Sure footedness

What are your thoughts on horses that are sure footed? Are they born that way or can it be trained? I recently picked up a new 5 year old and am on the fence about keeping him. I really like the horse but he is not sure footed, especially going down hill. He will step on top of rocks / small branches that our other horses will step over and he will trip going down grassy hills with uneven footing. He fell on me once in the mud just not paying attention. He came from pretty flat land without trees so I know our terrain is new to him ( I have had him four months now) but I would think after four months of steep hills and downed trees he would be paying a little more attention. He is sound, healthy and does great up hill and on the flat. Starting to think he might be better suited for cow work or trails on flatter ground. We live in the mountains so being safe on steep terrain is very important for me. He is pretty level head, but does get a little up and looks around a lot instead of where he is stepping.

That’s a really interesting question. I dont have a definitive answer but am putting in my 2 cents to follow the thread.

The horses we rode as kids were really sure footed because we took them through all kinds of stuff.

As an adult, my return to riding horse was a true flatlander, and the first time I rode down a hill on her after several years and buying my own trailer, I could feel she was wondering what to do with her butt. She however caught on really fast, and we have since done some pretty technical mountain trails.

I’ve also participated in bringing other flatland horse and rider pairs out, horse camping and day rides. I’ve never seen a horse turn out as stumbly as you describe.

However, our flatland horses have all been brought up on trot poles, and we also do “agility” with them, getting them to climb up and down off circus boxes and teeter totters. And most of them have done at least a little jumping. Pastures tend to be very muddy here in winter, and hog fuel (cedar bark mulch) turnout arenas can get quite deep and wet in winter. So they all have exposure to mud or deep footing. Maybe all that adds up to learning some transferable skills!

So you might want to try working with poles on the ground at home.

Also have a really good look at his feet. If they are too run forward or long that might contribute to problems.


I think it depends…all of my horses were show horses who went on trails for the first time with me. So, they went from the land of perfectly groomed and level footing to uneven terrain, rocks, logs and streams. All but one turned into stellar trail horses who were trustworthy and sure-footed. The one that wasn’t? He remained a klutz the whole time I owned him. I think he was so interested in the big wide world around him he just couldn’t pay attention to where he was stepping. I finally sold him to a neighbor who only rode on groomed trails.

My horses started out not quite knowing where to step but figured it out.

I worked for a trainer who made pretty good money training trail/endurance horses.

Almost all of the green horses (young or those who were “broke” but not necessarily trained) who went heavy on their forehands and who weren’t trained to move off the rider’s leg were klutzy. A lot of ring work aimed at producing balanced movement and lateral work, a lot of dedicated hill/mountain training (vs. “just riding”), and obstacle training really improved almost all of them.

I think that would be the case with most horses - the more unbalanced and heavy on the forehand they are, the less able they are to negotiate tricky footing.

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I raised a very rubbery TWH mare from a weanling. I ponied her a lot, and nothing we do is flat. So while I didn’t take her on 2 hr treks, from a young age she was crossing logs, up and down real hills, crossing creeks. As a late 2 yo she was in the N. Georgia mountains. …ponied from my rock star QH. I started her at three and used cavaletti to improve her pacey way of going. Etc etc etc

At age 7 I sold her to a flat lander who didn’t like hills and loved doing mounted search and rescue and working Mardi Gras in Mobile. She lived out her days with her, never again stumbling over obvious rocks and roots or stepping off the side of a mountain in the Smokies.

You can’t fix all of them.


I think they either are or they aren’t. I mean you can help it out some but…
My RMH, for instance, is a disaster sure-footedness wise. She DNGAF if she falls down or about looking where she is going, she’d run off a cliff to pass a horse in front of her. I have to be 100% on 100% of the time when I’m riding her and I have to all of the steering. It’s not always the most fun way to ride.

I think there is a difference between a horse that is clumsy/uncoordinated or trips a bit from inattention and one that actually falls down (not talking about an extreme/dangerous footing type situation where any horse could fall, of course). The first type can probably be improved with training and conditioning, but I’m not sure I’d ever be comfortable riding the latter type, even in a groomed arena.

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Was actually thinking about this post while out riding yesterday. If I liked this horse, these are some things I would do to make the determination as to whether or not I kept him.

  1. Thorough physical exam by a vet. Look for areas of soreness and check his eyes. Have the vet evaluate his feet.

  2. Thorough exam by farrier. Is there a problem with the way he is shod or booted? Are his feet too long? Does he need to be trimmed more frequently?

  3. Does his tack fit him well? Is this bit working for this particular horse? Does the saddle fit? Is the pad providing the right amount of protection for his back, yet allowing the rider good contact?

  4. Is he physically fit enough to do what is being asked of him? Like any other form of riding, fitness is important.

  5. How many days a week is this horse out on the terrain he is having issues with?

  6. If no physical issues are found, then it is time to move onto training issues.

    How long has the horse been under saddle?

    How long has this horse been trail ridden?

    How comfortable is he with a rider on his back?

    Is the rider well balanced and aiding the horse, as opposed to getting in his way?

    Is he supple to both sides or stiff to one side?

    Is he sure footed in a ring or does he experience the same issues?

    Has he been made, in any situation, to focus on the task at hand?
    Over obstacles in a ring, over obstacles on a trail, with a rider on his back and without.

    Is he rushing to keep up with his buddies on the trail or is he comfortable by himself?

When I have issues with younger or less experienced horses on the trail, we usually work on something more complicated. We might go into the woods and ride off trail, making lots of twists and turns around trees and brush, making sure I am using my reins and legs properly, and making sure the horse understands what I am asking. We also work a lot of hills, both up and down slowly. The half halt is great here to help a horse collect and not get strung out, especially going down hill.

There are some horses that are just not coordinated, but they are few and far between. There are times, I firmly believe, that we think “any horse can just go out and trail ride”. That is not always the case. Some take to it like they have done it all their lives, others need more training and it takes time.


He might just need more time to develop the strength and adapt to going down hills? Are his feet shod properly ? Toes not too long?

I do know being on his forehand is an issue for him - hopefully getting him more connected will help with his foot placement. He tripped trotting down a hill when I called them in from the pasture this morning - there was nothing there - just tripped! He never trips uphill so maybe that is just a lot of it - even when halted he likes to creep up so he is on his forehand.

He has been vet checked, feet are not long or under run - he does wing quiet a bit and I have wondered if this is a contributing factor. I bought him a new saddle so that fits great so all is good there. He is a green horse, he was used a bit on a ranch in ND to check fences so until I got him he had not been exposed to rocks / trees and steep terrain we live on. I am a well balanced rider and he has zero issues in the arena with tripping - he is very well balanced - but on the forehand too much.

On the trail he looks around a lot , he is not too concerned if he is in front or behind and not real buddy sour. He was relaxed when I took him out on a somewhat rocky trail the other day and he would just step right on the rocks instead of around them - my husbands horse missed all of them. Large logs he does ok with.

I think I will start doing more arena work, work on getting him off his forehand and start using a lot of poles etc. Our “pasture” is steep and treed so hopefully being turned out their daily now will get him paying attention more!

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Does he have shoes on? If he does, do they have borium or Dril Tec on them?

Twice I have taken a show horse and converted them into a Tevis ready horse by following a savvy horse on the trail for several months. My horses learned to go through rocks, hop up ledges, and cross all kinds of bogs and creeks. After that they could go alone.

I think the steep pasture will be a big help. A lot of problems come from inadequate muscles to use on trails. Cutter99’s 6 steps and your recent thoughts are good. I’ve used borium but not for a long time because I worry more about my horse’s shoes “sticking” to rocks and pavement when they are expecting to glide some.


The moment i release the mustangs that i’ve already successfully gentled onto pasture they are able to run like the wind down steep hills. My herd of domestic horses gallop downhill through a wooded area as well, but they have crawled all over our hilly wooded pastures for years. Even the young standardbred pacer does well racing downhill…but he was born in the mountains of Kentucky so…he came-with skillz

When I got my TWH a few years ago she was a very experienced trail horse that would go over/through just about anything but was quite stumbly on both rougher terrain as well as flat ground and was also very pacey.

I found a trainer/clinician who really emphasizes a solid foundation of core strength and flexibility for gaited horses through both groundwork and ridden exercises. There’s a difference between the movement muscles and the postural muscles, and many horses (especially gaited horses given how they’re often ridden) have strong movement muscles but very weak postural muscles.

She incorporates a lot of Jec Ballou’s exercises, which I have found very helpful. They’re nice because there are a lot of in-hand/groundwork exercises I can still do even when I can’t ride due to time/weather.

These single pole exercises can really illustrate how a postural muscle is different than a movement muscle - the first time I tried to do them with both of my horses they could barely do one or two steps.

Backing over a single pole
Straddling a single pole
Advanced straddling a single pole

Between focusing on core strength/flexibility, getting her feet fixed (had the typical super long toes people think walkers need), and some Warwick Schiller focus/connection work she no longer stumbles and is a gaiting machine. :grinning:

At the “born with it” end of the spectrum I had a Paso Fino who lived her first 8 years as a total flatland horse in Iowa but was basically a mountain goat when we took her to the Badlands.