Is it Dangerous for Horses to Lay Down for Too Long?
Horses do not spend a large percentage of their time lying down, even while asleep. Lying down for longer than a short nap can be a serious cause for concern for a horse owner. In this article, I’ll share things you need to know about horses lying down, health concerns, and how to recognize if something is wrong.
How long can horses lay down? There is no concrete answer to this question, as some horses spend more time in a recumbent position than others. It is important to be familiar with your horse’s general napping habits so that you know when there is an occurrence out of the ordinary. Generally, a horse will spend 20-30 minutes at a time napping in a laying position, but it’s not unheard of for horses to stay down for 1 – 2 hours.
Horses are large animals, and lying down for extended periods can cause unnecessary stress on their body and organs. Some horses may be lying down for longer times because they are sick or their feet are in pain. Another reason is that they may get stuck lying down and they aren’t able to get up. This is often seen in older horses. To learn more about what to look for and expect, keep reading!
How Long Can a Horse Safely Lie Down?
Most horses take only short naps in a recumbent position, staying down for approximately thirty minutes at a time. That said, it is not abnormal for a horse – especially an older horse – to spend up to two hours in this position before rising to graze. If your horse is spending more than a few hours in a recumbent position and is not alert when approached, call your veterinarian immediately. A horse that has been down for 24 hours or more has a very poor prognosis.
Why Can’t Horses Lie Down for Longer Periods of Time?
Horses cannot lie down for too long because they are so heavy. The same is true for other large animals; elephants also cannot spend much time in a recumbent position. Here are some of the more common complications that can arise when a horse is lying down and a thousand pounds of weight is pressing down on its organs:
- Pneumonia – when a horse is lying down, a significant amount of weight presses on the lungs, preventing them from fully inflating with each inhale. This leads to fluid and bacteria becoming trapped in the lungs which can quickly lead to pneumonia.
- Decreased heart function – all of that extra weight will also press onto the heart, decreasing heart function and blood flow.
- Decreased kidney function – blood flow restriction will quickly affect the function of the horse’s kidneys.
- Colic – due to pressure on the intestines, gas will become trapped, leading to an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous bout of colic.
- Pressure sores – the weight of the horse can cause pressure sores on the skin, leading to infection.
- Exposure to the elements – if a horse is down, he can quickly become hypothermic in very cold weather, or experience heat exhaustion in very hot weather.
Health Conditions That May Cause a Horse to Lie Down
Horses sleep while both standing up and lying down, but only in the recumbent position can they enter into the very important REM sleep. While they must lie down to enter into this deep sleep, they won’t stay down long because of the detrimental effects the recumbent position can have on their bodies. If a horse is spending an excessive amount of time off of all fours, he may be experiencing one of the following:
- ColicIllness – a horse with a serious illness, especially when experiencing neurological symptoms, may go down.
- Injury – a horse cannot walk on three legs alone, so if he has suffered a fracture or severe laminitis he may be unable to stand.
- Malnourishment – extreme malnourishment can lead to a lack of energy needed to stay upright.
- Heat exhaustion – severe heat exhaustion can cause a horse to go down.
- Poor footing – if a horse is unable to get his footing, such as on slippery ice, he will be unable to stand upright.
- Sore hooves – I’ve seen horses dealing with a hoof abscess or laminitis lay down more than usual to alleviate their sore feet from the pressure of standing.
There was a UC Davis study done where researchers investigated the records of 148 horses that had been treated over 15 years for becoming recumbent either at home or after they reached the clinic. Of the horses studied, 119 (or about 80%) had a neurological disease and 18 had musculoskeletal problems. Only 27% of the 148 horses survived long enough to be discharged. Those horses who went down for musculoskeletal issues had a higher chance of survival than those with an illness, whether neurological or otherwise.
How to Get a Downed Horse Back on His Feet
If your horse has been off of his feet for longer than a typical nap, you will want to try to get him up. Start with the least intrusive methods and proceed from there.
If a horse is stuck on his back with his legs against a building or a fence, he is “cast”. In this case, you will want to – carefully – try to help him roll by either using ropes on the feet closest to the obstruction or by pulling his mane and tail. Seek help with this, and be very careful to stay out of the way of his limbs and head. A stuck horse will move very quickly once he is free.
If your horse isn’t cast, then you will use his natural tendency to startle to your advantage. Clap and speak loudly to your horse as you approach him. If he doesn’t begin to rise, give him a slap on the rear. Ideally, you would have put his halter on him by this point, and if he rolls onto his chest, start pulling the lead rope from side to side as you pull toward you. Often, this is all that is needed to get a horse back on his feet; how he acts and moves once he is up will tell you a lot about what may have caused him to go down, and you can relay this information to your vet.
If you are still unable to get your horse to rise, you will want to get your vet out as soon as possible. There are various tutorials on how to physically roll your horse using the help of a couple of friends, but you will want to proceed very cautiously if attempting this and will ideally call someone with experience in the matter. Allowing yourself to become injured will be of no help to your horse.
Can You Put a Sling On a Horse to Help Them Get Up?
Slings can be useful, however, they are not always the answer. A horse can panic when put into a sling, potentially causing himself and those around him injury. A horse can also allow the sling to hold his entire weight, which will lead to just as much, if not more, lung compression than if he had remained lying down.
That said, slings have their place, and your veterinarian will be able to recommend whether or not to use them. In the UC Davis study cited above, horses that had been placed in a sling were slightly more likely to survive than those who were not.
How do Horses Sleep?
Horses are one of the few animals that can sleep while standing up. This is due to the “stay apparatus,” a collection of muscles, tendons, and ligaments that work together to allow an animal to remain upright during sleep. This stay apparatus allows the ligaments in the front legs to act as tension bands, which stabilize the joints. In the hind limbs, the medial patellar ligament locks the kneecap in place and prevents flexion in both the stifle and the hock. Together, this allows the horse to bear its weight while sleeping without using any muscle.
Horses do need to spend a percentage of their total sleep in a recumbent position; lying down is the only way a horse can get the restorative REM sleep that is required every day. Horses require about six hours of sleep per 24-hour period. Typically, 20-25% of sleep is spent in the REM stage, so while a majority of a horse’s sleep can be spent in an upright position, about a quarter of that nap time needs to be spent lying down.
Horses Need to Lie Down, But Not Too Much
When walking out to the pasture, it’s a common sight to see my horse grazing, rolling, or taking a standing snooze. I’ll admit that I do a double-take when walking out and seeing my horse lying on its side without moving. I always have to go check and make sure they are alright. I one time walked outside to see my horse lying down with his legs thrashing. While this can be a sign of a medical emergency, luckily my horse was just having a dream.
This is one reason it is so important to be familiar with your horse’s general habits. Most injuries and illnesses will be noticed by an owner familiar with their horse’s normal behavior before serious complications ever have a chance to occur.
If you’re looking for something fun to try with your horse, you can teach them to lie down! To get a step-by-step tutorial on how to do this, check out my article How to Teach a Horse to Lay Down: Step-by-Step Guide.