Down Horse

Jennifer Rice, DVM
By Jennifer Rice, DVM on Feb. 21, 2023
Down horse

In This Article


What is a Down Horse?

A “down horse” simply refers to a horse that is recumbent (lying down) and cannot get up. Horses are prey animals and have the ability to sleep standing up. While they occasionally lie down, horses are at increased risk when they are down for too long. This can lead to serious medical concerns. A “down horse” is a common equine emergency that veterinarians are called out to diagnose.

Causes of a Down Horse

Determining why your horse is down is crucial. Horses can be down for a variety of reasons including medical, neurologic, muscle disease, injury, or mechanical issues:

How Long Can a Horse Be Down For?

While there is no definitive time that is safe for a horse to stay lying down, on average a horse will lie down for 30 minutes to 3 hours per day. The longer a horse is down, the higher the risk for secondary conditions to occur, such as:

  • Colic due to poor gut motility

  • Gas distention

  • Lameness or temporary paresis (muscle weakness caused by nerve damage due to pressure/lots of weight pressing on the area)

  • Pneumonia

  • Pressure sores

  • Urine retention

  • Head trauma

  • Eye trauma

  • Poor perfusion of kidneys

  • Dehydration

If you notice your horse lying down more than normal, it is time to assess your horse. You may want to safely encourage your horse to get up with feed or other enticements. If your horse continues to lie down and shows no interest in getting up, call your veterinarian.

Treatment of a Down Horse

How to Approach a Down Horse

  1. Always analyze your surroundings

  2. Approach the horse from the back or head, staying away from the legs

  3. Always make sure someone else is with you and one of you has a phone in case something goes wrong

  4. Keep your feet under you, squatting next to the horse in case you need to leave quickly—never sit on the ground next to the horse

  5. Make sure there is enough room around the horse so you can easily maneuver around the horse

  6. Stay calm and quiet when approaching as to not startle or further stress the horse

Analyze the Situation

When approaching the down horse, it is important to first understand why they may be down. Answering a few simple questions may help you and your veterinarian determine the best course of action to take, such as:

  • How long has your horse been down?

  • Has your horse been acting sick? Are they actively colicking or have an injury?

  • Is your horse responsive?

  • Does your horse appear to be physically stuck?

Take Your Horse's Temperature

If your horse appears to be down due to illness, take their temperature. Only do this if you can safely access the horse's hind end. A normal temperature for a horse is between 98-101.5 degrees. If your horse's temperature is higher or lower than that please contact your veterinarian.

Turning Horses Over

There are some circumstances in which healthy horses may be down and may need your help by rolling them over. Only attempt to roll a horse over if there is plenty of room, good footing, and help to do so.

Healthy horses may lie down and/or roll and get themselves “cast” or stuck in a position where they cannot get up, such as close to a stall wall. In these situations, you can try using their tail and sliding them away from the object they are next to before rolling them over.

This may happen more frequently in older arthritic horses where they are in pain and have a hard time rising after lying down to nap.

Feed Test

If you are still unsure if the horse is down due to illness or colic another good test is to offer them feed. Many horses that are sick are not going to be interested in hay or grain. However, if they are down due to lameness or mechanical issues and are stuck, they often will still eat.

When to Consider Euthanasia for Your Horse

In some circumstances, euthanasia should be considered as the best humane solution for a down horse, including:

  • When a horse has been down a significant amount of time without a resolution in helping them to stand

  • An older horse that has significant arthritis or lameness and often gets down, has a hard time standing back up, and is already on pain management

  • Severe colic cases that are not candidates for surgery and pain management has not helped with pain relief

  • Neurologic horses or horses that are unstable

  • Significant trauma such as a fracture

  • Neoplasia (cancer) where there is no treatment or recovery options

What to Do While Your Horse is Down

After you have called your veterinarian and are waiting for them to arrive, there are a few things you can do for your horse while you wait:

  • Offer fresh water where your horse can reach it while lying down

  • Offer hay within their reach

  • If your horse is stuck outside and it’s wet or cold, draping a blanket over them may help to keep them warm

  • If your horse is down in the sun or where it’s hot, putting a fan or shade over them and hosing them off can help keep them cool and comfortable

Recovery and Management of a Down Horse

The recovery of a down horse will be dependent on three main factors:

  1. The primary reason they were down

  2. How long they stayed down

  3. Potential development of any secondary issues while they were down

A horse that simply got “cast” in his stall and was found quickly and helped to stand may have very little recovery needed. A horse that has colicked or had severe illness or injury may take several weeks to months to recover. It is recommended to follow your primary veterinarian’s instructions on recovery and exercise following any episodes of being down.

Secondary risks associated with significant time in recumbency (lying down) include:

  • Colic

  • Pressure Sores

  • Pneumonia

  • Eye trauma

  • Head trauma

  • Kidney damage

  • Lameness

Prevention of a Down Horse

Like many diseases and conditions, the best prevention is maintaining your horse's wellness care, including:

  • Annual to biannual veterinarian exams

  • Annual dental exams by your veterinarian

  • Annual vaccines

  • Maintaining a regular farrier schedule and keeping good hoof health

  • Fecal egg count and appropriate deworming schedule

  • Discuss any concerns you have about lameness or health with your veterinarian.


1. Marcella K. DVM 360. Equine rescue 101: Aiding a downed horse. 2006.

2. Ony, EE. Kentucky Equine Research. When Horses Can’t or Won’t Stand Up. 2013.

Featured Image:


Jennifer Rice, DVM


Jennifer Rice, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Rice is a 2017 graduate from Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine where she specialized in Equine medicine. Since graduating...

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