The Flat-Foal Modality

No horses were harmed in the making of this post.

The young gentleman here is not dead, and he’s not hurt. He’s taking a nap. The mask on his face is made of screening; he can see through it, and it shields his eyes from the sun, but flies can’t get in. He’s a happy guy, or he wouldn’t be flopped out flat in the middle of his turnout; he’d be up and on the alert against whatever predator has placed an order of coltburger for lunch.

Yep: Horses lie down to sleep. Not for long, maybe ten or fifteen minutes at a time on the average, and generally for a total of 30-45 minutes a day at most, but they do have a period every day when they need to get off their feet. When they do that, they can look alarmingly like dead horses, until you see the slight intake of breath or the tilt of an ear. Sometimes, like dogs, they’ll run in their dreams; or they’ll lie so still that the neighbors will come running to report that your horse has died.

A horse cannot, be it noted, lie on his back for more than a few minutes. He may roll briefly onto his back, but he’ll do his best not to spend too long at it, because when a horse is upside down, the weight of his organs can suffocate him. A horse is constructed to carry his innards slung from his spine like a pole. Flip him onto his back and none of it works the way it should. This is why, when a horse is caught or cast up against a wall or in a hole or ditch, it’s literally a matter of life or death to get him right side up.

Horses sleep standing up considerably more often and for longer than they sleep lying down. Their knees lock to keep them from toppling over; one hindleg may go slack, which is a sign of relaxation and/or need to rest some part of that leg’s structure. You can, with some study, tell if it’s the hock, stifle, or hip that’s being rested, and judge from that whether the horse is just hanging out or has a physical issue.

A really relaxed horse will stand with his neck horizontal or slightly canted downward, his ears flopped, and his lower lip hanging. It’s very funny when the horse is a finely bred animal of proud and spirited disposition, and you see him basking in the sun like an old plow horse. But give him the right signal and he’s instantly awake and in motion–bolting away from the possible threat. He is a prey animal, after all, and he’s wired to run first and ask questions later.

Older horses sleep as little as two to three hours a day. Babies and young horses spend much more time horizontal–the littlest ones will get up, nurse, bounce around, then fling themselves flat in mom’s shadow. They’re most active in the cool of the early morning or the evenings. In mid to late morning and heading toward noon, they’ll be most likely to fall over and sleep.

Midafternoon in good weather, with sun to bask in, is nap time for everyone. If I want to ride or entertain guests around 3:30 p.m., I have to wake the horses up. They’re all semicomatose.

At night, especially in colder weather, they’ll stay on their feet and on guard. If it’s not too cold, they may lie down at intervals. My lot are usually flat, if they are at all, sometime around midnight; or they’ll lie down in sternally recumbent position, without actually going flat.

A well-socialized, trusting horse will stay lying down if a person he knows approaches; it’s even possible to lie down with him, though the human has to be careful the horse doesn’t forget she’s there and roll over on top of her. The safest place to be is next to or even on his back (if he’s very, very trusting); his legs can be dangerous if he flails in a dream or if he gathers them together before getting up. It is not in general a good idea to curl up next to a horse’s belly, framed by his legs. It’s a rare horse who can be trusted from that position.

When the horse lies down, he tends to go down front first

and getting up, he also goes front end first. A horse is a remarkably consistent animal. If it works one way, he figures, it ought to work in the other. And for heaving half a ton of mass up and down, it’s not bad at all.



Beginning next week, Judith’s Horseblog will be taking a bit of a nap itself for a while–switching to every other week. Next week in this space, look for Brenda Clough’s Very Short Reviews. The Horseblog will be back on April 5th (and 19th, and May 3rd, and 17th, and…).




The Flat-Foal Modality — 5 Comments

  1. The scariest thing I’ve seen was a horse with colic who did roll onto his back and just lay there.

    Also, in my experience horses can spend several hours a day lieing on their bellies – I’ve known lazy ones who’d just flop down and keep eating when all was quiet – but it’s mostly young horses that can be observed flat out on their sides.

  2. When I was at Horse Camp a week ago, I noted a stallion who lay down, rolled onto his back in the mud, kicking his feet in the air. He got himself down just like you said–front first, then back. When he got up, he gathered all four legs under him, then he not only got to the four feet, he danced around, then reared, pawing the forelegs up and shedding icky mud everywhere. He was having fun, but whoa, was he and his horse blanket a mess.

    One of the mares was gooshy with mud all down one side, right up to her neck, making it clear she’d lain in mud, though it was dry by the time I saw her.

    The absolute best moment, though, did not involve horses lying down. It was when we were having a lesson in free longe, with a gelding. We turned around to discover all the mares in a row, just like an audience, ears canted forward, as they watched the show: monkeys cavorting weirdly and no doubt nonsensically with their horse buddy, who was having tons of fun playing with us.

  3. Sherwood: 🙂

    My adult horses go flat at least once every day. Greenknight, maybe you didn’t see them when they were flopped? Or they did it when humans weren’t around?

    In fact, I think Pooka wanted to make a point, because when I went out an hour ago to feed midday hay, he was Pancake Pooka. Flat out and snoring. Not his usual time to do that, either.

  4. “coltburger” — *snorfle* But Star says he “Will Not Be One. Kthxlet’snottalkaboutthisanymore.”


    My guys LOVE to go sternally recumbant and then flat on a sunny afternoon — even in the snow. But the funniest thing is the sunny afternoons when they are falling asleep standing up — but forget to lock their legs first! I have watched Joy’s front legs buckle and her nose all-but-hit the ground several times. She is so very DOPEY when she starts awake to catch herself, too.

    Usually the process repeats a few times before she decides it may be best just to lay down :).

  5. Judy,
    I’ve known a lot of adult horses who don’t sleep when people are around – particularly in relatively busy stables that see a lot of strangers. You get the tell-tale patterns on their coat, so you know they do it at night, but not when they can be spotted. It took me many years before I saw Crumble lieing down at all, and only once or twice flat out. Mr.Suspicious was Suspicious.

    Also very satisfying when you come into a stable and the horse on watch (because someone always keeps a lookout) looks at you, sighs, and lies down.