Horses are one of the few creatures on earth with very unique sleeping habits. Horses can rest or nod off in a standing position by locking their legs into place.
During deeper sleep periods horses tend to lay down especially during REM sleep which requires horses to lie down on their side.
Some people may panic when horses lay down as it can sometimes be warning signs that the horse is in pain and trying to get off their feet. Other times can signal other illnesses like colic [Source].
Before you go running to the phone to call your vet, here are some things to know so you don’t panic every time you find your horse flat out on their side in their stall.
1. Foals Lay Out Often
Foals (baby horses) tend to spend a lot of their time flat on their sides – known as a lateral recumbent position [Source].
Besides naturally requiring more sleep per day (averaging 12 hours) foals have the extra comfort of mom to keep them safe. Horses are naturally a prey animal, and laying flat on their sides is a pretty vulnerable position.
By the time they are awoken and scramble to their feet to run away, it may already be too little, too late. Having mom near by gives foals a sense that they are being protected and that they are safe to really lay out and get some shut eye.
2. You Should Be Concerned If Your Horse Isn’t Laying Down (EVER)
Horses must lay down in order to achieve deep or REM sleep.
Sometimes horses don’t lay flat completely on their side, and instead stay some what upright laying down on their bellies with their legs curled in. They can still get good shut eye but resting their neck and head up against a wall, a large piles of shavings, or a stump or tree outside.
When horses are not sleeping well or deeply, they can start to unexpectedly dose off while they are standing upright. This type of sleep deprivation can be dangerous and the horses body will not lock into place appropriately and horses can buckle on themselves or even collapse [Source].
3. Horses Can Get Stuck Lying Down
Yes you read this right, horses can get stuck a term called “cast”. This usually happens inside an enclosed area or up against a fence.
This can happen when the horse has decided to lay down a little close to an object or perhaps was rolling around the their feet ended up very close to a wall or fence.
In order for horses to get up they need to have enough room to roll onto their stomachs and unfold their legs out on front of them and rock forward. Unfortunately, not being able to get to their feet can cause horses to panic and potentially harm themselves.
4. Horses May or May Not Lay Down With Their Herd
Some horses feel security with their herd and feel less vulnerable to lay down flat out and take a snooze.
There also may be more room for them versus in their stall, or the ground may be softer and more to their liking. If you find that your horse isn’t wanting to lay down inside, and only lays down outside – you may want to update their indoor living arrangements.
If your horse isn’t wanting to lay down outside, there could be different factors in play. If they are outside with a herd, it’s possible that they are being picked on by the pack leader.
Laying down causes them to be quite vulnerable, so they may want to remain on their feet to be prepared to defend themselves.
The conditions outside are also variable and it’s possible that the ground is too hard or too wet for your horse to get comfortable.
If this tends to be the case, having some type of shelter or covered area may be helpful to have an ideal spot for your horse to relax completely. [Source]
5. Snoring Is Most Likely a Good Sign- But Not Always
Like humans, some horses snore when they sleep.
This shouldn’t be overly concerning, and it may simply mean your horse is in a deep sleep. You may hear them snore, grunt or even nicker in their sleep.
However, if you find your horse is snoring unusually loud (more than normal) or they sound like they are having difficulty breathing – this should be a warning sign for you that something isn’t right.
Some horses may suffer from respiratory illness or genetic conditions that make sleeping flat harder for them to breathe correctly. If you have any concern about your horses breathing patterns while they are sleeping on their sides, consult your veterinarian.
6. Your Horse Should Be Able To Get Up Easily
Horses are quite large and it can seem like some effort for them to get to their feet.
In actuality, horses should be able to quickly rise to their feet. Naturally they need to be able to quickly rise and run from a predator in the wild if they need to. Obviously some horses may take their time in an environment where there are no obvious threats.
If you find your horse takes a long time to get up, seems unsteady when rising, or seems to be uncomfortable – you should consult a veterinarian. These could be warning signs of musculoskeletal or neurological issues.
Some horses that are older with arthritis may have a slower time getting up as well, but they should be able to get to their feet without assistance. If your horse cannot get up on their own, you need to call your vet immediately, and it should be all hands on deck to get them to their feet safely [Source].
7. Horses Can Lay Down For Too Long
Horses usually collectively get an average of 3-4 hours of sleep in one 24 hour period of time.
Their sleep is usually broken up into small increments which can be accomplished standing in a locked position, laying down on their bellies, or laying out on their side.
There’s no concrete rule for the amount of time a horse can be down for, but it seems like most agree with information adopted by the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine – which puts the cap around the 2 hour mark [Source]. It’s then that there is a significant risk of your horse’s own body weight restricting blood flow to their vital organs.
8. Resist The Urge To Cuddle With Your Sleeping Horse
We have all done it, we finally catch our horse fast asleep in the evening hours when the barn is quiet and calm. You carefully open the stable door and try to tip toe in to catch an adorable photo of your sleeping beauty.
As much as we want to capture these moments, please refrain. This may have been the first time all day your horse felt like he could lay down and sleep deeply. You may startle him out of his deep sleep and you could be injured as your horse scrambles to his feet. This may also discourage him from laying down in his stall due to fear of being suddenly awoken in the future.
9. Just Because You Don’t Catch Them Lying Down, Doesn’t Mean They Don’t
Some horses will only lay down in the dead of night when no one is around. You may never see your horse laying down as they may chose the ripe hour of 3 AM to do so.
If you’re concerned your horse isn’t getting deep sleep and laying down, you could opt to set up a 24 hour surveillance on their stall and see what their nightly sleep habits look like – just make sure the camera can pick them up in the dark! [Source]
Sleep is a vital piece of your horse’s health, and you should take it just as seriously as their training and nutrition. So next time your horse is flat out dreaming of stud muffins, be thankful you’ve created a safe place for them to get some well deserved rest, and leave them to it!
Horses Can’t Lie Down for Long. College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences. (n.d.). https://aces.illinois.edu/news/horses-cant-lie-down-long.
How Much Sleep Do Horses Need. Equi Supermarket. (n.d.). https://www.equisupermarket.co.uk/s/how-much-sleep-do-horses-need.
Psychological Well-being For Elite Performance Horses. Horse Sport. (2018, June 4). https://horsesport.com/magazine/health/equitable-arrangements/.
Why Does a Horse Lie Down? The Horse. (2020, January 2). https://thehorse.com/149645/why-does-a-horse-lie-down/.