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How Horses Sleep: A Guide For Understanding Equine Sleep.

Last updated: March 5, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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How horses sleep is one of the least spoken-about topics at horse events. While diet, training, and physical fitness are essential, whether the horse had enough of the correct type of sleep can mean the difference between a fast clear round and an unhappy, grumpy horse that isn’t in top form.

Horses are flight animals that have adapted to sleep in three phases. They can be drowsy, in a state called Slow Wave Sleep, or be in a deep sleep called REM sleep. Horses have adapted stay apparatus to keep them upright while they sleep, but REM sleep only occurs while a horse is lying down.

It is not unusual to see a dozing horse with its head slightly lowered and its eyes shut, and it may even have one of its hind legs gently touching the ground. Is it just relaxing or daydreaming, or could it be sound asleep? Let’s find out everything there is to know about how horses sleep.

Picture of my gray mare lying down.  This is one of the ways horses sleep.

Horse sleep patterns

It often shocks non-horsey people to see a horse lying flat on its side, motionless in a paddock. It can even be a little frightening, and many horse owners have had to answer frantic calls of concern from well-meaning observers letting them know that their horse may be dead.  

It is commonly believed that horses sleep standing up – and they do…most of the time. Horses are true flight animals. As prey animals, they would be doomed if they lay down to sleep for hours. In addition, the weight of their bodies affects vital organs and blood flow, which makes it physically impossible for them to lie down flat for long periods.

Like all animals, horses need to get enough sleep to function normally. To get around their physical challenges and still be quick enough to escape predators, horses have evolved a unique style of sleeping. Instead of either being completely awake or fully asleep, they also have a few intermediary rest settings.

Horses have three distinct phases of sleep:

  1. Drowsiness: During the drowsy stage, a horse will often stand with its head lowered, eyelids closed, and one hindleg resting. One will often see its bottom lip start to relax and droop.
  • Slow Wave Sleep (SWS): Horses may remain standing by locking the stay apparatus. Since they remain upright, they can quickly bolt off if there is any sign of danger. This type of sleep forms most of the overall sleeping done by horses.
  • REM sleep: This is the type of sleep that causes concern for your neighbors! When a horse is in REM sleep, all its muscles relax completely. A horse will lie flat on its side for short periods of around 5 minutes, stretched out. Brain activity during these short sleep sessions is rapid.

Horse sleep patterns are irregular, with patches of each type of sleep taken throughout the day and night. Periods of wakefulness and rest happen intermittently; what matters is the total amount of sleep per day rather than when it is taken.

Sleep patterns are very much dependent on the environment and age. A horse in a new place or one that has been on a trailer for a long time may not relax enough to get sufficient sleep.

Picture of a horse standing still in a pasture.

How can horses sleep standing up?

Horses can do much of their sleeping standing up – not all of it, but most of it. They are able to doze off while standing due to their ability to lock their legs, which allows them to balance on three legs while sleeping. This locking feature is called referred to as a stay apparatus.

The stay apparatus is a set of ligaments in a horse’s forelegs that lock the joints. This might sound dire, but it is a great adaptation that allows equines to stay upright while using minimal muscle energy.

Benefits horses gain from standing sleep.

There are several benefits of standing sleep for horses:

  1. Standing sleep allows horses to escape predators: When horses sleep standing up, they can quickly react to any potential threats, such as lions, wolves, and other speedy predators, and run away if necessary.
  2. Standing sleep may be more common in older horses because they have difficulty rising after lying down.
  3. Standing sleep may be more common in horses with certain health conditions: Some horses with health conditions may find standing sleep more comfortable than lying down sleep.
  4. Standing sleep may be more comfortable for horses living in areas with rough terrain.

It’s worth noting that while standing sleep can be beneficial for horses in certain situations, it is important for horses to have the opportunity to lie down and fully rest as well.

Where do horses sleep?

Horses can sleep almost anywhere when they stay upright. However, when they sleep lying down, they tend to prefer to do so on a soft, level surface, such as a grassy field or a well-bedded stall.

Some horses may also sleep in a paddock or pasture as long as they can access a comfortable surface. This type of deep sleep helps them stay healthy and well-rested.

This is because all their muscles relax completely, so if they cannot lie down safely, either because of inclement weather or because they are unsettled, sleep deprivation can result.

Picture of a horse laying down in a stall

Why do horses lay down to sleep?

Lying down sleep is generally more restful for horses than standing sleep, as it allows them to fully relax and enter a deeper stage of sleep. While horses can doze off while standing up, they cannot enter deep sleep in this position.

However, some horses have difficulty rising after sleep, especially in a stall. We have a young horse that lies down against the stall wall and casts. Cast is a term used to describe when a horse is unable to get its legs underneath itself to push itself back up into a standing position.

YouTube video
Discover how horses master the art of standing sleep in this YouTube video.

How Long Do Horses Sleep?

It’s difficult to determine how long horses sleep daily. It is safe to say they tend to rest between 5 and 7 hours a day. That includes all three types of sleep, with SWS making up most of this time. There is no set sleep–wakefulness pattern. Horses graze, nap, eat, walk, doze, hang about, and lie down according to their environment.

Although horses don’t need long periods of REM sleep, they must get at least 30 minutes to 2 hours per day. This deep REM sleep is taken in power naps of around 5 minutes as the animal is too heavy to stay flat on the ground for too long.

Extended periods of REM sleep can lead to secondary issues like nerve damage, but unless the horse has an underlying health issue, they instinctively know when to get up. If they feel comfortable and relaxed, they may move into an upright sitting position, known as sternal recumbency.

Picture of a sick horse that is not sleeping well.

Factors that can affect horses’ sleep patterns.

Several factors can affect horses’ sleep patterns. Age can play a role in a horse’s sleep patterns, as older horses may sleep less overall and may sleep standing up more frequently.

The workload can also impact a horse’s sleep patterns, as horses that are engaged in regular, strenuous exercise may require more sleep to recover and may have different sleep patterns than less active horses.

For example, we have a gray filly that sleeps for an extended period during the two days following her races. When she did this after her first race, I was concerned, but now I know that she enjoys her downtime and always comes back stronger.

Health conditions, such as pain or respiratory issues, can also disrupt a horse’s sleep patterns. Horses that are sick with respiratory conditions and congestion rarely lie down and sleep.

The environment in which horses sleep can also affect their sleep patterns, including factors such as noise, lighting, and temperature. Stress and anxiety can also disrupt a horse’s sleep patterns.

It is essential to consider these factors when evaluating a horse’s sleep patterns and to take steps to ensure that horses have a comfortable and safe place to sleep.

This may involve providing a spacious, well-bedded stall or paddock, minimizing noise and other distractions, and ensuring appropriate temperature and lighting.

How To Tell Whether Your Horse Is Getting Enough Sleep

As all riders whose horses have noticed a plastic packet blowing across the arena for the first time can tell you, horses are tuned in and ready to react to what’s happening around them!

While it is not uncommon to see a horse relaxing with its eyes closed and one hind leg slightly lifted, no horse should seem excessively drowsy for long periods during the day.

It isn’t easy to monitor exactly how much sleep your horse gets since they sleep intermittently throughout the day and night. However, there are some behavioral signs to look out for that can signal a horse that isn’t getting enough sleep:

  • Uncharacteristic grumpy or aggressive behavior
  • Poor performance – no one can do their best if they are sleep deprived, including horses.
  • Injuries as a result of tiredness

How Can I Help My Horse Get Enough Sleep?

The best way for horse owners to help their horses get enough sleep is to ensure they are in an environment where they can relax. A stressed horse surrounded by unfamiliar loud noises without a comfortable, safe place to lie down is unlikely to relax enough to get sufficient sleep.

Stabled horses must have a space large enough and bedding that is deep enough to support and cushion their giant bodies during periods of REM sleep. Also, remember that your horse’s face and nostrils will be lying close to the bedding material – it’s not just their feet that touch the ground – so always keep health in mind when choosing the best comfy ‘mattress’ material for your horse’s stall.

Competitive riders should also give their horses enough time to settle and rest before competitions. A horse that has been on a trailer all day is unlikely to have had enough sleep to be able to deliver a top-notch performance as soon as it unloads.

The amount of sleep required by horses varies by the horse’s age, and as can be expected, foals spend a lot more time sleeping than adults. Stabled horses have been found to sleep a lot more during the night than pasture ponies, but horses kept in stable, familiar groups often get a better-quality sleep than those kept in individual stalls.

Picture of white horses in a field.

What Are The Benefits Of Horses Sleeping In Groups?

Horses have evolved as flight animals. As you can imagine, it would be quite difficult to become relaxed enough to switch off completely to sleep if a predator lurked about.

In addition to adaptations like stay apparatus that prevent the horse from falling over when asleep, horses have evolved a cooperative sleep guardianship technique. So, while some horses sleep, others keep watch and are ready to sound the alarm if necessary.

Many owners who only need a single horse opt to keep a companion pony as a buddy for their competitive horse. In addition to entertainment value, these little buddies (often cute, mischievous little ponies) serve an invaluable purpose in giving your competitive horse the peace of mind to know that it is not alone, so it can relax enough to sleep properly.

Horses in groups take turns lying flat for short periods of REM sleep, which is the best way to recharge their batteries. Horses kept in solitary conditions have been shown to sleep less than when a buddy is present. Even stalled horses are likelier to sleep better if they can see the other horses nearby.

Some anxiety-related conditions like weaving can be reduced by up to 85% if horses can see each other. Even though we may treat them as pampered individuals, horses are instinctively herd animals that have evolved to look out for each other.

Do Horses Dream, And What Do They Dream About?

During the drowsy and SWS phases of sleep, while the horse’s brain is not fully awake, it is also not in a deep sleep. These periods of quiet rest are essential, but dreaming at this level seems more similar to restful daydreaming.

The brain activity of horses during the recumbent REM sleep phase is rapid. Horses occasionally snicker, snort, pull their ears back, and may move their legs in a running motion – they are definitely on adventures in their dreams.

Perhaps they dream of playing when they were foals, racing through vast open planes, or reminiscing about receiving special treats from their doting owners.

While many humans dream about beautiful horses, and horse owners may occasionally have nightmares about potential veterinarian bills, we can only speculate about what horses dream about.

In one of the most adorable advertising campaigns ever, a little donkey dreams of becoming a majestic Budweiser Clydesdale: Check out this YouTube video.

YouTube video

Conclusion

Horses need to sleep for between 5 and 7 hours per day. The sleep cycle comprises three types of sleep: drowsiness, Slow Wave Sleep, which can occur while standing, and REM sleep which requires the horse to lie down. Sleep deprivation can lead to changes in behavior, poor performance, and injury.

FAQs

How Does A Horses Sleeping Position Vary And Why

The sleeping position of a horse varies depending on the type of sleep it is in. Horses are able to stand with their eyes closed when they are drowsy and during Slow Wave Sleep, but they must lie down entirely during short periods of REM sleep.

How long do horses lay down to sleep?

During a typically 24-hour period, horses lay down and sleep for about three hours. They will often lie down for an hour or two at a time, especially if they are in a comfortable and secure environment.

References