp,” it is for safety’s sake. I'm not trying to be a jerk. I just I want to keep the kids and the ponies safe.


How did you get into course designing?

I've been doing courses for 10 to 12 years. It originally started when I would help build someone else's courses and I would take their course charts and build with them. Then eventually a couple of years after that, I started doing my own courses. I never rode, so it has been a bit of a learning curve for me. I'm always working on my craft, and I still have a pretty far way to go. But it definitely helped [to combine] in-gating and course designing in the beginning because I could watch my course and have direct conversations with the exhibitors right there about what they liked and what they didn't like.


What do you enjoy about course designing?

The most rewarding feeling is when you put a really good track out there and it's good for the horses and it's good for the riders. That rewarding feeling is what I go for every time.


What do you find most challenging about your job as a hunter course designer?

I would say trying to be innovative and yet traditional at the same time. While you don't want to reinvent the wheel, you're always looking to put something new out there and keep it exciting for the riders and the horses so it is not the same bland, vanilla eight jumps. It's a tightrope that you walk, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.


Any closing thoughts?

With Pony Finals, the point is to have fun. That's what you're there for. All of these kids worked so hard for their chance, so you’ve got to make sure you have fun and smile, no matter what the result is. Whether you walk away with an armful of ribbons or just had a good trip, you’ve got to take away the little victories.