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Last updated on
4 min read

Key takeaways

Recumbency describes a horse who is lying down, unable to rise. 

  • Recumbent horses are typically laying flat on their side, but some may be able to sit up on their chest
  • Recumbency may be caused by a wide variety of conditions, including injuries, degenerative diseases, inflammatory diseases, tumors, infectious diseases, toxicosis, and neurological conditions
  • Diagnostics include an in-depth physical and neurological examination, and additional diagnostics such as X-rays or bloodwork may also be required
  • Treatment depends on the underlying condition
  • Recumbency may lead to secondary complications, including death of muscle tissue, skin sores, and severe colic
  • Recumbent horses benefit from supportive care measures, such as slinging, rotating, and dietary changes during the recovery period
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A closer look: Recumbency in Horses

Horses are not meant to lie on their side for extended periods of time, and doing so puts tremendous pressure on the parts of their body in contact with the ground and their abdomen. This pressure can cause skin sores, muscular degeneration, and reduced motility of the gastrointestinal tract, leading to colic.

Causes of recumbency are widely varied, and typically severe.

Recumbent horses require immediate medical attention. Horses that must be moved after becoming recumbent require specialized techniques to support or sling them, so veterinary expertise is required before moving the animal

Recumbent horses are unable to graze or access feed normally, and benefit from small, easily digestible meals provided in accessible areas low to the ground. Horses that are unable to eat entirely may require nasogastric intubation or IV nutrition. Some horses lose their ability to urinate or defecate properly during recumbency, and may require urinary catheterization or manual evacuation of feces.

Note: nasogastric intubation should only be performed by a veterinarian. There is no safe way to intubate a horse at home.

Possible causes

Risk factors

Recumbency itself only varies in severity regarding whether the horse is able to sit up on its sternum. Horses that are still able to sit up are less severely affected.

Although recumbency does not vary significantly as a symptom, recumbency can lead to serious consequences that are potentially life-threatening.

Horses are very heavy, and laying on their side for an extended period of time puts a lot of pressure on their bodies. This may lead to secondary complications, including skin sores as the tissue dies due to compression.

Pressure on the lower half of their body may also restrict blood flow. This can lead to death of muscle tissue and severe muscle damage. An affected horse may be unable to stand, even if the underlying cause of their recumbency is resolved.

Recumbency pressure also affects the motility horses’ GI tracts, along with the accompanying lack of exercise, dietary deficiencies, and stress. Reduced gastrointestinal motility manifests as severe colic, with signs of distress, excessive sweating, rolling or thrashing, and biting or kicking at the abdomen.

Testing and diagnosis

Diagnostics include

  • Physical examination
  • Neurological exam
  • Cranial nerve exam
  • Diagnostic imaging, such as X-rays of the limbs, skull, or neck
  • Bloodwork
  • Specific testing for infectious diseases

Treatment depends on the underlying condition.

Special precautions are required to help prevent recumbency complications. Recumbent horses must either be slinged into a standing position or rotated regularly, to reduce the pressure on the portions of their body against the ground. Slinging a recumbent horse is a difficult and potentially dangerous procedure, requiring experienced veterinary assistance.

Similar symptoms

Recumbency is clearly identifiable. It could be confused with or occur alongside loss of consciousness. It may be preceded by collapse.

Associated symptoms


Elizabeth G. Davis , DVM , PhD , DACVIM , Bonnie R. Rush , MS , DVM , DACVIM , Molly McCue , DVM - Writing for VetFolio
Bonnie R. Rush , MS , DVM , DACVIM , Elizabeth G. Davis , DVM , PhD , DACVIM , Molly McCue , DVM - Writing for VetFolio

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