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Why Horses Lay Down: From REM Sleep to Environmental Impact

Last updated: February 22, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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Have you ever wondered why horses choose to lie down despite being able to sleep standing up? For those of us who care for and love horses, recognizing the reasons behind this behavior is essential. It gives us insights into their health, habits, and comfort.

My personal journey with horses has provided me with a unique perspective on their day-to-day lives. In this article, we’ll delve into why horses lay down, aiming to clarify their sleep habits and dispel some of the myths surrounding this behavior. Let’s embark on this exploration together and deepen our understanding and care for horses.

Picture of a horse laying down in a stall. One reasons horses lay down is to get deep sleep.
My horse is taking a break after a workout.

Why Do Horses Lay Down?

Have you ever caught your horse taking a snooze and wondered what’s behind their need to lie down? It’s not just about grabbing some shut-eye; it’s a complex behavior tied to their overall health and happiness.

REM Sleep: A Must-Have for Horses

  • Just like us, horses need REM sleep to stay sharp and healthy. This deep sleep phase is crucial for their mental and physical well-being. But here’s an interesting fact: horses can’t get REM sleep while standing.

Seeking Comfort and Relaxation

  • Beyond needing REM sleep, horses lie down to take a well-deserved break. This act is their way of saying, “I feel safe here.” They often pick a spot that’s soft and quiet, where they can relax without worry.

Spotting Health Indicators

  • The amount of time a horse spends lying down can clue us into their health status. An uptick in lounging around or difficulty getting up could signal discomfort or illness.

Environmental Factors: Setting the Stage for Rest

  • The setting in which a horse lives plays a significant role in their resting habits.

Tips for Horse Owners

  • Observe and Adapt: Keep tabs on where and how often your horse lies down. Their favorite resting spots should be comfortable and safe.
  • Health Monitoring: Stay alert to changes in their resting behavior, as it can hint at health issues. Regular vet check-ups are your best bet for catching problems early.
  • Creating a Supportive Environment: Tailor your horse’s environment to promote healthy resting habits. Consider factors like bedding, space, and overall stall conditions to make their home a haven for rest.

Understanding these facets of why horses lay down enriches our care for them. It’s all about ensuring they’re not just healthy but also content and comfortable in their surroundings.

Picture of a horse laying down in a pasture.
A horse laying down in a pasture.

Physical Rest and Sleep: More Than REM

Understanding the full scope of a horse’s rest needs goes beyond just recognizing the importance of REM sleep. Here’s a closer look at the broader spectrum of rest and how it contributes to a horse’s well-being.

Why Downtime Matters

  • Beyond Lying Down: Horses need rest not only to recover from physical exertion but also to maintain overall health. This includes both standing rest and periods of lying down for non-REM sleep.
  • Balancing Act: Horses have a unique ability to rest while standing, thanks to a leg-locking mechanism. This allows them to conserve energy and stay alert to their surroundings without tiring themselves out.
  • Total Body Rest: Lying down gives horses a chance to relieve pressure from their legs and rest their entire body, which is vital for preventing fatigue and supporting muscle, joint, and hoof health.

Signs of Sleep Deprivation in Horses

Just like us, horses need their rest. But sometimes, they might not get enough, leading to sleep deprivation. Here’s what to look out for:

  • Behavior Changes: A horse that’s usually bright and alert but suddenly seems tired or irritable might be sleep-deprived.
  • Physical Signs: Look for a dull coat, weight loss, or signs of exhaustion like stumbling or even collapsing.
  • Increased Lying Down: A horse trying to catch up on missed sleep might lie down more than usual.

What to Do

  • Consult a Vet: If you notice any of these signs, it’s crucial to get professional advice. Sleep deprivation can have serious health implications for horses.
Picture of a sick horse laying down.
This horse is not feeling well.

Health and Comfort: Spotting the Warning Signs

When horses lay down more than usual, it’s a cue for us to pay closer attention—it could be signaling a health issue. Let’s explore common health problems that might cause this behavior, enhancing our ability to spot and address potential concerns.

Identifying Common Health Issues

  • Colic Alert: Known for causing abdominal pain, colic can lead to more frequent lying down. Early recognition and response are critical, as colic can escalate quickly.
  • Laminitis: This condition affects the hooves and can be so painful that horses prefer to lie down rather than stand. Preventive care, including regular hoof checks, is key.
  • Musculoskeletal Concerns: Issues like arthritis or injuries can make standing a chore, prompting more time spent lying down. Keep an eye on your horse’s movement and willingness to stand.

Rest as Part of Recovery

Lying down isn’t just about rest; for horses facing illness or injury, it’s a crucial part of the healing process. It allows them to ease the strain on their bodies. However, balance is essential, as too much lying down without movement can lead to other health issues, like pressure sores or stiffness.

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

Creating a Supportive Environment

  • Comfortable Spaces: Providing a comfortable and safe area for horses to lie down is crucial. This includes spacious, clean stalls with quality bedding and access to secure open spaces.
  • Observation is Key: Paying attention to your horse’s resting preferences helps tailor their environment to their needs, ensuring they can relax fully and safely.

Key Takeaways

The link between health and comfort in horses is undeniable. By being vigilant and proactive in our care, we can ensure our horses not only stay healthy but also content. Recognizing the health issues that may lead to increased lying down enables us to take timely action, safeguarding the well-being of our horses.

picture of a horse rolling on the ground.
A horse rolling around in the dirt.

Environmental Factors and Horse Resting Behavior

The environment significantly shapes how, where, and when horses rest, directly affecting their comfort, health, and happiness. Here’s how environmental elements play a role in a horse’s resting habits.

Space and Shelter: Essentials for Rest

  • Space to Relax: Horses require plenty of space not just for exercise but also to comfortably rest. Tight stalls or crowded areas can prevent them from lying down, crucial for their well-being.
  • Shelter for Comfort: Protection from harsh weather conditions is vital. Proper shelter allows horses to find a cozy spot to rest, rain or shine, hot or cold.

Bedding and Ground Maintenance: Foundations of Comfort

  • Quality Bedding: The right bedding makes all the difference. Soft, absorbent materials encourage rest and help prevent discomfort and health issues like pressure sores.
  • Safe Grounds: Keeping living areas clean and free from hazards, such as sharp objects or uneven surfaces, is key to preventing injuries and ensuring a healthy resting environment.

Environmental Enrichment: Beyond the Basics

  • Mental Engagement: A stimulating environment, with opportunities for social interaction and exploration, supports natural resting behaviors and overall well-being.
  • Outdoor Access: Freedom to roam outdoors lets horses choose their ideal resting spots, promoting better rest habits and contributing to their physical and mental health.

Integrating Insights for Optimal Care

Understanding the link between a horse’s environment and its rest patterns is crucial. A thoughtfully arranged living space that addresses their need for space, comfort, and stimulation not only supports their basic needs but also enhances their quality of life.

Video examining why horses lay down.

Assisting a Downed Horse

Sometimes, a horse might find itself unable to get up. This can be due to various reasons, including illness, injury, or simply getting stuck in an awkward position. Here’s how you can help:

Approach with Care

  • Make Your Presence Known: Always let the horse know you’re coming. A sudden approach can startle them, especially when they’re already stressed.
  • Safety First: Stay clear of the horse’s rear legs to avoid kicks. Approach from the side, where they can see you.

Assess the Situation

  • Why Can’t They Get Up?: Determine if the horse is sick, injured, or just stuck. Your approach will vary depending on the cause.
  • Call the Vet: If in doubt, it’s always best to consult a professional. They can provide guidance specific to your horse’s situation.

Helping Them Up

  • Rolling Over: Sometimes, simply rolling the horse to its other side can help. This might relieve pressure and encourage them to try standing.
  • Assistance with Ropes: For a more hands-on approach, you can use soft ropes around the pasterns of the down-side legs. Gently pull from the opposite side to help the horse roll over.
  • Encourage to Stand: Once rolled over, encourage your horse to stand by coaxing, pulling on its tail, or gently pushing upward from a squatting position.

Safety Tips

  • Work in Pairs: Never attempt to help a downed horse alone. Having assistance can make the process safer for both you and the horse.
  • Protect the Horse: If waiting for help, use pillows or padding to protect the horse’s head and body from hard surfaces.
Picture of our horse that got cast in a stall.  We had to roll him away from the wall.
We are rolling a horse that cast in his stall.


How much sleep do horses need?

Horses can function on as little as 5 hours of sleep per day, but they require at least 25 minutes of REM sleep, which must be done lying down.

Why do horses sleep standing up?

Horses sleep standing up as a survival adaptation, allowing them to quickly escape predators. This behavior is supported by a unique anatomical feature known as the “stay apparatus.”

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.

Can horses achieve REM sleep while standing?

No, horses cannot achieve REM sleep while standing. They need to lie down to enter this deep sleep phase, which is essential for their mental and physical health.

Conclusion: Embracing Rest for Horse Well-Being

Diving into why horses lay down has revealed it’s much more than a simple habit—it’s a critical aspect of their well-being, intertwining with their health, comfort, and happiness. Understanding the significance of REM sleep, the need for relaxation, and recognizing health warnings are all key to our role as responsible horse owners.

The Power of Observation

Spotting early signs of health concerns—like changes in resting patterns or difficulty standing—can be lifesaving. Being vigilant helps us address issues before they escalate, showcasing the importance of being proactive in our horses’ health care.

Beyond Basic Care

Caring for our horses means providing an environment that aligns with their natural needs. This includes ensuring they have enough space, proper shelter, and comfortable bedding, complemented by regular health checks. It’s about nurturing their physical and emotional well-being through attentive, thoughtful care.

Environmental Influence

The environment’s impact on a horse’s rest highlights the necessity of creating spaces that encourage healthy resting habits. Integrating our knowledge of their needs into their living conditions can significantly boost their quality of life.

Moving Forward with Insight

Our journey into understanding equine rest deepens our connection with these incredible animals, guiding us to better meet their needs. It’s a path of ongoing learning and commitment, reflecting the depth of our bond and dedication to their well-being.

Let’s take these insights forward, applying them to ensure our horses enjoy the fullest, healthiest lives they can. Our shared commitment to their care is a testament to the love and respect we hold for our equine friends, motivating us to always aim for the highest standards of care.

Authorities and Sources

To deepen our understanding of why horses lay down and the intricacies of their rest and sleep behaviors, we’ve drawn insights from authoritative sources. These sources provide a foundation for our exploration, ensuring the information we share is accurate and reliable.

  • Scientific American: Offers a comprehensive look into why horses sleep standing up and the necessity of lying down for REM sleep. Read more
  • American Association of Equine Practitioners: Highlights the health risks associated with sleep deprivation in horses, emphasizing the importance of REM sleep. Explore further
  • Animal Friends: Discusses the unique sleep requirements of horses, including their need for less REM sleep and the conditions under which they achieve it. Learn more
  • wikiHow: Provides insights into the stages of horse sleep, explaining why horses must lie down for certain phases of their rest. Discover details

These resources offer valuable perspectives on the sleep habits of horses, contributing to our comprehensive understanding of their needs and behaviors.