When you spot your horse lying down in his stall or paddock, alarm bells might start ringing. But hold your horses! While health issues can certainly cause this behavior, there are also plenty of completely normal reasons your horse might decide to lie down. In this article, we’ll help you discern between a well-deserved rest and a potential health concern.
Knowing What’s Normal for Your Horse
While horses can achieve slow-wave sleep standing up—some of their muscles, ligaments, and tendons have evolved to keep their legs “locked” in a standing position—they can’t reach REM (rapid eye movement) on their feet. And, while they don’t need as much REM sleep as other species, they must lie down to achieve it.
Try to observe how often and for how long your horse lies down to determine what’s normal for him.
If you notice he’s lying down more than normal, it’s a good idea to call your veterinarian for a physical exam and bloodwork. In most cases, this isn’t an emergency, so you can schedule an appointment in advance. (If, however, you find your horse down and he can’t get up or he’s rolling and thrashing violently, an emergency veterinary call is warranted—your horse could be suffering from a life-threatening issue. Read more on this below.)
Your veterinarian might not find anything wrong with your horse—he might just enjoy his rest. Or he could have a new or developing health condition that requires treatment, such as:
- A low-grade infection.
- Inflammation (throughout the body or in a specific area).
- Compromised organs.
- Heart problems.
- Neurologic deficits.
- Gastrointestinal issues, such as gastric ulcers (located in the stomach).
- Musculoskeletal pain and/or lameness.
- Early stage laminitis.
Once your veterinarian identifies an issue, he or she can guide you on what treatments will be best for your horse, what the outcome might be, and if you should change how you manage your horse day to day.
If you find yourself in an emergency situation, try to find someone to help you. Then, the most important thing to remember about dealing with a down horse is to keep yourself safe; you can’t get your horse the help he needs if you’ve suffered an injury in the process.
Once you’ve called your vet for help:
- Wear a helmet.
- Stay clear of the horse’s legs. If possible, approach him from his back, staying nearer to his head than his hind end.
- Never kneel or sit close to a down horse. Instead, squat to keep your legs underneath you in case you need to move quickly.
- If you can’t approach your horse safely—if he’s rolling violently, for example—don’t. Stay close and monitor him, but keep yourself out of harm’s way.
Experienced horse owners (usually a team of four or more), along with veterinarians and trained large animal emergency rescue personnel, can encourage horses to stand and help them to their feet in some scenarios. However, this can be very dangerous—to both the handler and the horse—if not done properly.
If you’re a horse owner and/or only have one or two extra sets of hands, the safest choice is to wait for your veterinarian to arrive to attempt to move the horse or help him stand. While you’re waiting:
- Do your best to keep the horse quiet. Talk to him calmly. Reduce the amount of commotion, noise, and activity around him. If he’s in a pasture, move other horses away; but if a best buddy helps him stay quiet, keep one nearby but not too close.
- Gather materials that can help protect the horse’s head against injury when he’s attempting to stand. This might be as simple as jackets, blankets, or saddle pads. Your vet might also have a specialized “helmet” to apply to your horse’s head.
- Keep track of your horse’s activities, surroundings, and clinical signs. Is he making any attempts to stand? Can you see anything that might suggest why he’s down, such as an obviously swollen or broken limb, muscle tremors, or slip marks in mud? Is he calm or anxious?
Once your veterinarian arrives, he or she can further evaluate the situation and determine the best course of action.
Understanding your horse’s behavior is an essential part of being a responsible owner. Remember, it’s completely normal for a horse to lie down from time to time—they need their beauty sleep too! But it’s also important to stay vigilant for any signs of discomfort or prolonged lying down, as these could indicate a health issue. If in doubt, always consult a veterinarian.