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I rarely see our horses sleep; in fact, it’s unusual for me to catch sight of our horses standing still in the pasture for very long; they typically stroll and graze. So I wondered when do they sleep? They must not sleep for too long or too often since I don’t see them standing still.
There are a lot of interesting facts about horses’ sleep. For example, they have a unique anatomical structure that allows them to stay upright while dozing. And horses don’t always sleep standing; sometimes, they lay down and get short but good REM sleep (deep sleep).
Most people know horses sleep standing, but that is usually the extent of their knowledge. However, there is a lot more a horse owner should understand about horses’ unique sleeping behavior.
7 Facts about horse sleep.
1. Horses sleep standing
Yes, horses get light naps while standing; however, they lay down for REM sleep (deep sleep). Most of the day, horses spend their time grazing and resting. Researchers estimate horses spend 5-7 hours a day relaxing.
It’s not until after nightfall that they typically doze off into a light sleep, which is likely why I rarely see my horses sleeping.
2. Standing sleep is key to a horse’s survival.
Horses are prey animals that survived by evading predators for thousands of years. They accomplished this feat because of certain physical traits and instincts.
One key trait is their ability to sleep standing; this allows them to rest but remain upright and ready to sprint away if a predator strikes.
In herds, all the horses don’t sleep at the same time. If a horse is sleeping, other horses are awake and alert to sound an alarm if predators approach. Horses can’t quickly rise from the ground because of their large size and build, so they must work together to survive.
3. Horses balance while sleeping using a “stay apparatus.”
Horses can sleep standing while in light sleep by using a combination of muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints to maintain their balance with very little energy.
This anatomical structure is called a “stay apparatus,” which is why an animal can relax its muscles and doze without falling. It works by locking the horse’s shoulder and stabilizing its hindquarters.
Once the animal balances itself, the stay apparatus is engaged, and the horse balances on three legs and rests the fourth in a flexed position. It will alternate its weight-bearing legs, so all limbs get rested. In this way, the horse can stand and take a light nap.
How the stay apparatus works.
When horses relax, the stay apparatus engages the front legs, extensor and flexor muscles, and tendons. The ligaments stabilize the knees, fetlocks, and bones of the foot.
The shoulder and elbow joints lock in place, as does the patella joint, preventing the stifle and hock of their hind legs from flexing. A hook structure cups the patella and medial patella ligament, keeping the leg from bending.
4. Horses only doze when they sleep standing.
Animals vary in the amount of sleep they need; for example, cats slumber for sixteen hours a day while horses sleep for less than three hours. Could this be because cats are predators and horses are prey?
Wild horses were hunted day and night by predators and couldn’t afford long periods of deep sleep. Instead, they rested throughout the day without actually dozing off.
An analysis of stallions’ sleep patterns revealed that, on average, they spent nineteen and a quarter hours alert, two hours drowsy but awake, two hours in light sleep, and three-quarters of an hour in a deep sleep.
5. Horses lay down for REM sleep.
The study mentioned above further noted the horses broke up their sleep into periods of a deep sleep, lasting about five minutes. And their time drowsy was also fragmented into thirty-three short light naps of three and half minutes each.
Their ability to survive on little sleep is attributed to the lack of energy required to balance themselves. The small amount of time horses lay down for REM sleep demonstrates their capacity to gain needed rest standing.
Horses only lie down for a total of two hours a day, and surprisingly it is easier for a horse to rest standing than lying. There is greater energy demand in a prone position because of the pressure caused by a horse’s body’s weight against the ground.
Their heart has to work harder to circulate blood, and it’s more challenging for them to breathe lying down—interesting fact: Adult female horses spend even less time lying down than males or juveniles.
6. Horses sleep with their eyes open.
Horses often sleep with their eyes open, but not always. When horses nap, they typically keep their eyes open. But when they go into a deep sleep, they close their eyes.
They enter deep sleep when lying down, and if out in a pasture or the wild, horses get REM sleep while others in the herd are awake and alert. They rotate their sleep so that they always have a lookout.
Their sleep patterns are ingrained to the point that they even have this routine while next to each other in barn stalls.
7. A horse can’t lay down for long periods.
It’s not bad for a horse to lay down for short periods; however, it can be fatal if one stays down too long. Horses are heavy, and the pressure caused by their extensive weight can damage muscles, nerves and make it difficult for a horse to breathe or blood to circulate properly.
If you believe your horse is on the ground too long, get it up. But be careful and always stay away from its feet. If your horse doesn’t rise, contact your vet for advice.
Horses need REM sleep, but if they don’t have space or only hard ground to lay on, they won’t lie down. Failure to get some good deep sleep is unhealthy and can lead to problems
When horses lie down in the wild or a pasture they seek out a soft, dry area clean of excrement and protected from winds. However, stabled horses don’t have a choice; they must lay down on the stall floor.
But their needs are the same as horses in pastures or ones in the wild, so it’s our responsibility to provide suitable bedding and a suitably sized stall for your horse to stretch out.
It’s also essential that you keep their stall clean. Here are some fundamental reasons to keep your horse stalls clean and covered with adequate bedding material.
- Horses stay cleaner and have fewer skin infections,
- Horses aren’t reluctant to lie down and recuperate,
- Good bedding makes the stall easier to clean
- Proper bedding provides a cushion for the horse to stand and lay on.
- Good stall bedding absorbs moisture and reduces urine smell
- Helps prevent reinfestation of parasites;
- and lowers the chance for disease bacteria to spread.
A typical 12 x 12 horse stall requires between two and four bales of fresh shavings per week. I have an article on common stall bedding materials you may find useful: What’s the Best Stall Bedding for Your Horse Barn? 4 Options.
You may use more or less depending on your horse and the time of year. In the winter, we use more bedding because we lay more out to insulate around the stall to keep the horses warmer. Click here to read about stall floors.