While we often don’t emphasize it as much as we should, sleep is by far one of the most important necessities in our horse’s lives. It is such a basic need that the idea of your horse sleeping may not have even crossed your mind lately, or at all. I researched how horses sleep and wanted to share what I found with you here.
Horses need somewhere between 2-4 hours of sleep within a 24-hour period, but they have evolved in a way that allows them to sleep intermittently if needed.
Sleep plays a vital role in your horse’s health, so it is important that you know all the facts so you can make sure that they stay happy and healthy.
Worrying about your horse’s sleep patterns may be the last thing on your mind. Nonetheless, it is imperative that you know how important sleep is for your horse and how to make sure they are getting enough of it.
The following information will help you to learn more about how horses sleep and why it is vital to their health.
Sleep Patterns of Horses
As humans, we have four distinct stages of REM or rapid eye movement sleep. Horses have also have four different phases of sleep. They are known as diffuse drowsiness, intermediary, slow-wave and paradoxical, also known as REM sleep.
Often, horse sleep is comprised of multiple short increments of sleep here and there. They don’t always have to complete a full sleep cycle each night and can even make it weeks without it rounding out that cycle.
Eventually, however, they will have to finish out a full cycle of sleep in order to remain healthy and fully functional. (source)
Body Position During Sleep
A horse’s body is uniquely designed to allow them to enter a light sleep while standing up. While we would collapse if we fell asleep standing up, a horse’s legs ‘lock’ in a way that prevents them from falling down when they fall asleep while standing.
This adaptation, to be able to sleep while standing, is called the stay apparatus.
Horses are technically migratory animals in that they were intended to migrate as they grazed. It was imperative that they be able to escape the clutches of a predator while they sleep, therefore, their bodies are designed in a way that allows them to sleep while standing.
They can remain standing while in a light sleep for short increments of time. By sleeping this way, they can easily wake and be on the run in a matter of seconds.
If they were lying down in the middle of the open range, they would have less of chance of escape because it would take them longer to stand up. While this light sleeping is beneficial, a horse cannot enter the paradoxical or REM stage of sleep while standing. (source)
When Do Horses Sleep?
Horses will periodically sleep lightly while standing throughout the day. Sometimes at night, when they are in a safe and quiet atmosphere, they will finally lie down and enter the deeper stages of their sleep cycle.
According to Joseph J. Bertone, DVM, a veterinarian and professor of equine medicine, horses do not have a rigid daytime versus nighttime sleep schedule.
You may find that your horse may tend to sleep more at night, but this might just be because your barn or property is quieter at night. (source)
How to Tell if Your Horse is Asleep
If your horse is lying down, you can easily tell when they are sleeping. If they are standing, it can be a little more difficult to see, especially from a distance.
When a horse begins to lightly sleep when standing, you will notice that they are standing very still, with their heads and necks resting lower to the ground than normal.
They will not appear alert. Their eyes may be completely shut or partially closed. Their mouths may be open and their lips may appear to hang down and quiver ever so slightly.
If they are standing, they are in the first, lighter stages of sleep. If they are lying down, they are probably in a deeper REM stage of sleep. (source)
How Long Should Horses Sleep
Horses often need about 2-4 hours of total sleep per day. While it varies between horses and their activity levels, most horses will need anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours specifically of deep REM sleep within a 24-hour time frame.
They often get in their REM sleep in short increments of time until they reach their needed amount. Unlike us, horses can make it weeks without getting sufficient amounts of this quality, recumbent sleep.
They will, however, eventually need to relax and complete their sleep cycle, or they will suffer from sleep deprivation. (source)
Do Horses Dream?
Horses, like us, do experience dreams. During the paradoxical stage, the REM stage of sleep for horses, their brains are active and many horses can be seen moving their legs and even whinnying during a deep sleep.
The question that cannot be answered, however, is what they dream about.
Hopefully, we are in their dreams with them and we are on some grand adventure. Either that, or they are dreaming about running away from us in a huge open field with no gates or fences in sight, probably smiling as they do.
Eyes Open, Eyes Closed
In the deep stages of sleep, horses sleep with their eyes closed. During the beginning stages of sleep and especially if they are still standing, they can ‘sleep’ with their eyes partially opened.
Dangers of Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation or lack of sleep is not typical in horses, but if they right circumstances exist, it is possible. Horses need to complete the full cycle of sleep on a somewhat regular basis to stay healthy.
REM sleep is vital for the health of a horse. This deep sleep helps them to rest, reset and heal any injuries or illnesses.
If they are unable to get adequate sleep over a matter of weeks, they can begin to experience the signs of sleep deprivation, which can lead to injuries or a decline in their health. (source)
Signs of Sleep Deprivation in Horses
There are many signs that can signal that your horse is not getting enough sleep. These include:
- Fainting or falling down
- Aggression and moodiness
- Severe drowsiness
You will see the horse start to fall in to a deeper sleep while standing up and look like they are about to fall, but they will suddenly awake.
They are unable to lie down for some reason and make it into a deep sleep, even though they need it. (source)
Why do some horses get sleep deprived?
Horses can get sleep deprived for a variety of reasons. It is usually either an environmental cause or it is pain-related.
A horse that is all alone in a new area may be too scared to fall asleep. Horses that are expressing aggression to other horses in a paddock or nearby stall can be on high alert all hours of the day and night.
This will prevent them from relaxing enough to fall asleep. Small changes made to their living areas may also create a sense of fear that will cause them to not want to sleep.
If the sleep deprivation is not environmental, it can be associated with pain. Horses can experience pain that will cause it to hurt when they try to lie down to sleep.
The pain can be so severe that they refuse to lie down until it is resolved. If you suspect your horse is suffering from sleep deprivation associated with pain, you should consult a vet for help. (source)
What to do if your horse is not getting enough sleep.
If you horse is alone, they may be afraid and would benefit from you bringing in a horse buddy. If they get along, this can help your horse to feel more comfortable in their surroundings.
If there is a horse nearby causing issues with your horse, you should move your horse away from the offending culprit or vice versa.
If you notice that something is scaring or bothering your horse, either remove your horse from the situation or remove the offending party if possible.
The more comfortable your horse is, they more likely they are to sleep easily. If none of these scenarios fit the bill, you will need to contact a vet to find out what is wrong.
There could be a medical reason for the lack of sleep. Sometimes, the horse is experiencing pain that they cannot show you. Severe pain could be keeping them awake and not allowing your horse to get the sleep it desperately needs.
Other problems could be nerve issues or other health abnormalities that can be easily fixed. (source)
The sleep behavior of horses is completely different than our own, however, it is just as important to their health as it is to ours. Even though you may not be seeing your horse sleeping regularly, that doesn’t mean that they are sleep deprived.
You will notice if your horse is not getting the adequate sleep that it needs. As long as you make sure they are comfortable and happy in their paddock, pasture or stall, you can rest assured that they probably have all the tools they need to get the right amount of sleep and relaxation.