Last Updated on September 22, 2021
One of the fascinating things about horses is that they can sleep whilst standing up. Weird but true! But do horses ever lay down? And what does it mean when a horse lays down?
Horses can sleep standing up because of the unique anatomy which prevents them from falling over when asleep. This is because a horse is very vulnerable when it lays down, especially in the wild. Let’s take a look at horse sleep patterns and find out why what it means when a horse lays down!
Do Horses Ever Lay Down?
In the wild, horses are prey animals that live in herds. Deciding to lay down can be risky as a sleeping horse is an easy catch for a predator!
Horses also have different sleep patterns from humans. We normally sleep for one long period each day, whereas horses will sleep in short bursts throughout the day. Most of the horse’s sleep periods are done whilst standing. However, to get into a deep sleep, the horse will need to occasionally lay down.
In the wild, horses will take it in turns to have a sleep laying down, with other horses in the herd standing guard to watch out for predators. This instinctive behavior has carried on in domesticated horses. You may notice that your horse only lays down when in the stable where it feels safe If you have a group of horses, you might see the herd behavior described above in your field.
What Does It Mean When A Horse Lays Down?
As a horse owner, you might sometimes see your horse laying down, but have you ever wondered why?
Sometimes a horse laying down can be expressing normal behavior, getting some rest and relaxation, However, on other occasions, it may be a sign of discomfort or ill health such as colic. It is important that we understand the reasons why horses lay down. This helps us to identify when our horses are simply taking a nap rather than worrying that they may be sick every time they lay down.
Horses lay down in two different positions. They may lay on their side, known as lateral recumbency, or in a more upright position, sternal recumbency.
Lateral recumbency is the position needed for the deepest type of sleep horses experience, REM sleep. During this period of sleep, the muscles are at their most relaxed. Horses will normally only sleep in this position for short periods as they are at their most vulnerable in this state.
They may lay in sternal recumbency for longer periods. This is a lighter form of sleep and easier to wake from.
How Often Do Horses Lay Down?
Although all horses can lay down, this doesn’t mean that they all do! Most horses will lay down at least once per day. However, others may lay down more or less than this.
Firstly, don’t panic if you see your horse laid down, even if you haven’t seen this behavior before. If your horse is just having a normal sleep then you should feel happy that you have provided an environment where it feels safe enough to lay down!
Horses lay down more at certain life stages too. Young horses and elderly horses typically lay down more than adult horses.
One of the most useful things a horse owner can do is understand what is normal behavior for your horse. Every horse is different, and some may lay down a lot whilst others will do most of their sleep standing.
You could keep a diary of behavior patterns over a week, recording how much time your horse spends laying down. Try creeping up to your barn or field quietly when you arrive – you might find your horse sleeping more often than you realize! You could also record a video of your horse to observe his behavior when you are not there.
How Long Can A Horse Lay Down Safely?
There are no set rules about how long it is safe for a horse to lay down. Each individual horse is different and it also depends on the circumstances.
A horse asleep on a deep straw bed can lay down comfortably for an hour or two without any problems. It is when horses are unable to get up that problems can occur.
Horses are heavy animals with a very large muscle mass; when they lay down the circulation of blood and lymph (waste products) through these muscles can be restricted. This is similar to getting a ‘dead leg’ when you’ve been kneeling for too long!
Horses would normally self-regulate their sleep patterns to prevent any issues from occurring. However, if the horse lays in one position for too long then this restriction of circulation can cause long-term muscle problems.
If you feel that your horse is unable to stand or is experiencing difficulties then it is important to contact your veterinarian straight away.
Is A Horse Sick If It Lays Down?
Sometimes laying down can be a sign of sickness in horses. One of the main signs of colic is rolling. However, sometimes a horse with colic will lay down quietly too.
If you are worried your horse may have colic, check for other signs of unusual behavior. Has your horse eaten their feed and passed normal droppings? If in doubt always contact your veterinarian if you suspect that your horse might have colic.
Horses with aches and pains of the bones, joints, and muscles might also lay down to gain some comfort. Again, look out for any other signs that your horse might be in discomfort. This could include lameness, heat or swelling in a leg, or increased pulses to the hooves.
If you suspect your horse might be laid down because of discomfort, look for signs such as difficulty standing or stiffness when they first stand up. Most horses will have a big stretch of the neck and sometimes the hind legs when they stand up after sleeping so don’t worry if you notice this behavior. Horses are just like humans and love a good stretch in the morning!
So, as we’ve learned, horses can lay down and will lay down for a sleep when they feel safe. However, sometimes if a horse lays down for too long it may be unable to stand up. Laying down may also be a sign of ill-health, such as colic.
We’d love to hear about your experiences – have you ever seen your horse laying down? Or maybe you have a question about how horses sleep? Add a comment below this post and we’ll get back to you!
Kate Chalmers is a qualified veterinary nurse who has specialized in horse care for the vast majority of her career. She has been around horses since she was a child, starting out riding ponies and helping out at the local stables before going on to college to study Horse Care & Management. She has backed and trained many horses during her lifetime and competed in various equestrian sports at different levels.
After Kate qualified as a veterinary nurse, she provided nursing care to the patients of a large equine veterinary hospital for many years. She then went on to teach horse care and veterinary nursing at one of the top colleges in the country. This has led to an in-depth knowledge of the care needs of horses and their various medical ailments, as well as a life-long passion for educating horse owners on how to provide the best possible care for their four-legged friends.
Kate Chalmers BSc (Hons) CVN, Dip AVN (Equine) Dip HE CVN EVN VN A1 PGCE