Can horses go down stairs safely? As majestic and athletic animals, horses are capable of impressive feats of agility and balance. But when it comes to navigating stairs, things can get a bit tricky. In this article, we’ll explore whether or not horses can go down stairs, as well as some important considerations for anyone thinking of introducing their equine friend to a set of steps. So, whether you’re a horse owner or simply curious about these magnificent creatures, read on to learn more about horses and stairs.
Horses can go down stairs, provided the stairs are shallow and wide. Most horses avoid going down stairs because they cannot see their feet, their weight distribution is uncomfortable, and they fear the unknown. A horse can learn to go up and down stairs safely with gentle training and practice.
You’ll unlikely be riding your horse up and down the stairs in your house. After all, they’re outdoor animals, and stables don’t usually have stairs. But if you’re riding trails in hilly terrain or crossing bridges in a residential area, you may come across stairs that you and your horse must negotiate. Let’s find out if and how horses can go downstairs.
Can Horses Go Up And Down Stairs?
Horses can go up and down stairs, especially outdoor stairs of wood and earth built into trails. They are intelligent and agile, able to negotiate all kinds of terrain.
However, going down stairs is awkward and uncomfortable for horses, and they will avoid it, which is why there is the myth that horses can’t do it.
Why Are Stairs Tricky?
Stairs are a human invention and not found in nature. A staircase’s proportions can be startling: many staircases lie on a 35-degree incline, which would be a very steep natural hill. Adding small steps to the angle makes it a scary prospect for a horse.
Stairs were created to be comfortable for human bodies to climb, not for horse bodies, which are designed very differently. What makes it difficult for a horse to go down stairs?
Horses’ Depth Perception
Horses have a different depth perception to humans, which we consider poor sight. Straight stairs can be an optical illusion to a horse, created by repeating lines. They may see a drop that they can jump.
If you’re standing at the bottom of the stairs, the horse will see that you are on safe ground. It may therefore try to jump down a flight of stairs – which is safe if it’s three steps, but not for a whole staircase. Tall staircases are unsafe for horses, so you shouldn’t force a horse down dangerous stairs.
Take care that your horse doesn’t jump down the stairs onto you, as they consider your position solid ground.
Horses Can’t See Their Feet On Stairs
Another challenge around horses and stairs is that they can’t see where to place their feet, which makes them nervous and potentially clumsy. This can lead to falls and accidents.
Horses’ Weight Distribution
Typically, a horse will negotiate its way down a slope by crouching with its hind legs and feeling the way with the forelegs.
Stairs require the opposite position. To go down stairs, horses need to shift their weight upwards and backward; otherwise, they will fall headlong down the stairs.
However, how horses’ hocks and hips are designed makes it tricky to distribute their weight like this. Their legs will end up at an awkward angle, making it hard to place their hind feet safely. This position is uncomfortable and puts extra strain on their joints.
Horses Fear The Unknown
Although horses are known to be curious animals, an unknown situation can make them nervous and skittish. Horses are prey animals and will avoid a scary situation or take flight.
Stairs can present a completely new activity challenge for a horse.
Horses used to trail riding and jumping will take on stairs more readily than those used to flat surfaces like arenas. Experienced horses have a concept of moving up and down steep gradients like hills and rocky terrain, which they know isn’t always secure.
What Are Horse-Safe Stairs?
Safe and horse-friendly stairs exist, making it safer and more accessible for horses to go up and down.
Steps especially for horses have been built for nearly 1000 years:
- Mule ramps are found in hilly terrain in Europe. These gently sloping, wide stairs were constructed especially for pack animals to travel up and down slopes.
- Ancient equestrian staircases or rider’s staircases exist in old buildings in Europe. Aristocrats would use them to ride their horses to the upper levels of the castle, villa, or church.
The following characteristics of these stairs allow horses to go up and down with ease:
Number Of Steps
Horses are more likely to negotiate two or three steps, not a long staircase. They will probably jump down a couple of stairs anyway.
Angle Of The Stairs
Equestrian staircases are often built in a spiral or curved shape, which would allow horses to see their feet and have secure footing. The slope will be very gentle.
Shape Of The Steps
Horse-friendly stairs are wide and shallow, so horses can go down at a comfortable angle. This enables horses to:
- perceive the separate stairs
- see where to place their feet
- distribute their weight evenly
- turn around.
Texture Of The Steps
For a horse to walk safely, the stairs should have some grip and be non-slip. Smooth, wet stairs will be dangerous, so avoid walking a horse down stairs if it rains.
How To Guide A Horse Down Stairs
There is no question that horses can use stairs. They can make their way up and down steep natural terrain.
So long as the stairs meet the criteria above for horse-friendly or horse-safe stairs, you can guide a trained horse down the stairs.
Novice riders should not attempt stair work with a horse that hasn’t been trained or desensitized. Always work with an experienced trainer and a horse with advanced training, as climbing up and down stairs is a complex activity.
These guidelines will get you started training your horse to go down stairs.
Follow all the essential safety tips for horseback riding, especially these two:
- Wear suitable safety items such as a helmet and boots when working with a horse.
- Avoid standing in front of your horse when it is going upstairs or downstairs.
Work With A Trained Horse
Tackling stairs is not an activity to try with a horse that has not been trained in the necessary groundwork or desensitized to new situations.
Before learning how to go up and down stairs, horses need to have covered the following groundwork:
- obey a command to stand still
- lead properly
- walk in a circle and stop
- move their front and hind ends when requested
- respond to cues, like pressure or a tap.
If a horse is not proficient in these basic activities, it is not a good candidate for tackling stairs.
A horse will balk at a long flight of stairs, but just a few stairs are less frightening as the horse can see the ground.
Sensitize your horse to slopes, rough terrain, and small obstacles before tackling further stairs. It is safer for everyone if the horse has some experience with the new activity.
Start with a few stairs at a time, building up to more stairs. Don’t force your horse up a tall flight of stairs only for the downward journey to be a disaster.
Choose Safe Stairs
To begin practicing, build stairs out of pallet wood, packing cases, or old tires. Ensure that the steps are strong enough to hold your horse’s weight and are not slippery.
Once your horse can go up and down a few stairs, you can attempt a more extended flight of stairs. Choose stairs that are safe for horses.
Horse-safe stairs are:
- gently sloping
- wide and shallow
Do not attempt to lead a horse down stairs if the steps are not horse-friendly. Avoid steep, narrow, or slippery stairs, as these can be dangerous for you and your horse.
Teach By Example
Horses’ instinct is to follow a leader or an older and wiser horse. The best way to teach a horse that any path, whether it includes stairs or not, is to set an example.
Preferably, let your horse follow a horse who is already good at going up and down stairs. Otherwise, repeatedly walk the path or stairs to show your horse that it is safe.
Training a horse always takes patience. It would be best if you built up a level of trust with a horse that will encourage them to listen to you. If horses trust the person leading them, they are more likely to navigate the stairs.
Doing plenty of groundwork with your horse builds a bond. It develops trust and increases the horse’s confidence and agility.
Teach Upstairs First
Choose one or two very wide, shallow steps for teaching purposes. The step must be big enough that the horse can turn around.
It’s best first to teach a horse to go upstairs. Horses are more willing to climb stairs as they can see where to place their feet and use their powerful hindquarters to propel them.
Here are some suggested guidelines:
- Encourage the horse to step up on a single step, one foot at a time.
- Work up to putting both forefeet on the step.
- Allow the horse to back down.
Once your horse can step up confidently, you can teach it to go downstairs.
Teach Downstairs Next
Even if your horse can negotiate steps upwards, it may not take to going downstairs in a single lesson. Try these suggestions:
- See if your horse will follow you when you lead it slowly from the front. Offer a treat for encouragement.
- If your horse doesn’t follow you, you will need to give it a cue. Tap the shoulder of the leg that needs to take the step.
- Allow the horse to take as much time as needed.
Do not rush the training process or force a horse to go down stairs, as you could injure yourself or your horse.
A horse that spooks easily will need a long time to want to go down stairs and conquer fears of falling. Watch out for skittish horses wanting to jump down the steps.
Once a horse has navigated some stairs, give treats as a reward and to encourage further stair climbing and descending. Rewards help build your horse’s confidence.
Have A Safe Alternative
Once your horse has learned to climb stairs, you can go out on the trail or path where you’ll encounter stairs.
However, it is best to navigate the trail in advance to work out a safe alternative if your horse doesn’t want to return down the stairs.
If your horse gets stuck, it may need to be rescued via a hoist.
Ride With A Buddy
Never go out riding on a new trail with stairs alone. It is challenging to get your horse to go down stairs, and more so if you are by yourself.
If you or your horse gets injured, you will need someone to call for help.
Horses can go down stairs if the stairs are safe. Horse-safe steps are wide, shallow, gently sloped, and non-slip. Horses must be trained to go down stairs to overcome discomfort and fears. Only experienced trainers and well-trained horses should undertake stair work.