There are a few different reasons why a horse might lie down, the most common reason being to sleep. If a horse lies down it is not usually an immediate cause for concern. However if a horse lies down for a prolonged period or suddenly begins lying down more than normal then it may be a sign that they require some medical attention.
This is because excessive periods of lying down are unusual for a horse and can in itself lead to medical issues. If you are in any way worried about your horse lying down then you should contact a vet as soon as possible.
Reasons why a Horse Lies Down
To get REM Sleep
Horse typically stand when they snooze. This is because they possess a stay apparatus in both their front and hind limbs, which allows their legs to lock in place when they snooze. Horses evolved to have this trait as a way to remain constantly alert for predators when sleeping in the wild.
However, like humans horses also require a deeper state of sleep which is known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement). In order to get their much needed REM sleep a horse will lie down to allow all their muscles to relax which then allows them to enter this deeper sleep state. REM sleep is important for health and physical recovery. A horse who does not get their REM might exhibit signs of sleep deprivation. Typically a horse will get 1-2 hours of REM sleep per day and may achieve it in different periods throughout the day.
They are Relaxing
Some horses may choose to lie down to relax for a period of time. This is often done in a familiar environment such as a field that they usually spend time in. On a warm summer day it is not unusual to see a number of horse all lying down at the same time (in most cases they will be having a nap).
Musculoskeletal pain refers to pain in muscles, ligaments, tendons, or nerves. Severe musculoskeletal pain may be sufficient to make a horse lie down in some cases. Single leg lameness or a mild musculoskeletal injury is unlikely to cause a horse to lie down for an extended period so if you think the horse is lying down because they are sore you should call a vet immediately.
A severe case of laminitis may also result in a horse choosing to lie down and be reluctant to get back up. If this is the case the injury/pain will be clearly evident when they walk or move.
Colic and other Issues
A horse may also choose to lie down as a result of discomfort from a gastrointestinal issue such as colic. Horses who have colic usually tend to roll, paw the ground, and appear visibly distressed. However depending on the type of colic and the level of pain and their overall condition some horses choose to just lie down.
If there is no visible musculoskeletal issue you should continue to observe the horse closely for signs of illness and contact your vet immediately for an full examination.
Commonly Asked Questions Questions
Can horses die if they lay down?
It is perfectly normal for a horse to lie down but there is a risk of equine fatality if a horse lies down for an excessive period. Due to their size horses need to be upright to allow sufficient blood flow to their organs and limbs. If they lie down for too long then their body weight will put significant pressure on on blood vessels which can eventually lead to organ failure.
How long can a horse lay down safely?
This is hard to say and depends on the horse. A fit horse may regularly lie for a few hours at a time to relax or get some sleep. As a rule of thumb anything more than a couple of hours or excessive lying down or lying down that is not consistent with their normal routine should be cause for concern.
If you think a horse is lying down for too long you should closely observe the horse for any signs of illness or discomfort.
Why would a horse lay down while riding?
There may be a number of reasons why a horse chooses to lie down when under saddle. One reason could be that they want to roll. Rolling is a natural behavior which sometimes horses will do to reach an itch but it can also be a learned behavior to unseat a rider. If this happens be sure never to unintentionally reward them. If a horse begins pawing the ground this may be a sign that they are planning to roll.
A horse may also choose to lie down if in physical pain or discomfort, even when they are under saddle. This behavior is rare and you would expect to see signs of such illness/discomfort before mounting.
How many times a day does a horse lay down?
This depends on the horse, their routine, their environment, and most importantly their reason for lying down. For example a horse in the field in summer may choose to lie down several times during the day to catch a nap. However a horse that is in lots of pain with bad colic may lie down in their stall for most of the day. As mentioned above it is important to understand the reason for lying down.