Sleepy Time… But How Long?
If you’ve spent time watching horses in a pasture, you’ve probably noticed that most of their time is spent standing. Granted, they may lay down for brief periods on a lazy summer afternoon, but they are up on all four legs for the most part.
Although it may seem strange that horses spend most of their lives on their feet, there are very practical reasons for doing so. Keep reading to learn about a horse’s sleeping patterns and why laying down for too long can be dangerous for horses.
Equine Behavior: The Basics
Horses are prey animals, meaning they have been vulnerable to predators for centuries. Their survival depended upon their ability to remain alert and completely aware of their surroundings.
It takes time for a horse to rise to a standing position and appropriately respond to a potential predator threat. This is one of the reasons why you don’t often see horses lying down.
By spending minimal time in a vulnerable position, horses have avoided being killed off by predators throughout the ages.
Their sheer size is another reason you don’t see healthy horses laying down for long periods.
From a physiologic perspective, horses are enormous animals. Their bodies simply can’t tolerate the pressure exerted when laying down for more extended periods. The pressure cuts off blood flow to tissue, muscle, and organs, which leads to severe damage.
Why Horses Lay Down
Horses lay down to either rest or get brief periods of deep sleep.They also may lay down because they are sick or in pain.
How long can a horse lay down safely?
It varies by horse. A horse needs at least 30 minutes to lay down to fulfill its daily deep sleep needs.
Remember that this time is spread out over 24 hours and may not be consecutive.
Equine Behavior: Sleeping
A horse’s sleeping habits reflect its status as a prey animal.
Most of their daily sleep needs are met by napping in the upright position.
Their sleep does not consist of one long stretch like a human’s. The sleeping pattern is instead dispersed during the day and night, with most sleep being light sleep obtained while standing.
By sleeping in this way, a horse can be ready to quickly respond to possible predators by fleeing.
Although most of their sleep is light, horses require a certain amount of deep sleep daily. Without it, they can develop emotional or physical problems. Therefore, horses in a herd situation take turns keeping watch for predators.
This ensures that all the horses in the herd get the sleep they need to function optimally.
Do horses sleep standing up?
A horse’s sleep cycle consists of both a lighter and deeper sleep.
The lighter phase is obtained while standing up, while the deeper stage must be done while laying down.
How long does a horse need to sleep each day?
In total, horses spend around 5-7 hours per day in various sleep states.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How long can a horse lay down before it dies?
The exact amount of time varies. In general, equine surgeons cap surgeries to a maximum of 3 hours in length. The time frame is the same for horses not undergoing surgery.
Any longer and the horse can suffer potentially irreversible damage to tissue, muscles, and organs.
Q: Do horses die if they lay down?
A horse can sustain serious and potentially irreversible damage by lying down for more extended periods. Laying down too long can cut off circulation and cause skin ulcers, or even muscle damage and eventual kidney failure.
Sometimes horses lay down and get stuck in a position that prevents them from getting up again—which is called getting cast.
This is a dangerous situation for the horse and you because the horse can suddenly strike out, causing injury. If your horse is stuck, you should immediately consult your vet to evaluate the situation.
Some horses enjoy sleeping a bit more than others. Pinto, the internet-famous horse, just might fall into the “lazy” category!
Although horses spend most of their time standing, they spend a period of each day laying. Sometimes they lay as a way to relax and catch some much-needed shut-eye. And sometimes they lay down because they are sick. Learning about normal behavior for your horse helps you identify warning signs and get the help your horse needs early.
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University of Illinois: Department of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences