People sometimes panic if a horse is lying down, thinking it must be poorly. The concern is likely misplaced. Yes, horses can nap standing up, and adult horses rarely lay down for long periods of time when healthy. However, they do need to lie down for a few hours a day to achieve REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
So when can horses lay on their side? Let’s dig deeper.
Lying Down To Sleep
Full grown horses will need to lie down (including on their sides) between one to three hours a day to achieve REM sleep, though not in a continuous time block. Typically, they may only lay down to sleep for minutes at a time, usually at night.
Young horses need more sleep than adults, but they cut down on the total time spent laying down as they grow older.
Feeling Secure Is Key
The sleeping pattern of horses vary according to their surroundings and circumstances. While the need for REM sleep is a physical necessity, horses lay down only if they feel safe and secure in their surroundings – be it in the meadows surrounded by their herd members or in a familiar, warm, comfortable stall in the barn.
Horses can sleep laying down in one of two poses – either with legs folded under them and chin on the ground, or while fully lying on their sides.
A horse that carries on for extended periods of time without lying down can face significant problems from sleep deprivation. One effect could be that the horse just collapses for a few minutes, without any attempt to lower itself to the ground gently.
A horse unable to lie down for some natural rest for an hour or two a day may have physical or mental issues, which could range from discomfort in its joints or limbs to feelings of anxiety or insecurity. It is worth looking into.
On the other hand, lying down for extended periods of time can cause severe problems.
Problems With Lying Down For Extended Periods
A 1,200 lb. horse lying down will normally struggle to get back up on its feet after 10-20 minutes. The first reason is simple, the blood circulation in the limbs is cut off. With every passing minute, it will be harder for the horse to stand up. Also, the horse literally loses muscle tone whenever it lies down.
If lying on its side, or if the horse is cast against the side of the stall with legs splayed out, there can be other severe problems, including:
- The sheer weight will hurt the muscles and tissues on the side pressed against the ground – the damage may be permanent if the horse stays down too long.
- The lower lungs can fill up with blood due to gravity.
- The guts will fill with gas which cannot be expelled normally, making the horse extremely uncomfortable and bloated.
When Should You Worry?
If a horse does seem to be lying down too often, or for too long, there could be reasons to worry. There may be several causes behind such a condition:
- Colic, or stomach pain, which can be discerned if a horse is seen looking towards its tummy – the horse should be forced to stand up and walk around while a vet is called.
- Leg injuries, stretching from inflammation inside the hooves to broken bones
- Tying up – that is, muscle damage that has occurred.
- Metabolic diseases, etc.
A vet should be consulted after a few hours, especially if the horse seems unwilling or unable to get up even with assistance.
The Ability To Nap Standing Up
Horses possess “stay muscles”, an interlocking system of ligaments and tendons that allow them to lock their legs in place. If they need to rest, or doze off for a few minutes, horses will tend to employ their stay muscles and nap standing up, resting on both front and one back leg. Others in the herd may keep watch during those times.
There are a number of mental and physical reasons for horses to sleep standing up, rather than laying down, for short naps. The two most important ones are:
- Horses are large animals, and several medical issues can crop up if they lie down or get cast – including severe problems with blood flow. More about this later.
- A horse splayed out has a tough time getting up and moving quickly. Their natural instincts are to protect themselves from predators by napping while at the ready.
A horse on a farm can spend anywhere from four to fifteen hours a day resting, only a fraction of which is spent actually dosing. However, this is not full rest, which horses also need.
The Final Word
Horses do need to lie down occasionally, otherwise they will feel sleep deprived. It’s a good sign – both mentally and physically – if you see them get such regular rest.
Be aware, though, that they should not be down frequently, especially for extended periods of time. If you see telltale signs of discomfort, consult a vet and try to keep the horse on its feet.