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Can Horses Go Downstairs? Truth About Equine Mobility

can horses go down stairs

Believe it or not, horses can fly—but only in one direction: up. Descending, however, poses a steep challenge. 

As a seasoned equestrian with over a decade in the saddle, I’ve encountered nearly every equine enigma imaginable. Many horse owners ponder whether their majestic companions can navigate downstairs safely. 

This article demystifies the stairway dilemma, offering insights and safety tips. Let’s dive right in;

Can a Horse Go Up and Downstairs?

Yes, horses can walk up or downstairs. They ascend stairs more easily. However, they can also go downstairs without help. 

Interestingly, sometimes, it happens naturally, without training. For example, horses may learn to walk upstairs to access hay stalls in the barn. So, you may wake up one morning to find them waiting for you upstairs. 

Similarly, a closely bonded horse may follow the owner upstairs on the deck. Alternatively, an intelligent horse may follow the owner up or downstairs if it senses danger. They often believe they can help in tricky situations. 

However, natural learning is dangerous, especially on steep or unnatural stairs. The risk of a fall, injury, or fracture is high. Or, the horse may become trapped in narrow stairs, risking their life if no one’s around.

For this reason, if they must use stairs, consider training your horse to climb and descend stairs safely. This gives them greater confidence. Additionally, teaching them better techniques reduces the risk of injuries and may save their lives. 

Why Horses Struggle Climbing or Descending Staircases

Horses struggle ascending and descending stairs for two main reasons – poor immediate vision and anatomical challenges. 

Visual Challenges 

Most horses are either short or long sighted. Studies show that 23% of horses are shortsighted. They can only see details clearly once they get close to the object. Meanwhile, 43% are farsighted. They discern details only as they get away from the object. Even worse, horses are more adapted to “capturing” movements but cannot see stationary details well. 

That’s why you often see the horse raising its head and flaring its nostrils when a bird flies by. They depend on their exceptional sense of smell and hearing to compensate for poor eyesight. To top it all, horses have very poor depth perception. 

So, imagine the horse navigating a steep or meandering staircase with these visual drawbacks. It’s a recipe for disaster. 

Anatomical Challenges 

Have you ever observed a horse descending a mountain? Though they do it expertly, you’ll notice they crouch back on the hindquarters. Why? Because for the nimble forelegs to find the safest ground, first they must shift their weight to the stronger hindquarters. It’s an inbuilt safety mechanism. 

Now, imagine a horse climbing downstairs. How would it shift weight to the hindquarters? It’s extremely difficult, even unnatural. 

What Type of Stair Can a Horse Climb?

Horses may attempt to climb all types of stairs. But some stair types are easier to navigate than others. More importantly, certain stair types pose a greater risk. 

Ideally, you want the horse only to navigate wide stairs with shallow steps. The perfect width (from one rail guard to the other) depends on the horse’s size. But you should strongly consider 1.5m or wider stairs. Note that this is the average width of a two-way stair for residential homes. It allows even stocky horses to go up or down without getting trapped. The wider, the better.

The riser and tread dimensions are also important. Risers are the vertical spaces between one step and the next. Meanwhile, the tread is the flat, horizontal part the horse steps on when going up or down. 

Risers should be as shallow as possible for easier climbing and descending. Meanwhile, the tread should be as wide as possible for visibility and weight management. Ideally, risers shouldn’t be more than 15 cm high, whereas each tread shouldn’t be shorter than half a meter. 

Also important is the strength of the staircase. Horses are heavy animals weighing up to 2,000 pounds. Though ponies are smaller, the average draft, such as a Friesian, weighs 900 to 1,000 pounds. For comparison, the average human is 60 kg (130 pounds). 

Therefore, you need an extra strong staircase for longevity and to reduce the risk of falls and falls and injuries. 

This is very important because most people use wooden barn stairs. Unfortunately, most wood types cannot carry a full-grown horse’s weight. Also, the thickness and condition of the wood are important. Avoid old, rotten, or moldy planks with questionable strength. 

Also, ensure enough headroom. Your horse may be unable to navigate the stairs if they can’t get their head through the door. 

How to Train a Horse to Walk Upstairs 

Training a horse to walk upstairs is easier than going downstairs. The following is a step-by-step guide. 

  1. Ensure your horse takes your commands on the ground: Specifically, the horse must lead forward, stop, and walk backward at your command on flat land. If not, work on the ground commands first to avert accidents. 
  2. Begin with a few steps: It’s best to begin with a small set of steps, ideally with 3-5 risers. This is important for two reasons. First, fewer steps are less intimidating. So the horse will be less resistant. Secondly, a smaller set of steps means the horse doesn’t have to walk down the stairs once they reach the top. Instead, they can jump to the ground. 
  3. Ask the horse to climb the first step: Few horses resist placing one of the front feet on the first step unless it’s too high. Calm sensitive horses if you sense fear. Then, ask them to try again. 
  4. Ask them to step down: Allow the horse to keep the foot on the first step for several seconds. Then, command them to bring down the foot. This gives them the confidence that they can climb down if they’re uncomfortable. 
  5. Ask them to climb the second step: This still applies to the front feet. Allow the horse to keep the hind legs down for now. Watch as they climb the first step, then move forward and climb the second step. Then, ask them to climb down. 
  6. Ask them to climb the third step: This often requires the horse to move the hindlimbs onto the first step. So, take it gradually. Watch as they climb and encourage them to continue if you notice hesitation. Once they reach the top, allow them to relax, then ask them to jump off to the ground.
  7. Repeat: You’re almost there. What remains is to repeat the climbing process severally to increase the horse’s familiarity and confidence. 

Training a Horse to Walk Downstairs 

Ging downward is much harder for horses as it’s against their instincts. So, always start with a very short stair, ideally less than 10 inches, for confidence-building. You can use slightly steeper steps later. Also, use 3-5 steps for the first training session. The wider the stairs, the better. 

The following is a step-by-step guide to consider.

  1. Ask the horse to take the first step forward: Reward their effort to move forward. However, stop and allow them to relax for a few minutes if they’re highly uncomfortable. Then, have another go. 
  2. Ask them to step back up: After lowering their legs onto the first step, allow them to relax for a few seconds to build their confidence. Then, ask them to step back. You can repeat this 2-3 times to eliminate any fear.
  3. Ask them to descend two steps: Help the horse position their bodies appropriately. Then, encourage them to lower their forelegs onto the first and then the second step. Again, patience is key. Let them relax if they’re too tense. Then, try again. Once they succeed, take a few moments in the new position, then ask them to step back. 
  4. Ask them to go all the way: Interestingly, horses are most concerned about the forelimbs when descending stairs. The rear limbs follow with little trouble. But don’t hurry them down. Otherwise, they’ll jump to the ground. 
  5. Repeat to perfection: It takes multiple rounds for the horse to trust themselves walking downstairs. But they eventually get used to it. 

Tips When Getting a Horse Up or Downstairs 

Horses will never be completely comfortable going up or down stairs, even with training. Instead, they do it because they have no other choice. This is especially true for long and challenging staircases. Below are a few tips to make it a more painless experience;

  • Don’t make it a habit: The fact horses can go up and down stairs isn’t a license to take them through stairs every few hours. They don’t enjoy the experience. Some are even unwilling to use stairs until you force them. Moreover, stairs are risky, even for humans. For this reason, exhaust alternative options before considering stairs.  
  • Avoid risky staircases: Not all staircases are the same. For example, some are narrow and long, while others are steep and meandering. Avoid those that put the life of your house at risk. For example, steep stairs are a no-no as the risk of tripping and falling is high. Also, avoid weak stairs.
  • Draw thick lines on the stairs for visibility: The horse’s poor vision is a major impediment when climbing or descending stairs. Therefore, drawing thick lines on every stair eases the burden. It gives them a hint of where the next hoof goes. You’ll note that they aim for the lines when moving to the next step. 
  • Teach them to go up and come down: Don’t do one and forget the other. It creates an awkward and dangerous situation where the horse may climb onto the deck and get stuck up there, risking their life. 
  • Don’t force it: Most horses can comfortably navigate short stairs, especially after training. However, very few can climb or descend more than a few steps. Don’t force them to do it against their will. They may stumble and fall. Or, they may attempt to jump up or down a whole flight of stairs once fear kicks in, putting their life at risk. 
  • Consider professional assistance: Occasionally, the horse may ignore your commands out of safety concerns. Or you may experience too much resistance when training them to use stairs. If this happens, consider professional help. A professional trainer charges $30 to $60 per day but understands horses much better. 

FAQs 

Can Horses Climb Ladders?

No, horses cannot climb ladders. Though they can climb stairs, ladders are structurally different. Moreover, the horse’s anatomy doesn’t allow it to climb ladders. It doesn’t matter if you slant the ladder diagonally. Your horse won’t get to the other end safely. 

Can Horses Use Steps?

Yes, horses can climb steps, just as they do stairs. This is great news if you’re considering simple steps to help the horse enter a raised barn. They can navigate the steps without issues, provided the treads are wide and the risers shallow. 

Can Horses Climb Mountains?

Yes, horses can climb mountains. Indeed, horses navigate mountains better than humans. So, feel free to ride on your horse the next time you decide to go mountain climbing. They can help you access the most remote parts of the mountain. 

Can Horses Walk Backwards?

Yes, horses can walk backward, at least a few steps. But it’s not natural to them. They may walk two or three steps backward but struggle past that. Instead, they are naturally inclined to turn around if they need to travel in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, you can train the horse to walk backward. 

Wrap up

Horses can climb up and down stairs. But it doesn’t come naturally to them. Instead, they often do it out of necessity. Therefore, it’s wise to train your horse to navigate stairs safely. Thankfully, you can complete the training in a day. 

Dr. Noman Tariq

Dr. Noman Tariq

Dr. Noman Tariq, a seasoned veterinarian with a DVM from ARID University and an MPhil in Animal Nutrition from UVAS, specializes in equine health. His deep passion for horse nutrition and well-being drives his work, offering invaluable advice for horse owners. Dr. Tariq's expertise ensures horses lead vibrant, healthy lives.
You can read my full bio here

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Can Horses Go Downstairs? Truth About Equine Mobility