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A centaur has a body best described as half-human, half-horse, so for convenience we use a horse as an anatomical reference throughout instead.

Suppose we are concerned with a medieval setting, and due to space constraints all houses have at least two stories, floors or levels, etc., it is going to be a challenge for a horse to use a staircase since they can't climb down a flight of steps without tripping and falling due to their anatomy.

What innovation can assist them to ascend or descend between different floors without much difficulty by themselves? The 'medieval setting' is around late 14th century AD.

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    $\begingroup$ It all depends on just how steep slope can your centaurs descend? Also, what's the issue with what's used with real world horses (ramps which are not too steep)? $\endgroup$
    – hyde
    Jan 12 at 4:59
  • $\begingroup$ @hyde like cows, horses have trouble seeing what their feet are doing, especially their hind legs which have different joints than the front legs. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jan 12 at 5:05
  • $\begingroup$ @hyde: genuine typo ;D $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Jan 12 at 5:49
  • $\begingroup$ I wonder if the title should be reworked. My first reflex seeing the title is: use stairs, not ladders; however the body of the question then question the use of stairs at all, should the title be "Could centaurs use stairs, and if not how would they move across floors?" (Not sure) $\endgroup$ Jan 12 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ For all things intelligent-centaur you want to read John Varley's series. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaea_trilogy At one point he had them climbing trees. That was a cool image. $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Jan 12 at 19:40

15 Answers 15

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it is going to be a challenge for a horse to use a staircase since they can't climb down a flight of steps without tripping and fell due to their anatomy.

A horse going up and down a short flight of stairs

(copyright status unclear, thanks pinterest)

There's plenty more stuff to be found with a search for "horse stairs", so I won't regurgitate it all here.

Here's a page to get you started though: Can Horses Climb Stairs?

which comes with this image of a nice flight of steps, where each individual step is clearly long enough to fit the animal on:

A horse on a long flight of stone steps in a coastal village on a steep slope.

The challenge with horses is apparently all in the training. Centaurs, being somewhat more intelligent, will have few issues.


Having thought about this a bit more, I wonder if you're asking the wrong sort of thing...

Suppose we are concerned with a medieval setting, and due to space constraints all houses have at least 2 stories, floors or levels etc,

These are human constraints. Centaurs ain't human, and regardless of whether their diet is horse-like or human-like, they're going to need a lot more food than a human and they're going to generate a lot more waste. Their big bodies are going to be awkward in confined spaces, and they're going to need larger living spaces than humans. They probably won't want to live in more urbanized areas... even if they wanted to, it will be more inconvenient and more expensive, and their neighbours might not be entirely welcoming.

Seems more like you'd find them out in the country. They might visit towns for business purposes (eg. to make use of the markets) but I don't see them living there, and outside of the towns it'll be much easier for them to obtain larger, single-storey accommodation.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this answer, but wonder whether a fully scaled "urban" centaur city would still be fine. Just assume every street and building is wider and/or taller... it doesn't make the location less "urban" (at least for centaurs!). I imagine a centaur farm would likewise be a larger scale (given they need more food, but they can also travel further more quickly). $\endgroup$
    – Graylocke
    Jan 13 at 6:19
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    $\begingroup$ Distance is relative. Its way easier for a centaur to travel a mile then for a human. For this reason there is no need for everything to be localized, a 5 min walk to the supermarket could be 3 times as far, which means there is 3 times as much space to build (single story houses) $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ I think the second animal is a donkey? $\endgroup$
    – Oliver
    Jan 13 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ @SirDuckduck Although you're right that horses can run short distances faster, they can also run quite a bit less per day than humans (humans being endurance runners and all that). Humans ride horses not because it allows them to go farther (unless you have new horses all the time), but because it saves them energy. So not sure how that would balance out in a centaur-urban setting. $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 4:47
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidMulder Regarding endurance, how many lungs does a centaur have anyway? is it four? two horse lungs and two human lungs? do they have two hearts? $\endgroup$
    – Dave Smith
    Jan 14 at 13:48
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Believe it or not, in mediaeval times people did this: rode up and down stairs on their horses. In some European castles you see very wide stairs with low risers, specially made so the owner could ride his horse up and down.

You don't see them everywhere. It would be difficult to install in an old castle, because it needs more room, but if you are building a new one anyway, and anticipate a lot of quadruped traffic, why not?

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    $\begingroup$ Do you have any references for this? Sounds interesting! $\endgroup$ Jan 12 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime e.g. Prague castle has a hall accessible to horse riders over a gentle flight of stairs (Knight's stairs), dating from very beginning of 16th century. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Jan 12 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec "It was even large enough to accommodate tournaments between knights" centaur party room right there. $\endgroup$ Jan 12 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ There's also the example of the Rundetaarn in Copenhagen, a tower with a long spiral ramp leading to an astronomical observatory at the top. But that's a 17th-century construction and perhaps later than the OP is interested in. $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ In Berlin we have some examples from the early 20th century, where horse stables where put into upper floors to save ground space. German Wikipedia has some photos. $\endgroup$ Jan 15 at 2:32
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While a centaur's body looks a lot like a horse, it isn't of course exactly a horse. That long-legged grazer body form is not inherently bad at climbing. Look at goats.

I mean, literally look at these pictures of goats. They are arguably better climbers than we primate-descended humans.

Here they are getting at the good leaves in a tree: enter image description here

Here they are cleaning plant matter off the side of a dam. enter image description here

Just chillin at the crib.

enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd say "better than many of us ape-decendant humans". :D +1 $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Jan 12 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ However, traditionally, centaurs are the size of a horse, and even heavier. Goats are lightweights. Now, if you showed a picture of a horse standing in a precarious location... $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Jan 13 at 0:29
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    $\begingroup$ @MontyWild - Well, some of it is size yes. However, some of it foot design, some of it is spinal design, and some of it is leg design. The question didn't explicitly say any of that was off-limits. $\endgroup$
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 13 at 0:40
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    $\begingroup$ @MontyWild you mean like this? Also think this fits the 14th century requirement $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ @SirDuckduck - RIP Roach. $\endgroup$
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 13 at 17:00
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Handrails

So plenty of answers about how your centaurs do not have to be clumsy on stairs, but given the design of your centaurs, this is just not the case. This does not mean centaurs can't use stairs though. As it turns out, animals with hands like centaurs can benefit greatly by having something to hold onto. Losing your balance always starts off as a minor lean that quickly escalates to a major lean, followed by falling over. But, when you have a hand-rail that you hold onto while you go down, it is easy to prevent a fall before the minor lean escalates into something worse.

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A ribbed ramp instead of stairs.

The biggest problem is that the horse cant see what its feet are doing easily and the move to avoid the step they are on with their hindlegs is difficult as well, but not impossible.

Replacing the steps of a stair with a ribbed ramp lets the horse get a grip on the ground by angling the hoves backwards and forwards for stability and because the ribs are low the horse can easily overstep the ribs.

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    $\begingroup$ Are you saying humans need to look at their feet to ascend/descend stairs? $\endgroup$
    – Bergi
    Jan 13 at 4:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Bergi most of the time we actually do look at the stairs, with our feet in our peripherals. When we dont the speed is decreased because we need more effort to coordinate walking up the stairs. The act would be a lot more difficult for a 500+kg quarduped. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jan 13 at 5:03
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Use a ramp.

As a real-life example, I present La Giralda, a 100m tall, 12th-century bell tower in Seville, Spain that has no stairs, but instead a series of ramps leading to the top. The tower was specifically designed to allow it to be climbed frequently on horseback, which is why it uses ramps and not stairs. The ramps have a lower angle than a typical staircase and will take up more room, but eliminate the possibility of tripping over steps.

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  • $\begingroup$ Exactly what I would suggest. We already build large business buildings with ramps next to stairs to accommodate people with wheelchairs (or other physical impairments that make stairs hard). The centaurs can just take the ramps. $\endgroup$
    – Drake P
    Jan 12 at 22:17
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A centaur should be able to use stairs built for humans provided that they can fit within the space available on the staircase.

Quadrupeds are capable of locating an obstacle with their forelegs, and stepping over that obstacle with their hind legs without having to look. This can be demonstrated with any quadruped that you have handy, such as a dog or a cat, but horses and centaurs should be no different.

So, if a centaur takes a staircase slowly, finding the steps with a fore-hoof, they will be able to locate the stairs with their hind hooves. It's not as if they have to keep a constant watch on their feet, is it?

With familiarity, they would be able to traverse a staircase faster.

Of course, given a choice, centaurs may well choose to build ramps rather than stairs. Why step over obstacles when you don't have to?

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In some medieval villages, having the barn under the living area was fairly common, so you don't have to make up a reason for 2 storey buildings.

A very low slope stairway could work, but my impression of medieval peasant architecture is that it wasn't exactly up to modern safety codes. The barn to living area transit would likely have been very steep.

I've encountered a modern equivalent in India. Smaller houses can have stairways that are more like modestly tilted ladders than staircases.

Assuming the stairway is within the centaurs ability to climb up, the centaur can do the same thing a human does descending a ladder - face the stairs/rungs and back down.

Using a rearview mirror and saying "BEEP BEEP BEEP" while doing this is a good safety practice, but is not legally required. 😜

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In older two story barns, it is a popular design to have the second story reachable by an earth ramp or embankment. This permits one to use their work horses to pull heavy items to the second floor directly, instead of pulling them into the ground floor and then having them lifted to the second story.

Bank Barns are barns specifically designed for ground entry into the second floor. I can imagine a city where one street is a "low" street, entering into the ground floor, while the next street is a "high" street, entering into the second floor, and the entire city's interconnecting streets go up and down as necessary.

An example of a bank barn

This might also impact the society in interesting ways, as people that are further in one direction (the undulating cross-intersecting streets) would be less desirable to visit, while those along a relatively flat street would be "closer" in effort, even if not in distance. Likewise it would make lower floors darker and generally less desirable (even today with electric lighting, natural light is valued) and the "low" streets might even be home to the poorer classes, unless it is important to have the entire building inhabited by one family.

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  • $\begingroup$ Instead of undulating, let's just have a few bridges :-) $\endgroup$
    – Bergi
    Jan 13 at 4:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Bergi bridges would work, there's even a bank bar in New Hampshire that uses a bridge from a nearby hill to the barn. Can't remember why they needed access to the barn below the bridge, but it justified the bridge. Of course, eventually you would need some way of transitioning between the upper and lower levels, but that's a much easier thought-task than it seems. $\endgroup$
    – Edwin Buck
    Jan 13 at 14:11
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A centaur is different from a horse.

  • Speech: He can talk.

  • Intelligence: His intelligence level is close to humans (or at least more than horses).

  • Learning: He can be taught and he can learn.

So if there are stairs wide enough and less pitch, he can be taught how to climb. To come down, he can use his intelligence to de-climb backwards.

silhouette of a centaur with forelimbs on the first step of some stairs

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  • $\begingroup$ It doesn't look like that centaur has quite figured it out yet. Ouch, my knuckle... :) $\endgroup$ Jan 19 at 2:04
  • $\begingroup$ He is in the the learning phase and also shy. $\endgroup$
    – imtaar
    Jan 19 at 10:39
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There are a number of real-world examples of staircases built for horses. They're similar to a human staircase, but have a lower rise height and a tread depth large enough to accommodate a large animal.

Even though they're possible to build, your centaur world won't have them. They're far too dangerous.

Humans injure themselves on stairs all the time, everything from major falls to misjudging the last step and landing hard on your heel. It hurts, but it's rarely a serious injury. A centaur's foot is not built like a human's foot, however. Equine feet have a very different structure. The sort of slips, trips, and falls that humans regularly have on stairs could cause serious foot or leg injury to a centaur, and foot injuries can be life-threatening (lameness, laminitis, etc). The potential for fatal injury on stairs is far too great for them to be used as a common household mechanism. You'll most likely have certain special cases where stairs are necessary, but these will be fairly rare. Centaur architecture would be designed very differently than human architecture.

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Pull Rope Elevator.

There are lots of great answers about how to make stairs and centaurs work together. However, if you're anticipating frequent centaur traffic and don't have room for an appropriately shallow angled staircase, you can go for a platform that is raised and lowered by pulling a rope attached to a pulley system instead; it only has to be big enough (and obviously strong enough) for the centaur to stand in, and it could be designed so that they could operate the pulley system themselves. Added bonus: it's way easier for hauling loads of heavy goods up floors as well.

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Consider a more familiar animal with a similar long quadrupedal body that has to navigate stairs constantly. A dog!

A dog can run (not just "climb"!!) down even steep stairs confidently and with ease, never mind its head down. Why do you think a centaur wouldn't be able to navigate them with total ease, and with no special measures needed at all?

Your main issue will be narrow turns,because their spine isn't so flexible to curl laterally (eg turn left/right) - our spine is vertical, a dogs spine is flexible and short, a horse spine isn't really designed to curl in a tight circle. That's more about tight corners than stairs, in a way.

But climbing up and down stairs itself? Easy for them!

If you need more reason, consider this:

Horses run and gallop across really rough terrain without needing to see where their rear hooves land, to make good safe contact. Human sprinters and joggers don't need to see where their feet land either.

We feel the ground as they touch, and we mentally map the land as we get there,in preparation,to know how out feet will contact it even without seeing them do so.

Centaurs don't need to see the steps to be completely at ease treading on them.

Balance and centre of gravity will matter. On steep stairs downwards, a centaur might have to lean back. But that'll be a habit, they won't think twice about it. After all, we lean into ladders or lean back when walking down a steep embankment, too.

As long as they can physically fit and turn as needed, they won't have any issues at all, period.

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No spiral staircases

Spiral staircases, and firefighter's poles were developed not to prevent horses from going up stairs, but prevent them getting stuck.

Often, when the firemen cooked meals on the second floor, curious horses would ascend the stairs into the living quarters; as horses typically don't descend stairs, they would then be stuck there.
To solve this issue, firehouses began installing narrow spiral staircases that the animals couldn’t access.

This leads me on to this:

Minimum turning spaces, and risers

This PDF (download link) from the British Horse Society about horses crossing bridges is particularly insightful

Consideration should be given to the widths needed to safely pass other users and if a horse should need to be turned while on the steps. Turning is likely to require a 3m x 3m area for safety. The ideal is therefore 2m wide with frequent passing or turning places but much will depend on the site, its level or use and locality.

It also goes into detail about maximum, minimum riser height:

Riser height optimum 150mm at sites well used by all abilities. If insufficient space is available to gain required height then alternate risers may be increased as follows:
• Maximum 200mm for maximum of three consecutive risers
• Maximum 300mm for maximum of two consecutive risers
• Maximum height 450mm at remote sites and only with a 2m tread below the 450mm riser

This is all for mounted horses, and mostly outdoors. The most salient point is the turning space. What happens when your centaur wants to turn around part way up the stairs?

Riser height is likely less of an issue, but still worth considering.

The document also mentions that at 45 degree angle slopes, horses tend to angle themselves sideways for stability. A sufficiently steep set of steps (ones ignoring the above advice) might cause a traffic jam as the centaurs try to balance by turning sideways or at least stall fighting those instincts.

Front Heavy

Another thing to consider is that a centaur is much more front heavy than a regular horse:

outline diagram of a horse and centaur with exactly overlapping lower/back half and distinct horse neck and head from human torso

That is, when going down an incline or set of steps, the center of gravity will shift towards the front of the centaur, potentially putting it off balance.


In summary, the steps might need to be much longer than they would otherwise (2m or just over 6ft), but the rise wouldn't need to be too drastically different (150mm is ~1 ft), but that's the minimum for horses. Centaurs may be able to handle shorter steps, less long steps.

The maximum incline/decline should also be considered as mentioned above, to prevent traffic jams on less than ideal staircases.

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What's wrong with using ELEVATORS?

The ancient Romans had them. Supposedly stole the designs from the even more ancient Babylonians.
The Colosseum in 100 BC had 24 elevators!

As the centaurs have all the manual dexterity of humans, they can build anything that humans could.

Here's the lion elevator of the Colosseum, restored to its original splendor. https://www.elevatorscenestudio.com/blog/2018/12/31/killer-beast-elevator-returns-to-colosseum-after-1500-years
enter image description here

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