Last Updated on March 28, 2023
Have you ever seen a horse lying down on the side and wondered if it is OK? It is so rare to see horses lying down that it can make you worried! So, what does it mean if a horse lays down, & do horses lay on their side?
Horses are not like humans and do not lie down very often. They also have very different sleep patterns to us, and you’ll be surprised to find out when and how horses get their sleep. Let’s find out everything you need to know about horses laying down!
Do Horses Lay On Their Side? And is It a Problem?
Most of the time, your horse will be laying down on his side because he is asleep. Obviously, if your horse is taking a nap then this is nothing to worry about, but can a horse lying down on the side indicate that there is a problem?
There are some situations when a horse lying down on its side is a cause for concern. However, most of the time your horse is probably just getting some sleep! It is important to know how to tell the difference so you can decide if your horse is having difficulties.
A horse that is laying down asleep will appear calm and relaxed. His eyes will be closed or half-closed, and his ears will be relaxed. He may gently flick his ears when he hears a sound, and swish his tail at flies.
Sleeping horses will have a deep and regular breathing pattern, and may occasionally take a deep breath or let out a big sigh.
If you are in any doubt whether your horse is asleep or if he is ill, the best way to find out is to try and wake him up! Give him a shout or rattle a feed bucket, and he should lift his head or stand up. If he does not respond or seems uninterested, it is a good idea to take a closer look.
However, you don’t want to wake your horse every time he sleeps! So, it is important to learn to recognize when a horse is asleep, so he can sleep undisturbed.
The best way to do this is to learn what is normal behavior for your horse. Many horses will lie down in a group out in the paddock. Others will always lie down at a certain time of day in the stable or barn.
Why Do Horses Lay Down on Their Side?
Horses are famous for their ability to sleep standing up. They can ‘lock’ their legs into a standing position, enabling them to catch a quick nap without laying down.
There are two types of sleep that horses need. The type of sleep horses gets while standing is called ‘slow-wave sleep’ (SWS). This is a shallow sleep from which the horse can quickly awaken.
However, horses also need a short period of ‘rapid eye movement’ (REM) sleep every day. This is a period of deep sleep, and it can only be achieved if the horse is lying down.
Do horses lay down to sleep?
Much of the time, a horse will lie down to sleep in a position called sternal recumbency. This is where they lay in a semi-upright position, with their legs tucked underneath them. They can go into a deep sleep in this position.
However, the most comfortable position for deep sleep is when they are laid down on their side. This shows that the horse is perfectly relaxed, and getting the best possible deep sleep.
When Do Horses Lay on Their Side?
Horses sleep for a minimum of 3 to 5 hours per day. However, the majority of horses sleep for much longer than this.
Most of the time horses are asleep they do this in a standing position. They require a minimum of just 30 minutes of REM sleep each day.
Horses will mainly sleep overnight, with the bulk of their sleep occurring between the hours of 8 pm to 5 am. Most of the SWS and REM sleep will normally happen in the middle of the night, between 12 am and 4 am.
During the day, horses will take much shorter naps. These are sometimes for just a few minutes at a time.
So, your horse may only lie down for around half an hour, and this could be in the middle of the night! This is why many horse owners never see their horses laid down.
When is a Horse Lying on the Side a Bad Thing?
Sometimes laying on their side is a sign of sickness or ill health in horses. One of the main concerns is that the horse may have colic.
Most horse owners are aware that a horse with colic will roll around. However, some horses with colic may lie down quietly, stretched out on their side.
If you are concerned that your horse could have colic, look for other signs of abnormal behavior. Has your horse eaten his feed and drunk some water? Is he passing normal droppings?
If you suspect that your horse might have colic always contact your veterinarian straight away. Colic is a medical emergency and your horse will need assessment as soon as possible.
Horses might also lie down to gain some comfort from aches and pains of the bones, joints, and muscles. Check for any other symptoms that your horse might be in pain. This may include heat or swelling in a leg, lameness, or increased pulses to the hooves.
If you think your horse is laying down due to musculoskeletal pain, watch how easily he stands up. Look for signs such as stiffness, lameness, or difficulty in standing. Again, contact your veterinary clinic if you have any concerns.
Do Horses Lay Down During The Day?
Some horses will never lay down during the day, while others will quite often take a daytime nap. It is very common to see horses that live in a herd laying down during the day. Most of the horses will lie down at the same time, and one or two remain standing to watch for danger. This is similar to how horses in the wild will behave.
Whether a horse chooses to lay during the day will depend on how safe and secure it is feeling. A horse will not lie down if it feels in any danger. Many horses living in a barn will lie down during the day for a short sleep, while horses living out in a field may be more likely to choose to sleep standing up.
Why Can’t Horses Lay Down? Is This Truth?
Many people think that horses cannot lie down, but this is a myth! Horses are perfectly capable of laying down, and they will lie down to sleep for short periods, normally at night.
The reason that some people mistakenly believe that horses cannot lie down is that horses do most of their sleeping while standing up. They can lock their legs into a standing position, preventing them from falling over when they do fall asleep.
However, all horses will need to lie down at some point, as this is when they go into a deep sleep. This might only be for a short period in the middle of the night. As a prey animal, horses tend to avoid laying down, as this is when they are most vulnerable to predators.
How to get your horse to lie down
Whether a horse chooses to lie down to sleep or not is their own decision, and there is little you can do to influence this. All you can do is provide your horse with a safe and secure place to live, with a comfortable bed to lie on and a peaceful, tranquil atmosphere.
If you are not sure if your horse lies down or not, a night camera in the barn can be a good way to check on what happens when you are not there. Your horse may be getting much more sleep than you suspected!
Can you teach a horse to lie down?
Horses are fast learners and will enjoy learning new tricks. However, teaching a horse to lie down is a very advanced skill, so you may need to master some more basic tricks first!
Teaching horse tricks requires a good level of groundwork training – your horse needs to understand the aids and commands you are giving him. A horse cannot be forced to lie down, so you need to work up to this step by step using other commands and movements.
Before teaching a horse to lie down, think about whether this is a good idea or not. It may seem like fun to have a horse that lies down on command, but these are large animals and can injure themselves or other people should they lie down unexpectedly!
As we have learned, horses require very little sleep compared to humans, and may only sleep for 3 to 5 hours per day. Most of this sleep will be done standing up, but the horse will lie down to sleep if it feels safe. A horse laying on its side may just be asleep, or it may be unwell or injured.
We’d love to hear about your experiences – does your horse or pony often lay down to sleep? Or maybe you have never seen your horse laying down? 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