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Upstairs & Downstairs: Tips for Navigating Your Horse Safely

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Horses are well suited for navigating varied terrain. In the wild they my have to go up mountains, step up banks or otherwise navigate ground that isn’t level. Most stairs can be easily navigated by horses. The ease in which they do this depends on how steep the stairs are and then whether they are going up or down

Can Horses Climb Stairs? Horses can go up and down stairs. Going up stairs is typically easier for most horses than going down stairs. 

Donkey going down on wide stairs in Santorini
Donkey (or mule) Going Down Wide Stairs (Horses Can Go Down Stairs Too)

In most cases, horses don’t naturally need to go up or down stairs. The domestic horse, however, learns pretty quickly where food is stored and where the feeders come out of (the main house).

It isn’t uncommon to find a horse who has gotten loose on a ranch has climbed the stairs on the deck and is waiting by the back door. Likewise, horses have been known to climb the stairs that lead to hay storage above stalls in a barn.

In either of these cases, if the horse has never learned how to go down stairs, he may be unwilling to try leaving you in a sticky situation. 

The best answer is, of course, to make sure that your horses are secured and that any access to steep stairs are blocked.

That being said, teaching a horse to climb up and down steps can increase his confidence and make for a fun activity if safe stairs are built and incorporated into a horse obstacle course, for example.

Let’s take a look at how we might teach a horse to navigate upstairs first, and then downstairs, as well as some ideas for stair like obstacles you can incorporate into your own at home obstacle course.

Navigating A Horse Up Stairs

Navigating or teaching a horse to go up stairs is typically easier than teaching them to go down stairs.

Depending on how steep the stairs are, the horse can see the step coming up and then approximate it’s location to go up them.

In fact, most horses will have no trouble at all going up stairs. If you are building an obstacle with steps for your horse, it is best to have as wide of a platform as possible for your horse.

When a horse is first learning how to go up or down stairs, you may want to teach them on a smaller set of stairs that is only 3-5 stairs high or, alternatively, find a set of stairs that has very wide, graduated steps. 

tire obstacle course for horses
Horse stepping up on a tire obstacle. This would simulate a single steep up or down “stair”.

How to Teach a Horse to Go Up Stairs

  1. Make sure your horse can easily lead forward, stop and go backward in response to the handlers commands on flat, level ground.
  2. Find a small set of steps (no more than 5 steps) that have a flat area at the top or hill so that you can easily navigate your horse back down without having to teach him how to go down the stairs. 
  3. Ask your horse to place his foot on the first step. 
  4. once your horse steps on the first step, let him relax there and then ask him to back off. You want to give your horse the confidence that he can go back down. 
  5. Once your horse will climb the first stair,  ask him to climb the second step and back off. At this stage, your horse should only have placed his front feet on the stairs, not any back feet.
  6. At this stage, your horse should be fairly confident going up and back down with his front feet. Now you can go ahead and ask him to climb all of the stairs. 
  7. Repeat a few times to give your horse confidence. 

Note: When you are first starting to teach this behavior, you want to make sure that once your horse gets a back foot up on the step that you allow him to continue upwards. 

While a horse could back down a small number of stairs, that is an advanced maneuver and wouldn’t be safe to teach a horse who is just learning how to navigate stairs. 

santorini donkeys going down the steps
Donkeys Going Down Stairs – Wide stairs like these are easiest for horses, donkeys and mules to navigate.

Navigating A Horse Down Stairs

Going down stairs is harder for a horse. They can do it but, the steeper the stairs, the less likely your horse is going to want to go down the stairs.

The reason for this is that they can’t see the stair beneath them so they have to step blindly down. Their leg dangles and they have to trust that something will be there to catch it.

Going downstairs is easiest for a horse when the stairs are very short or very wide. In the case of a short step, the horse doesn’t have to “reach” or extend too far down with his hoof before he can feel solid ground beneath him. This will give him the confidence to continue down the stair.

In the case of a wide stair, if the horse can see there is solid ground, he’ll be more inclined to trust the step downward even if it is steep.

In sports like eventing, we’ll often see “banks” or inclines and declines setup as a way to challenge the horses. Typically the horse can see each level and so just has to have the confidence to navigate the obstacle.

How to Teach a Horse to Go Down Stairs

  1. Find a small set of stairs at least 18 inches wide each (no more than 3 steps) or a set of stairs where each step is at least 3 – 4 foot wide. Make sure your horse is comfortable going up stairs before starting.
  2. Lead your horse up to the stair and ask him to take a step forward. Reward any attempt to move forward.
  3. Once your horse steps down the first time, ask him to stop and backup. This will help build his confidence with stepping down. 
  4. Once your horse is confident stepping down, go ahead and ask him to go down all of the steps. Try to keep him slow and calm however, be prepared as some horses may just jump or bolt down. 
  5. Repeat until your horse can quietly navigate down the stairs. 
Horse on a platform and a house on the background
Horse on a Platform which can act like a big, single stair. A similiar platform could be built with multiple levels to increase the difficulty of the obstacle.

Safety Considerations

  • Never stand in front of your horse when he is going up or down stairs. 
  • Never ask your horse to do more than he/ she is ready for.
  • if you are unsure about how to teach your hose to navigate up or down stairs, seek the help of a local professional trainer to assist you.
  • Keep in mind that your horse could try to jump up or down all of the stairs at once if he gets worried. This is why its best to start with a small number of stairs when your horse is learning.

Making Things More Challenging

One of the most challenging obstacles an eventing horse has to face, for example, is jumping off of a platform into water. Horse’s aren’t able to see how deep water is so this jump is a true leap of faith, especially when they are on a new course.

Once your horse has learned how to go up and down stairs at home, you may want to set up a step-down type obstacle at home where your horse has to step down off the obstacle into water. 

Final Thoughts

Horses can most certainly go up and down stairs, however, this isn’t a natural behavior. As such, if your horse must routinely navigate up or down stairs, it is best to provide training to give the horse the skill and confidence they need.

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