It can be quite unnerving seeing a massive horse lying down in a field, and it’s natural to wonder whether this is normal. Learning the behavioral patterns of your horse is vital to caring for them properly, and a horse lying down is usually perfectly normal behavior.
Of course, if a horse is lying down far more frequently than normal or if they are lying down and don’t seem to want to get up, there may be a valid reason for concern. In this article, we take a look at three reasons for horses lying down and when there is reason to be worried.
The 3 Reasons Horses Lie Down
1. Horses lie down during deep sleep
Contrary to popular belief, horses do lie down while sleeping. While horses are known to take naps while standing, during a phase of sleep called “slow-wave sleep,” they need to lie down to enter into a deep sleep or REM sleep.
In these slow-wave modes of sleep, horses will lower their heads relax their face and engage one hind leg, allowing them to stay upright, but their eyes will stay partially open. They can do this because of a stay apparatus in both their front and hind limbs. Most of a horse’s sleep cycle is spent in this mode. Typically, a horse requires around 2-3 hours of REM sleep in a 24-hour cycle, and during this time, they will lay down for 10-30 minutes at a time.
A horse lying down to sleep seems unusual to most of us simply because we rarely see it. Horses have polyphasic sleep patterns, meaning they sleep multiple times a day, unlike humans, who are monophasic sleepers, which is one period of sleep per 24-hour cycle. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes perfect sense because these short sleep cycles make horses less vulnerable to predators. They can rest while standing and be ready to run right away should the need arise.
It’s important to note that horses will only lie down when they feel safe, so you need to provide them with a safe environment to achieve deep REM sleep. Horses that are sleep-deprived can develop serious health problems.
2. Horses lie down to rest
If a horse is comfortable enough in their environment, they will often rest in the afternoon sun or the shade of a tree or simply lie down to rest if they feel tired. This could be after a long walk or a hard workout, when your horse may have overexerted themselves.
This is perfectly normal behavior, and if you notice your horse lying down for a quick rest, you can be assured that they feel perfectly safe in their environment!
3. Horses may lie down when they are sick or in pain
A horse that is lying down for an excessive period of time or at least, more than usual, may be ill or suffering from physical pain or an injury. Colic is a common reason, although horses will usually roll around while lying down if colic is the issue, but not always — some may just lie quietly. If you notice that your horse is lying or rolling on the ground and they are showing signs of listlessness and a lack of interest in food and water, the problem could be colic.
Some kind of musculoskeletal pain may also be causing them to lie down, such as with an illness like laminitis that affects multiple limbs — pain or an injury in a single limb is not usually enough to cause a horse to lie down. Whatever the cause, it’s vital to get your horse standing back up as soon as possible. A horse’s body is not structured to lay down for long periods, and the pressure of their heavy weight can cause muscle, nerve, and circulation issues.
In any case, you’ll need to get a veterinary checkup as soon as possible.
How long can a horse safely lie down?
Because a horse’s body is not designed to lie down for long periods, they can die fairly quickly if they cannot get up. Their organs cannot function correctly while they are lying down due to the heavy weight of their body and the immense pressure this puts on the horse. That said, there is no standard for how long a horse can stay lying down. There have been stories of horses dying after just a few hours lying down and of some horses still doing fine after several days! It is dependent on the individual.
Getting an injured or sick horse to stand up can be extremely challenging and should only be attempted by a person with experience and with loads of help. In this case, it’s best to call an equestrian vet to come over and see if moving the horse is the correct solution.
In most circumstances, a horse laying down is perfectly normal behavior, and there is normally no reason for concern. Horses lay down to get deep, REM sleep and to rest during the day when they feel comfortable. If you notice your horse laying down for extended periods and they are showing signs of pain or illness, it’s best to get a vet involved as soon as possible to assess the situation.
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