Horses can’t lie down for too long

horses eating hay
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

URBANA, Ill. — It’s something you wouldn’t believe could happen unless you saw it. You walk out to the barn in the morning and start to panic when you realize your horse has cast itself.

Somehow, someway, your horse has managed to lie up against a wall and is unable to get its feet underneath it to stand up.

But, why?

Most horse owners know their equine companions can’t lie down for long, but exactly why that is remains a mystery to many.

“The longer they are down, the more prone they are to reperfusion injury,” said Elysia Schaefer, an equine surgery resident at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

Reperfusion injury can happen because horses are such large animals and the weight of their body in and of itself can prevent blood flow to certain locations. This can cause severe problems when they try to stand up again, and blood flow tries to return to normal.

Time is critical.

Because Schaefer frequently deals with equine patients that must remain on their backs for an extended period of time during surgery, she knows time is of the essence in the operating room.

While surgeries in smaller patients, including humans, may go on for countless hours, equine surgeons usually have a window of about three hours to get the job done.

“After surgery, we usually give them around one to two hours in the recovery stall and let them try and stand on their own,” explains Schaefer.

At the Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, the large animal surgery recovery room is covered from wall to wall with soft blue pads, and the floor is an inflatable mattress to better comfort patients coming out of anesthesia.

Several issues

Whether a horse is down because of surgery or it has cast itself in a stall, there are several problems that can occur.

Besides reperfusion injury, muscles on the down side of the animal, as well as nerves, can become damaged from excessive pressure.

Also, the “down” lung of the horse may cause trouble as excess blood pools there due to gravity.
Horses with neurological diseases are occasionally referred to the teaching hospital for intensive care.

In some of these cases, the animal cannot stand.

“With neurological cases where the patient is down, we are very careful to go in and flip them every few hours,” said Schaefer.

Although an equine surgeon worries about several issues if their patient were to be on one side for a long time, horses can get bedsores just like humans, too.

Sooner the better

While there is no hard and fast rule about how long a horse can be down before permanent damages ensue, the sooner you can get them up the better.

Some owners think it is beneficial to pile wood shavings at least 2 feet high around the perimeter of the stall to prevent casting. However, that isn’t fool proof.

If your horse has been down for a long period of time, or it is has cast itself and you are concerned with its health, call your veterinarian.

Be careful

Some horses may be very scared if they can’t get up on their own, so use extreme caution if you try to move them.


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  1. Hi, my friend has a horse. The horse was fit the one day and the next she just was laying there. She became very skinny in a matter of hours, and she is just laying there. Its not colic, we did check, and there is no bite marks or fever, she just picks up her head like two inches and drops it again, then thrashes a bit then nothing. The vet doesn’t know and we are looking for all possible answers to help poor Muds (its the horses name)

  2. @andries well, I’m no vet but maybe that horse gas epilepsy which means they have constant sezuires I don’t think it would happen in a day however. If the horse is around other animals it could have Mad Cow disease which attacks the brain until it dies. It may be a fluke though too hard to say…. remember flys carry diseases too. I sounds nowt lune diabetes though in which case Muds will have to be on incilun shots the rest of its life… but Luke I said I’m not vet that’s just what it sounds like to me

  3. This is not true, all the horses at my barn lay down when they sleep and they are not sick, they didn’t die or anything. This is a myth and do not fall for it. Horses have surgeries and they have to lay down for it and they aren’t dead. So don’t fall for it and this is a myth.

    • No one’s saying they can’t lay down. They have to. They need it. It’s how they get the REM sleep they need. What it’s saying is that laying down for too long is dangerous. Some horses will lay down for a few hours, but when a horse is stuck and can’t get up or is in intensive care and cannot stand on its own, there is a real risk of life threatening issues. They are a half ton animal. That’s a lot of weight organs aren’t meant to deal with.

    • Sophie, I think you should learn about the dangers concerning horses that lay down for too long. This is not a myth. Do not fool yourself and have the horses pay the price of your lack of knowledge.

  4. People it is not a myth horses can not lay down but a few seconds. If u see ur horse laying down get them up because they will lay there and die.

    • I know this is a year and a half late, but I feel it is important for the health of your horses for you to know that horses HAVE to lay down to get proper sleep. Prey animals are designed to spend most of their time on their feet and they need little sleep, but they DO need sleep. The reason they don’t need much sleep comes from eons of being food for everything else. A sleeping animal is a vulnerable animal.

      However, horses need a couple of hours of REM sleep and they can’t get that from their standing catnaps. A healthy horse will absolutely not lay there and die any more than a human will. Just like us, they get uncomfortable after a while and will get up on their own. By rushing in and getting them up, you are literally depriving them of something their body absolutely needs in order to function at its best. Horses have been horses in their current form for many thousands of years. If every horse that laid down just let itself die, the species would have gone extinct a long time ago.

      • I know for a 100% fact that my horses lay down every day and take good naps. One watches guard while the other sleeps. They have been doing this for 20 years. Not dead yet! One only takes 3o min naps and the older one takes more naps and up to over an hour at times. I agree if your hose stays down for hours and hours it’s not going to be good and that means something is wrong—time to call your vet. I would call my vet after 3 hours but my horses are getting old. If you have younger healthy horses they may still be fine. If you love and care for your horses like I do you will know when it’s not right

      • Of course Horses have to lay down. However, laying down too long can cause serious internal injuries. They are just too heavy. That puts a lot of pressure on their organs, and while they can lay down for more than a couple hours, too much longer and the organs can get damaged, much like what happens with Whales or Dolphins when they beach themselves. Their bodies are too large to support without some adjustments, one of which is relatively short sleep. Horses don`t sleep as long as you would expect, but themselves may not always recognize the dangers of laying down too long.

    • horses can lie down for at least two or three hours for rem sleep my horse does most days she’s twenty five years old now and in great health so that s a myth

  5. Back in 2011 I had a mare with a 3 month old colt all my horses lay down every night but they sit up and lay down well this mare got her two back feet under the round bale holder when I looked at the window that morning I said why is my horse bending her neck like that and what had happened was she froze while try n to get up and was hard as a rock so it’s not a myth I have never seen my horses lay down longer than a hour with out sitting up

  6. My horses are each have own sleep pattern one can sleep 10 hrs then get up another lay down all day then get up dune that 14yrs .nothing wrong there just stupid vet said only 6hrs horse they will die .that is load of shit i told him .

  7. Horses can lie down but if they lie down for too long it can very easily turn into a life or death situation, I’ve seen this first hand I used to live at one of the very many carriage companies and seen it over and over again seen two horses first hand die from lying down too long and they are unable to get back up so no SIR it’s not a MYTH one day those horses you got that lay down will not be able to get back up and when that day comes call every resource you can to help police, firefighters, the whole 9yard cause yes it is a life or death emergency!


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