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Understanding Horse Behavior: The Reasons Horses Lay Down

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My grandson and I share a cherished tradition – walking through the horse barns during our racetrack visits. On our most recent excursion, he spotted some of the horses lying down and curiously questioned, “If horses sleep standing up, why do they lay down?”

Horses lie down to enter deep sleep, which is crucial for their overall well-being. While they do nap standing up, they require lying down for more restorative sleep. This behavior also signals relaxation or possibly illness, making it essential for horse caretakers to recognize and monitor these rest periods.

Ever spot your horse lying down and wondered why? It’s not just about lazing around. This simple act can reveal surprising insights into a horse’s health and well-being. Intrigued? Dive in with us to explore the fascinating reasons why your horse chooses to lie down.

Picture of a horse laying down in a stall. One reasons horses lay down is to get deep sleep.

1. Horses Lay Down to Enter Deep Sleep.

Many people incorrectly believe horses only sleep standing, but in fact, horses need to lie down to get proper rest. However, there are other reasons a horse lays down.

Stages of sleep

Horses have two stages of sleep, slow-wave sleep and REM or paradoxical sleep. When a horse sleeps standing, it is in a slow wave, shallow state of rest.

In a slow-wave state of sleep, horses often lower their heads, relax their lower lip, have little eye movement, and their eyelids stay partially opened. About 85% of horses sleep in this stage.

During slow-wave sleep, equines flex one hind leg and engage the stay-apparatus. The stay-apparatus allows them to conserve energy and maintain their upright position while dozing.

On the other end of the spectrum is REM sleep. REM is an acronym for rapid eye movement. During REM sleep, the horse’s eyes move fast in different directions, and its neck muscles relax.

Horses first doze in a non-REM slumber while standing, then advance to a period of REM sleep lying down, and then the cycle begins again. In 24 hours, horses only have about 30 minutes of REM sleep.

Horses can only enter REM sleep when lying down, and during this time, a horse has total muscle relaxation and quick eye movement with their eyelids closed.

When do horses sleep?

Recently I noticed my grandson watching our horses more than usual, and he informed me that he doesn’t ever see them sleep. I assured him they sleep even though he may not notice because they don’t follow the same sleep pattern that we do.

Unlike humans, which are monophasic sleepers, horses are polyphasic sleepers. Polyphasic sleepers doze for short periods throughout the day as opposed to one long deep sleep.

Typically, a horse falls asleep standing and slips into slow-wave sleep; if the environment is right, he continues to relax and eventually lays down. Pasture horses will often wake for a couple of minutes before lying down.

Picture of a horse sleeping while standing.

Horses’ sleep patterns evolved to survive.

It’s believed this short waking is the horse’s survival instinct to scour the area for predators before entering deep sleep. After the horse is in the recumbent position for a few minutes, he falls into REM sleep, but only for about 5 to 10 minutes.

After REM sleep, the horse reverses the cycle and wakes into slow-wave sleep for about 5 minutes, then stands back up for another 5 minutes of shallow sleep. He continues this pattern about every 45 minutes throughout the night. A horse typically only sleeps lying down for three hours each day.

Many external elements affect a horse’s sleep patterns, and as the horse ages, its sleeping needs adjust. Stall vs. turnout, transportation, feeding habits, and familiarity with surroundings are some common factors that impact a horse’s sleep pattern.

Horses enter into a light sleep standing.

One of the significant reasons horses survived for millions of years is their ability to rest while standing. In the wild, horses are hunted by predators and need to be ready to bolt to avoid death.

Horses don’t quickly pop to their feet from lying on the ground, it takes time, and that could be just long enough for a predator to attack them. The stay apparatus and slow-wave sleep work together to allow a horse to rest while not being overly vulnerable.

Wild horses congregate in herds, which isn’t only because they are social animals but also for protection. In a pack, not all horses sleep simultaneously; some remain awake to alert the sleepers of danger. Herds typically have a “guard horse” to watch out for danger and alert the sleeping horses.

The teamwork of the herd allows horses to rest without worry of attack. Without the herd’s protection, deep sleep would be difficult, even impossible, for a horse living in the wild. Horses that are deprived of deep sleep can develop physical and emotional problems.

2. Horses Lay Down When Feeling Bad.

Horses often lie down when they feel bad, either because they’re sick or injured.

Sickness and Pain

Horses get too weak to stand either from a muscle injury, illness, or neurological damage. If you can’t get your horse to rise, you need to seek medical treatment for your horse immediately.

Horses that stay down too long are at risk of developing severe health issues because their bodies aren’t structured to withstand extended periods of laying. Their bodies are massive, and the pressure causes muscle, nerve, pulmonary, and circulation problems.

Picture of a horse rolling around.

Laying down and rolling is one sign of colic.

Horses that lay down excessively and roll may be suffering from colic. Colic strikes horses at a high rate, so it’s critical to know the signs. First, you must be aware of your horse’s regular habits and routine.

Is your horse lying down more than usual, pawing the ground, displaying a lack of interest in drinking? These are warning signs of colic; you should contact your veterinarian immediately.

Colic is a painful condition that affects horses’ intestines. Colic is typically caused by overeating grain, but there are many other reasons it develops. It is often unpredictable and a common occurrence.

With proper treatment, most horses fully recover; however, it can be fatal in severe cases. One of the early indicators your horse may be suffering from colic is lying down and rolling frequently.

If you suspect your horse is suffering from colic, you should contact your veterinarian and get the horse walking. The movement will help to relieve pressure in its intestines.

Besides laying down and rolling, other colic signs include frequently looking back and biting or kicking at their belly. You may also notice that they haven’t defecated or their passed only a small amount of manure.

Horses suffering from colic also eat less hay, have off-colored mucous membranes, and have high heart rates. Your horse doesn’t need to show all the signs to have colic, and it is a severe medical condition, so be sure to have your horse checked by a professional if you suspect colic.

Picture of a horse laying down in a stall.
Getting rest after a hard workout.

3. Horses Lay When Tired.

Horses get tired just like we do, and often they take a break by lying down. We had a horse that ran amok during rainstorms, but it would lay down and recover from its exertion as soon as the weather calmed.

Some horses lay down to recover from a hard workout. After exercise, horses typically walk to cool down, get a bath, and are put in a stall. If the stall has ample space, comfortable bedding, and a quiet environment, it is not unusual for them to lie down and relax.

How Long is Too Long for a Horse to Lie Down?

You’re wondering, “How long is too long for a horse to lie down?” There isn’t a set answer because every horse is different. Some horses can’t stay down for too long before their body starts to have problems.

When a horse lies down for too long, they can have severe issues like muscle damage, urine retention, poor blood circulation, and even kidney failure. If a horse doesn’t get up, these issues can become life-threatening.

Most horses lie down for a total of about 3 hours a day, taking short naps from 15 minutes to 2 hours. So, if your horse is lying down more than usual or struggling to get up, it’s important to contact a vet. By knowing these facts, we can make sure our horses stay healthy and strong.

How do you get a horse up that is down?

Getting an injured, sick, or cast horse to stand is challenging and shouldn’t be attempted unless you’re experienced with horses and have help. Horses are large animals with powerful kicking power. Many things could go wrong when trying to get a horse to rise, so be cautious and never attempt it alone.

Here are some pointers:

  • Ensure the horse knows you’re approaching; you don’t want to walk up and scare the animal; it’s likely already nervous.
  • Keep away from its rear legs and position yourself to avoid danger if the horse gets frightened.
  • Access the situation, and try to figure out why it can’t get up, is the animal is stuck, sick, or injured.
  • Contact your vet and explain the situation; he may advise you to try and roll the horse to its opposite side to relieve pressure, and it may get the horse to stand. For some older horses, this is all the encouragement they need.
  • If your horse is down because it woke in an awkward position that prevents him from rising, oftentimes, you can maneuver its body to assist him in getting up. Just be sure to work from a safe vantage point.
  • If you are waiting on a vet or other assistance, protect the downside of the horse’s head with a pillow or padding.  
Picture of our horse that got cast in a stall.  We had to roll him away from the wall.
Horse cast in a stall.

How to roll a horse

I suggest you start by putting a halter on your horse with a lead rope. Next, tie soft ropes around each of the pasterns of the down-side legs of the horse. From the opposite side, pull until the horse rolls to its other side.

Once the horse is over, you should encourage it to stand. You can do this with coaxing, pulling on its tail, and pushing upward on the horse from a squatting position.

If this fails, you can position the rope over the horse’s back, behind the withers, and through the front legs and pull forward. You can also run a similar loop over its hind end and through its rear legs and pull.

Only use minimum pressure when pulling the ropes; you don’t want to hurt the animal, but rather give him assistance and encouragement. I strongly urge you to only use these methods with the aid of an experienced horseman.

I can’t stress this enough; horses are large and powerful. When they are stuck on the ground, they get scared and will thrash about. You need to be cautious and work safely to ensure you, or the horse, doesn’t get hurt.

We have a horse that “casts” every time we change its bedding. It will inevitably roll around, position itself against the stall wall, and get stuck. Someone has to get in there and help him up. He is still very young, so hopefully, he will grow out of this dangerous habit.

Signs of Sleep Deprivation in Horses

Just like humans, horses, too, can show signs of sleep deprivation. If a horse isn’t getting enough rest, you might notice changes in their behavior or appearance. They might seem more tired or grumpy than usual. Some horses might stumble or even collapse from exhaustion.

They may also have a dull coat or lose weight. Another sign is if they’re lying down more than usual, as they may be trying to catch up on sleep. If you notice these signs, it’s important to consult with a vet, as sleep deprivation can lead to serious health issues in horses.


In wrapping up our exploration into the behavior of horses lying down, it’s crucial to dispel one widely held misconception. Contrary to popular belief, horses don’t typically lie down solely because they are feeling sick. As we’ve discussed throughout this article, there are a variety of reasons why horses might choose to rest in this position.

From entering REM sleep to just wanting a good roll in the dirt, lying down is a normal part of a horse’s daily activities. In fact, seeing your horse lay down can be a sign of comfort and trust, showing that they feel safe and secure in their environment.

But it’s also important to remember, as always, that while lying down is typically a normal behavior, excessive lying down or other changes in behavior could indicate an issue. As horse owners and lovers, it’s our responsibility to be attentive to these behavioral shifts, understand what is normal for our individual horses, and seek veterinary advice when needed.

Demystifying horse behavior is an ongoing journey, and we hope this article has given you more insight into one aspect of their lives. Understanding why horses lay down allows us to better care for these magnificent creatures, enhancing not only their lives but also the bond we share with them.


Is it normal for horses to lay down during the day?

Yes, it’s perfectly normal for horses to lie down during the day. They do this for various reasons, such as to rest, sleep, or simply enjoy a roll. However, excessive lying down or signs of difficulty getting up could indicate a health issue and should be checked by a vet.

What happens if a horse never lays down?

If a horse never lays down, it could mean they’re not getting the deep, REM sleep they need, which is only achieved while lying down. Lack of REM sleep over time can lead to health and behavioral problems. If a horse seems to avoid lying down, it’s recommended to seek veterinary advice.