We’ve all seen or heard of horses doing some pretty amazing things, but have you ever wondered if horses can climb up and downstairs?
Here we look at everything you need to know about whether it is possible for a horse to climb up and downstairs and how to train them to do this safely.
Most horses can climb upstairs, as long as the steps are wide enough and they are not too steep. However, coming downstairs can be tricky for horses due to limited downward vision and limb anatomy design. Training your horse to walk up and down stairs can be a fun and rewarding experience. Here is everything you need to know about horses going up and downstairs.
Can horses climb stairs? Can horses walk up stairs?
In theory, yes, horses can climb up and down stairs; horses are naturally agile creatures and most can be trained to walk up and down stairs. However, climbing up or downstairs is not a natural movement for a horse and they may get into difficulties if the stairs are too steep or narrow. The anatomy of the horse’s limbs and hindquarters makes it easier for them to climb up stairs than down.
I’m sure that many of you will have seen videos or heard about horses that have climbed stairs. In the wild, horses are capable of navigating over rough and rocky terrain. Horses are very adaptable and will often easily navigate steps that they encounter in their domesticated lives, such as at the barn door or onto a trailer.
However, climbing up one step is much simpler than climbing a flight of stairs! Some horses quickly learn how to climb up more than one step, but others will find it too daunting. Each horse will have a different skill level when it comes to navigating stairs, depending on their agility levels and confidence.
Anatomically, horses are very well adapted to walk upstairs. They have nimble forelimbs, which are well adapted to upward movement, helping to navigate the stairs. The hindquarters and hind legs are strong and muscular, which help to propel the body upwards.
Can a horse go down stairs?
Going downstairs is much trickier for a horse than going upstairs. The anatomy of the equine body is not as well adapted to going downstairs compared to climbing upstairs. Horses also have poor vision immediately in front of them, making it difficult for them to find their way down stairs safely.
Horses have limited sight directly in front of the eyes, making it difficult for the horse to see downwards. When going downstairs, the horse may not see the step below, so they need to move the forefoot ‘blindly’ until they feel the step below. As you can imagine, this is a daunting thing for a horse to do, and it takes a lot of trust to train a horse to go downstairs confidently.
The anatomy of the horse’s body and limbs also affects their ability to walk downstairs. If you’ve ever seen a horse walk down a steep hill, you will see that they crouch back onto their hindquarters; this is to keep the bulk of the body weight over the strong hindquarters while the nimble forelegs find the best route down the hill. It is not as easy for horses to use this crouching movement when going downstairs, so they are more likely to slip or trip.
When horses move over rough territory, the forelimbs lead the way, finding the safest route possible to avoid injury. However, for horses, the action of extending the forelimbs downwards is a difficult movement. This means that they may experience difficulties balancing the weight over the hindquarters while the forelimbs move downwards.
Unfortunately, the hind limbs are also not well adapted to going downstairs. Normally to go downhill, the horse would crouch downwards onto the hind limbs, but this is not an easy move for them when going downstairs. This means that they have to stretch and extend each hind leg downwards to find the next step, which is quite an unnatural movement for your horse to learn.
The video below demonstrates perfectly the difference between how easy horses find it to climb upstairs compared to downstairs.
Can you train a horse to walk up and downstairs?
Yes, horses can be trained to walk up and downstairs! Like any training exercise, if you start slowly and work at your horse’s pace, most horses will learn to safely and confidently navigate a small flight of stairs.
There are advantages to training your horse to walk up and downstairs. Imagine if your horse managed to climb up the steps to the feed barn one day, but couldn’t figure out how to come back down again? Training your horse to come down steps without jumping will help you to safely get out of tricky situations like this.
Handling exercises such as learning to walk up and downstairs are also a great way to build your horse’s confidence and agility levels.
What type of stairs can horses walk up and down?
The type of stairs can affect the ease with which a horse can walk up or down them. Wide, shallow steps will be much easier to ascend than narrow, steep steps. The steps themselves need to be strong enough to hold the horse’s weight, and they must not be slippery.
When walking up or downstairs, it is important that the horse can clearly see the individual steps. Steps that are the same color will be confusing for the horse as they cannot identify where each new step starts and ends. Marking a thick line at the edge of each step can help them see their way more clearly.
Training horses to walk up stairs
Going up or downstairs with a horse is something that many owners have never tried, but it can be a fun and rewarding training exercise. Remember that horses find going upstairs much easier than going downstairs, so this is a good place to start with your training. Here are some tips to help you start your training:
- Safety first! Make sure that your horse is used to being handled from the ground, and try other more simple obstacle training exercises first. Always wear the appropriate safety equipment and make sure that you do not stand in front of your horse when going upstairs.
- Make sure to use suitable materials when creating stairs for your horse to climb. They must be strong enough to hold your horse’s body weight and have a non-slip surface. Painting lines on the edge of each step will help your horse to identify where to place his hooves.
- Start simple and don’t over face your horse; good training methods are all about building confidence and agility. Try with just one step at first, asking your horse to place first just one and then both forefeet on the step, then backing him up to step off. Make sure he can do this calmly and confidently before progressing.
- The next stage involves climbing up one or two shallow wide steps. You can incorporate these into a small hill or slope to give your horse a route back down without having to descend the stairs. To climb up these, your horse will need to use the hindquarters and the forelimbs; encourage your horse to climb the steps slowly without rushing.
- Remember that what goes up must come down – you don’t want to get into a situation where your horse has gone up some stairs which they cannot walk down again! When your horse can confidently climb up a small flight of stairs, it is time to think about training them to climb downstairs.
This is a really useful video demonstrating how to teach a novice horse when climbing upstairs for the first time.
Training horses to walk downstairs
Once you’ve built up your horse’s confidence in climbing upstairs, it is time to have a go at coming back down again. Here are some tips on how to train your horse to walk downstairs:
- Keep it simple – just because your horse can climb a small flight of stairs confidently it doesn’t mean he’ll be able to come down them again. Go back to basics and start with just one or two shallow steps, giving your horse plenty of time to come down them. Remember that the horse has limited vision and is less agile when coming downstairs.
- Be aware that some horses may be tempted to jump rather than walk downstairs. This can be very dangerous for the handler. Encourage your horse to descend the stairs slowly to build confidence and agility skills. You may need to start with just one step and keep repeating the exercise until your horse walks down it calmly.
- Once your horse can confidently walk up and down a small flight of stairs, you can start to develop more complex exercises into your training routine. Handling exercises on the ground is a great way to improve your bond and communication with your horse, and obstacles such as steps can help keep these training sessions interesting and fun.
Ascending and descending stairs might not sound a hard task, but it is clear to see that our horses may not find it all that easy. However, horses are renowned for their exceptional agility and can be taught many amazing things by their owners. Teaching your horse to climb up and downstairs can be a fun and rewarding training exercise, and you never know, it may come in useful one day!