Quite often, you will see horses lying down in their field. Some often panic that they may be in pain and unable to stand, but don’t panic until you really know why - what does it really mean?
Remember, like us, horses like to lie down when they go into deep sleep, when they are resting after exercise or when the are sick or injured.
Let’s take a closer look.
Your Horse May Be Sleeping
The most common reason why your horse may be lying down is that they are sleeping - this is completely normal. Horses sleep differently from humans – rather than sleeping for one longer period in a day, horses have many shorter and more discrete periods of sleep during this period of 24 hours. Some of this sleeping occurs while the horses are lying down on their side, while some sleep will be when the horse is standing upright. Younger horses tend to spend more time lying down and sleeping than older horses, but other factors such as feeding and turnout management can also influence how much time a horse spends sleeping while lying down.
Horses can sleep standing up because their legs can lock in place in both their front and back legs, meaning that they can rest and sleep without falling over. This is generally for lighter sleep rather than deep REM sleep. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep relaxes the muscles further while increasing brain activity, meaning that the horse needs to lie down while in this deeper sleep stage. During this sleep, horses are likely to be lying on their side, in a sternal position (lying on their chest) or leaning against something to help support their weight. However, it is important to note that horses do not spend too long in REM sleep in a day, estimated to be only around one hour each day, so if your horse is spending significantly longer than this on the ground, then there may be another cause of concern.
While you may only be concerned about your horse lying down, it is also important to check that they can for this short period reach that REM sleep level. This is because, without this deep sleep, they can begin to experience sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation in horses can lead to a number of further issues, including drowsiness and instability on their legs. Often, they will collapse to their knees and then wake back up with a jolt – this process can cause trauma to the fetlocks, hocks and other joints, leading to pain.
Your Horse May Be Suffering Physically, Sick or Injured.
If you notice that your horse is lying down for a long amount of time, even when they are not sleeping, then they may be in pain due to a physical condition.
One thing to look out for is if your horse is rolling around or pawing the ground when it is lying down. This is a sign that the horse may have colic, and you should consult your vet immediately as this condition can sometimes be fatal. Colic is a condition that occurs in the horse’s intestines that can be caused by it eating too much grain. There are also other causes such as a parasitic infection, lack of water or tainted food. It is important to try and get the horse walking if this is the case as this can relieve pressure on the intestines.
If a horse is lying down for excessive periods of time, it can also be a sign of musculoskeletal problems, particularly if the horse is struggling to get up off the ground or stand. This is generally not when only one single limb is affected but is usually when a condition impacts more than one limb, such as equine arthritis, laminitis or navicular. Look for lameness if this is the case and call your vet immediately.
Remember that you are not going to be in a position to monitor your horse 24/7 and in some cases horses may fall or slip when playing in their paddock and can sometimes create an injury.
Additionally, some neurological conditions that impact the brain can lead to a horse lying down as it can cause issues such as a lack of coordination or general weakness, meaning that a horse struggles to walk, stand or hold its weight. If this appears to be the case, and you notice your horse struggling to get up or not getting up at all, contact a vet for advice and a medical diagnosis.
Your Horse May Be Tired
While you may be worried about there being a physical cause to your horse lying down, it may simply be down to them feeling tired and needing to rest. If they have been running around their paddock or been taken on a long ride, they may just need some time to recover.
A key aspect of a sports horses daily routine, and ensuring they remain in tip-top condition, is their recovery program. Just with us, when they have pushed their muscular system within their activity their muscles need to relax - and the best way to help relax their muscles is to lie down.
Directly after exercise, horses may wish to cool down by gently walking or having a bath in some cool water and then taking time to relax - if there is enough space for them to do so. It is important that you provide your horse with a dry area to lie down after exercising.
Many owners understand the importance of their horses recovery after exercise and now adopt techniques such as using advanced magnetic bands and regular visits to a physiotherapist to aid this recovery process.
What Do You Do If Your Horse Is Stuck When Lying Down?
If your horse is lying on the ground and cannot get up, it is important to call a vet straight away to help work out what is wrong. Ideally, unless you have a lot of experience, it is best to leave them lying down at this stage as they are incredibly strong and large animals. If you are attempting to help the horse up, ensure that another person is there to help you.
Make sure that the horse is aware of your presence instead of sneaking up on it, as this will startle it. If you have contacted your vet, they may ask you to try and roll the horse over to its other side in order to take the pressure off the side it is lying on. This may also lead to your horse standing by itself.
Often, you can try and move parts of the horse’s body to help it get up but try to stay away from the back as this is where you are most likely to be injured if your horse does bolt, kicks its legs or suddenly get up.
If you notice that your horse is lying down more often than usual or for longer periods of time, it is important to monitor this situation to observe whether something may impact its health.
One of the best ways to do this is to record the horses movement as closely as possible for a 24-hour period to establish and identify any issues or patterns that may arise. The reality is that in most cases not one knows your horse better than you, thus you are best placed to recognise whether there is a cause for concern or not.
If you have any doubt about your horse’s health, it is important to get it checked out just to be safe. After all, the health of your horse is more important than the cost of a vet call out.