The horse is an animal that does not lie down very often, and it is rare to find it sleeping in bed. Indeed, because of its nature as a prey animal, it is always on the alert and ready to flee in case of threat. Sleeping in a prone position is reserved for times when it feels confident, as it cannot get up instantly. Several health problems can lead to the horse lying down repeatedly or for long periods of time. Finding the horse lying down in an unusual way is therefore a source of stress for the owner.
Why does the horse lay down ?
The horse can lie down to sleep if it is sufficiently confident. This is usually the case with horses that have been stabled for a long time. They are regularly observed lying down, often at the same times, after lunch or late at night. However, these periods of rest are often of short duration as the horse's body is not designed to withstand lying down for long periods.
Young horses lie down more easily, older horses less so, as it becomes more difficult to get up with age.
Lying down can also be a symptom of a medical problem :
Locomotor pain from standing
This is the case with laminitis, for example, where the support on the feet is very painful and the horse has difficulty finding a comfortable position. Severe lameness may also require periods of lying down to relieve the other three limbs of the horse.
Colic is characterised by acute abdominal pain. The horse is desperate for a position to relieve itself and will repeatedly lie down.
When the pain is quite dull, he may spend some time lying down calmly, whereas when it is intense, he will throw himself to the ground sometimes violently but stay there for a short time. He then tends to try to roll over or to lie down at full length.
An inability to get up
Sometimes it is possible to explain why your horse is lying down in unusual circumstances : the horse has been lying down to rest or has fallen down, but has not been able to get up.
Because of its weight, the horse is an animal that cannot stand lying down for long, especially if it remains on the same side.
Indeed, in lateral decubitus (side lying position), the organs and muscles located underneath are crushed and poorly vascularised. The muscles become tense, the joints ankylosed. The lung is compressed and fills with blood, making it ineffective. It becomes exhausted, has difficulty breathing and its transit slows down. The longer the horse is on the ground, the more difficult it will be to get up. Some old dismounted or arthritic horses no longer lie down because they know they may not be able to get up.
A horse suffering from an illness that exhausts the body will tend to lie down more regularly than usual. This is the case with a high fever (>39°C), or with severe anaemia for example.
How to react to a recumbent horse ?
Watch the horse
When faced with a horse that is lying "down" without any other particular sign, there is not necessarily any reason to be immediately concerned. However, every rider should make a note of it in the back of their mind and keep an eye on the horse and/or report it to the person in charge of the horse.
If the horse is lying down, or if it gets up and then lies down again quickly, or if it lies down at all, it is cause for concern.
Try to get him up
The first thing to do is to stimulate him to get up. At first, this can be as simple as calling him. If that doesn't work, put a halter on him and insist to see if he is unable or unwilling to stand up.
If the horse does not get up despite this => Call a veterinarian
Look for other symptoms
If the horse gets up after stimulation, it is important to understand why it has been lying down and does not want to get up.
One of the first basic steps is to take the temperature.
It should be below 38°C. If it is over 38.5°C, contact the vet.
Between 38 and 38.5°C, the temperature should be taken again later to find out whether or not there is a problem.
Then, the observation of the horse is essential.
If the horse lies down, does the flehmen, scratches the ground or looks at its flanks, it is likely to be colicky.
In case of signs of colic => Call the veterinary
He will be able to give you first aid instructions and arrange to come and see the horse depending on the intensity of the symptoms.
If the horse does not show signs of colic, take a few steps to check that it is moving normally. If the horse is limping or walking with difficulty, it is best to notify your vet. While waiting for your vet to visit, it is best to put the horse in a shelter or stall to prevent it from walking, on thick, comfortable bedding.
If there are no other abnormal symptoms, don't panic. Your horse may simply have been sleeping peacefully. At feeding time, you can give him a small ration to test his appetite. In the event of a confirmed drop in form, do not hesitate to contact your veterinarian to schedule a visit and perhaps a blood test.
When faced with a recumbent horse, an informed horseman should not panic and remain pragmatic. Observation of the horse's behaviour will be essential to know whether to contact the vet and to be able to give him the key information. If many illnesses can be reasons for the horse to lie down, it also has the right to take a nap in the sun. It is up to you to make the difference 😉 !