Can Horses Climb Stairs?
Horses are incredibly agile animals, with the ability to traverse all types of terrain. However, you might be wondering whether or not they’re capable of climbing stairs. I’ve yet to face stairs on horseback, so I did some research to make sure that I’m prepared if the need ever arises.
Can horses climb stairs? Horses are capable of climbing stairs as long as they have shallow and wide steps that aren’t too slippery or steep. Most horses do fine when it comes to climbing stairs, but have difficulty when it’s time to come down them. As a horse descends stairs, they are unable to see their feet. This can result in stumbling and injury to the horse.
If you do a lot of horseback riding, chances are that at one point or another you’ll need your horse to traverse stairs. Here are a few more things you should know about horses and stairs that will keep both you and your horse safe.
Horses and Stairs: Safety Tips
Before you attempt stairs while riding or leading your horse, there are a few basic safety precautions you should take.
Do Desensitization Training Before Attempting Stairs On Horseback
One of the first things I’ll do with my horses before introducing them to a new challenge is desensitization training. Desensitization training can help your horse move up and down stairs by getting them used to unusual situations, and thus reducing the likelihood that they’ll freak out when attempting stairs.
I suggest taking your time and doing thorough desensitization training before you move onto facing stairs. This is to keep both you and your horse as safe as possible. If you haven’t done this type of training with your horse before, you can read my complete desensitization training guide here.
Plan Ahead to Find a Safe Route Down From The Stairs
If you’re thinking about riding or leading your horse up stairs, I highly recommend thoroughly scouting them out before you attempt them with your horse. The last thing you want is to get your horse up a flight of stairs only to find that they aren’t able to come back down again.
The best stairs for horses are wide, deep and aren’t too steep. A gradual incline with plenty of room for your horse to place its feet will be the safest and easiest for your horse. Ideally, the steps will be wide enough for your horse to turn around should they start to panic.
Avoid Ascending and Descending Stairs In Poor Weather Conditions
Attempting stairs with your horse in bad weather conditions is just asking for trouble! If your horse is already having a hard time going up and down stairs, the last thing you want is to add the additional challenges of slippery footing, poor visibility, or thunder and lightning to distract them.
Wait until a bright and dry day before asking your horse to move up or down stairs, and test the stairs yourself to ensure that they aren’t slippery.
Don’t Attempt Stairs With Your Horse When Alone
This might be common sense to most, but you should never attempt anything remotely dangerous when working alone with your horse, especially riding or leading up stairs. If you or your horse become injured, you’ll want someone around to assist you or call for backup. I know firsthand that it can be an inconvenience to wait for someone else to be around when you’re trying a new challenge, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
My last safety tip is to start small. Instead of starting with a large staircase, it’s better to start with just a few steps to ease your horse into the experience.
If you don’t have a small staircase around, you might consider making your own out of a shipping pallet or an old tire. Any large and sturdy object about the height of a step will do.
The reason you should start small is that some horses might attempt to buck or jump down if they start to panic. If they’re already close the ground, they’ll be far less likely to injure themselves should they decide to jump.
Tips for Getting A Horse Up and Down Stairs
Now that you’re aware of the basic safety precautions, it’s time to talk about the right way to get your horse up and down stairs!
Master Basic Groundwork Before Attempting Stairs With Your Horse
Before you even think about tackling stairs with your horse, you should first make sure that you’ve mastered basic groundwork with your horse.
It’s vital that you do groundwork with your horse in order to ensure that they respect your personal space, will listen to your cues, and demonstrate overall good behavior.
If your horse still has trouble listening to you or doesn’t seem cooperative with what you ask them to do, you need to spend more time doing groundwork with them before moving onto anything more advanced like stairs.
The basics that I like to achieve in my groundwork training are getting my horse to stand still when I ask them to, getting my horse to lead properly, getting my horse to soften and flex to pressure, getting them to move in a circle and stop, and getting them to move their front and hind-end.
Here’s my article on groundwork basics if you’d like to start working on these exercises with your horse. Once your horse is proficient in these and they’ve had desensitization training as I mentioned earlier, you can begin training them for stairs. As always, I recommend that you have an experienced horse trainer with you while working with your horse.
Don’t Attempt The Wrong Type of Steps
Depending on where you live, the steps in your area might not be suitable for a horse. That said, I want to make sure you’re clear on the type of steps that are best suited for horses.
Avoid trying to climb steps that are too steep, shallow, or narrow. Your goal should be to give your horse as much room as possible for them to get a firm footing and walk in their normal stride. Steps that are small and close together can easily make your horse stumble.
Make Certain Your Horse Trusts You
Because horses can’t see their legs when going down stairs, they’ll have to trust that you aren’t just asking them to walk into thin air. If your horse already has a hard time following your instructions and trusting you, then they probably aren’t ready to attempt stairs.
Here’s my article on telling whether or not your horse trusts you, and some steps you can take to gain their trust.
Start With Small Stairs
When training your horse to move up steps, start slow and be patient with your horse. Get them to place their feet on the first step, and then allow them to step back down.
Repeat this until your horse seems comfortable on the first step. Once they’re comfortable, you can gradually lead them up a few additional steps and let them back down again. Avoid letting your horse move up too many steps until they’re prepared to go all the way up. It will be difficult for them to back down if they’re already too far up. Once you feel your horse has become more confident, you can have them move all the way up the stairs.
Reward Positive Behavior to Give Your Horse Confidence
As you begin working with your horse to climb up and down steps, it’s important that you try to give them as much confidence as possible by rewarding them when they make even the smallest amount of progress.
Manmade steps are very different from the terrain that horses face in nature, so it’s natural that they exhibit a certain amount of trepidation. As soon as your horse willingly places a hoof on a step, that’s something to be celebrated and rewarded.
Many horse and human injuries occur when trainers try too much too soon with their horse without allowing them time to become familiar with the challenge at hand. Don’t make the same mistake by rushing this process with your horse!
Make Sure Your Horse Is Up For The Challenge of Stairs
If your horse is old or recovering from an injury, it might not be worth the risk of trying to move them up and down stairs unless it’s absolutely necessary.
While horses can move up a staircase without much trouble, traversing down stairs is more difficult for them because they aren’t able to see their legs, and thus have a hard time positioning their feet correctly. This can result in your horse stumbling or falling down the steps which is something you should avoid at all costs, especially if they’re already old or injured.
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