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Why Do Horses Lay Down? 3 Fundamental Reasons

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My grandson and I enjoy walking through the horse barns when we visit a race track. During our last visit, he noticed some of the horses lying down. Seeing this prompted him to ask, “Why do horses lay down if they sleep standing up?”

Horses lay down when they need deep sleep, when they’re sick, or when relaxing. Horses, like humans, need deep sleep to maintain and restore good mental and physical well-being. When horses sleep standing, they are only napping. 

It’s normal behavior for horses to spend time lying down. They lie down when they sleep deeply and rest after exercise. However, if you notice your horse spending excessive time on the ground, it could be injured or ill.

Picture of a horse laying down in a stall

3 Primary reasons horses lay down.

1. Horses lay down to enter deep sleep.

Many people incorrectly believe horses only sleep standing, but in fact, horses need to lay 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.

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

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.

Horse’s 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 sometimes lie down when they’re sick or in pain.

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.

3. Horses lie down when they are 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?

There is no hard and fast rule for how long a horse can tolerate lying down. Some horses don’t handle being down for very long at all before their body starts shutting down.

Muscle damage, urine retention, poor blood circulation, and kidney failure are a few severe conditions that occur when horses lay down too long. And if the horse doesn’t rise, it will die.

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.  

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.

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