Why Does a Horse Lie Down?

Find out about equine sleep patterns from an equine behavior expert, and learn how to tell if the amount of time your horse spends lying down is normal.

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Why Does a Horse Lie Down?
Lying down behavior in horses is a completely normal part of sleep. We also know that foals spend more time recumbent and that gradually decreases as they age. | Photo: Photos.com

Q. Why do horses lie down?

A. Lying down behavior in horses is a completely normal part of sleep. Horses are polyphasic sleepers, which means they have multiple, discrete sleep episodes in a 24-hour period. Time budgets show that horses spend one to three hours (adding up all sleep episodes) in a 24 hour period lying down, in both sternal (upright) and lateral (flat on side) recumbency. Differences are seen according to feeding and turnout management (horses tend to lie down less in constant turnout). We also know that foals spend more time recumbent and that gradually decreases as they age.

A horse can rest or doze in a standing position because of the stay apparatus in both the front and hind limbs, which allows their legs to “lock” in place. Horses lie down during deeper sleep states. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep absolutely requires a horse to lie down. During REM sleep, while brain activity is actually increased, muscle tone is greatly diminished. Because of this loss of muscle tone, REM sleep in horses only occurs during lateral recumbency, or when a horse can lie in sternal and lean heavily against something. Horses spend only about a total of an hour in REM sleep over a 24 hour period

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Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

One Response

  1. I want to know if old horses spend more time laying down and if so what this might signify. For about the last year I have noticed that on nice days, mid to late morning, my almost 32 year old retired QH lies down for a much longer period of time than I believe he used to–possibly an hour or more, I’m guessing he lays down at night or when I’m not observing him due to the mud on him. He and my other horse have 24 hour access to a stall (the stalls and paddocks are adjacent but I’m not aware that either one of them lays down in the stall. I stopped putting shavings in the stall for bedding because he never had shavings on him, just mud, He has no problem ever getting up.

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