Recently, I saw a show by a renowned horse showman where the horses were all in a sitting position during the show. It made me wonder if a horse sitting down is normal and if horses sit or lie down for fun or some other reason.
While I know that horses sleep standing for the most part and that some horses lie down to rest, the sitting position (similar to how a dog would sit) is somewhat of a misnomer.
Here’s why horses don’t naturally sit down and what it means if you train a horse to sit or lie down on command.
Horses Prefer Being On Their Feet
Horses are prey animals, meaning they are constantly on alert for potential predators that may be out to catch and eat them. Most prey species avoid being in a vulnerable position like lying or sitting down. When a horse is not on its feet, they aren’t able to react quickly and escape danger.
That’s why horses are able to sleep standing upright and rest on three legs. Young horses tend to sleep laying down since they are still developing and have older horses to protect them. For adult horses, a deeper sleep (like what may be needed when recovering from an injury, for example) may require that a horse lays down. Additionally, mares will of course lie down when giving birth as well.
But sometimes, adult horses might sit or lay down just because. Horses lying down in their pasture usually indicates they are at rest and feel protected.
We often see horses basking in the sun, surrounded by their equine friends while they are enjoying a deep sleep and lying flat. Using a buddy system, horses take turns keeping watch. One horse will stay alert so they can warn their herd of other animals approaching.
The horse has developed a specialized set of muscles and tendons known as a stay apparatus, which allows the horse to sleep standing while taking turns to rest one of its legs at a time. Horses often rest their rear legs, one at a time.
By resting a leg, it can relieve some excessive pressure due to the adult horse’s body weight.
When horses spend too much time standing, they can’t enter REM sleep, which can cause sleep deprivation. We can tell the horse is in REM sleep when they experience rapid eye movement.
Horses have to sleep a few hours a day, but many horses have to remain awake for prolonged periods when in small stables where there isn’t enough space to use a lying position required for REM sleep. So, most horses can take standing naps by using their stay apparatus.
Horses rest standing, but it may seem strange to see a horse in the seated position.
Do Horses Sit?
While horses can snooze standing, they don’t actually enter the sitting position. Instead, horses that seem to be sitting are actually about to get up from lying down.
Since horses have relatively thin legs compared to their large size, these land mammals place a lot of strain on their four legs during the process of getting up from a lying down position to standing. So in order to make the process a little easier on their body, horses sit for a brief period before getting all the way up.
Why Horses Can’t Sit for Long Periods of Time
There are a couple of reasons why horses don’t sit for a long period of time. First, the pressure of a sitting position would place too much strain on their internal organs and disrupt blood flow (which is also why horses spend a limited amount of time lying down). Horses sitting for too long can cut off blood flow to their back legs, causing lameness and muscle death.
Secondly, when pulling itself out of a prolonged sitting position, a horse’s weight can potentially cause damage to its front legs (again, because of the thin legs compared to the weight of its body).
The knowledgeable horse owner knows that large animals such as adult horses need to avoid sitting or lying down too frequently.
How to Train a Horse to Sit or Lie Down
Horses can be trained to sit or lie down using a sturdy object such as a few bales stacked securely. Sitting down has become a trick staple for many horse trainers who show off their training skills at national shows.
Training horses to sit should be done by a knowledgeable horse trainer to avoid causing damage that will require veterinary attention. However, you can use moments of rest, when the horse moves from lying down to standing up, as an opportunity to train the horse to sit.
When the adult horse is standing using their stay apparatus, it will be more difficult to achieve the seated position as they will place all of their body weight on three legs, resting one of their hind legs. This standing position is designed to prevent the horse from falling over so they’re able to sleep standing.
To train a horse to sit, you would need to circumvent the horse’s stay apparatus by backing the horse toward a sturdy object until their rear legs touch the object.
Since a horse has small feet, they can be gently coaxed to relax both back legs as long as they are supported by an immovable object. To make the horse sit, gently rock them out of the standing position to lean back and sit or lie against the support.
Limit the time lying down as horses need to be upright unless they are lying down for longer periods, such as when a mare is giving birth.
Horses Sitting Down FAQs
How do horses get up from sitting down?
Horses are designed with strong legs to help them get up when they lie down and stand up with they are in the seated position.
When horses lie down for deep sleep, they need to use their legs to pull them up. The same legs that are designed for a powerful stride such as in horse racing help the horse regain their feet and standing position.
Why don’t horses sit down in the wild?
In the wild, horses don’t sit since they are vulnerable to predators and may be unable to rise quickly due to their weight and thin legs. The horse requires time to rise, which is why they snooze standing instead of lying flat.
How can horse owners ensure their horses get enough sleep when lying down?
Horses require REM sleep, which means the horse needs to lie flat and rest for a brief period. The remainder of the horse’s sleep is gained from standing naps and resting their back legs one at a time. Sleeping when standing protects the internal organs and ensures healthy circulation.
Is making a horse sit bad for them?
Horses don’t sit by nature. Their bodies are too large to accommodate the strain on their front legs for prolonged periods. Folding in their back legs also carries risks as blood vessels can be compromised while nerve endings can be damaged if the horse is forced into an upright sitting position.
Conclusion: What Does a Horse Sitting Down Mean?
When horses sit, it is usually a sign they are about to get up after lying down for a while.
Since horses are prey animals, they don’t like feeling vulnerable by being in the seated position. Instead, most horses spend their time standing, except for the REM sleep they enjoy for a few hours each day.