Do Horses Really Sleep Standing Up? A Guide To How Horses Sleep

At the end of a long busy day, there’s nothing better than hunkering down under the duvet and sleeping soundly but have you ever wondered how horses sleep? Do they sleep standing up, or can they lie down to sleep? How much sleep do they need, and do they snore? These are all things that many horse owners, especially new owners, will wonder but the answers may surprise you.

Just like us sleep is vitally important to horses but unlike us, they don’t get all of their sleep in one go and they certainly don’t need as much sleep as we do. The average horse (if there is such a thing) will spend around 21% of their day (just over 5 hours) asleep but instead of sleeping for a solid five hours, they will spread their sleep out throughout the whole 24 hour period. In fact, it’s rare for an adult horse to spend more than 10 to 20 minutes asleep at any one time.

Do horses sleep standing up?

The simple answer is yes, horses absolutely can, and do sleep while they’re standing up but this isn’t the whole answer, nor does it answer why they sleep like this. While horses are definitely sleeping while they’re standing up they’re only in the light phase of sleep, known as SWS (short wave sleep). This allows them a chance to rest, and recoup their energy, in order to sleep deeply horses need to lie down.

In order to understand why horses sleep standing up we have to look back to where and how they evolved. Being prey animals that originally lived on wide open plains they needed to be able to run at a moment’s notice and it’s far quicker to run from a standing position than it is if you’re lying down. That said though it doesn’t mean that horses get enough sleep, or a decent quality of sleep standing up.

Why don’t horses fall over when they sleep?

If you’ve ever felt yourself start to nod off while on the subway you’ll understand just how difficult it can be to stand up and sleep (or even just doze) yet horses manage this with ease. They can do this because of a group of ligaments, tendons, and muscles that help them to ‘lock’ their leg into place. Known as the ’stay apparatus’ mechanism, this allows the horse to relax its muscles and stay upright. 

If you watch horses dozing with one leg relaxed you’ll see how the stay apparatus works. The horse will rest his weight on three legs at any one time, shifting the non-weight-bearing leg every now and then. 

If horses didn’t use this mechanism then their legs would suffer greatly from fatigue, much in the same way as we do if we have to stand for an extended period of time. It’s also this stay apparatus that allows the horse to not only sleep standing up but also to quickly move if there are any predators about.

Do horses sleep lying down?

While we’ve all seen horses dozing while they’re standing up not so many of us have seen horses lie down to sleep which is why a lot of horse owners think that horses only sleep standing up, but this isn’t the case and lying down is a crucial part of their sleep.

Just like us, horses need to have deep, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep in order to maintain their physical and mental health (this is because it stimulates the brain which is vital to learning as well as to forming memories) but they can only do this while they’re lying down. This is because true REM sleep only happens when their muscles are completely relaxed which therefore means the stay apparatus doesn’t work. This inability to use their muscles is one of the reasons why horses will only lie down to sleep when they feel completely safe.

When horses are lying down they’re more vulnerable, not only does it make it harder for them to escape from a predator but their weight and physiology also puts pressure on their internal organs and blood flow. This is why horses don’t spend a lot of time lying down to sleep, only doing so for up to 45 minutes each time.

It’s also worth pointing out that REM sleep is vital to an animal’s longevity,  a recent study carried out by NINDS (the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke) found that rats that were prevented from entering the REM phase had a drastically shortened lifespan; dropping from 2 to 4 years to a shocking 2 to 3 weeks. [source]

How do you know when a horse is asleep?

If a horse is lying on its side with its twitching legs stretched out in front of itself then it’s safe to say it’s asleep but it’s not always so easy to recognize when a horse is asleep if they’re standing up.

Just because a horse has lowered his head, relaxed his ears, and is standing on three of his legs it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s sleeping, after all, horses will do this when they’re relaxed too. Even if the horse’s eyes appear to be closed it still doesn’t mean he’s actually asleep. Instead look for things like a drooping lower lip and lack of any tail movement.

How long do horses sleep?

Research carried out by Kentucky Equine Research in 2017 found that while horses can get somewhere between 5 and 7 hours of sleep every day they only need between 30 to 90 minutes of deep sleep in any 24 hour period. That said though this doesn’t happen in one go, instead, they’ll sleep in 10 to 20 minute bursts throughout the day. This means that the average horse will sleep (or doze) around 21 to 24 times a day, although the horse’s age, diet, workload, and gender will all play a factor in how often and for how long.

Foals, under the age of three months, on the other hand, will spend around half of the day sleeping and most of this is done lying down. The amount they sleep is largely due to the energy they exert in growing but they mainly sleep lying down because the stay apparatus mechanism isn’t developed enough yet to enable them to doze standing up.

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Do horses sleep at night?

While we generally spend our days awake and our nights asleep (unless of course you’re a new parent) horses are neither nocturnal nor diurnal so don’t sleep throughout the night, or throughout the day. Instead, they sleep at various times during the day.

That said those horses are more likely to enter the REM phase of sleep during the night when, historically, predators were less likely to attack.

Ever wondered what horses get up to at night? What do horses do all day and all night?

Do horses sleep with their eyes open?

You might think that if a horse has his eyes open then he’s not asleep but that’s not entirely true. Yes, they will close both of their eyes while they’re in deep REM sleep but when they’re standing up and dozing most horses will have at least one eye open, or if not then their eyes will only be half closed. 

The reason for this is much the same as it is with why they sleep standing up, the more alert a horse is the quicker they’re able to escape from a predator should the need arise and when there’s a hungry cougar after you, every second counts!

Do horses snore?

Believe it or not, horses do actually snore just the same as we do! When they lie down to sleep their muscles relax and more weight is put on their chest which can cause them to make heavy breathing, moaning, growling, or even snuffling sounds. 

Not all horses will snore and some will make far more noise than others but they will only do so when they’re lying down and in a deep sleep, horses never snore while they’re standing up.

Do horses dream?

At some point during the night, we all dream, and horses are no different in that respect. While it’s impossible to say what it is they’re dreaming about when in REM sleep, horses will move their legs as if they’re walking or trotting. Some horses will also swish their tails and whinny while they’re dreaming.

As a way of confirming this, EEGs (electroencephalogram) were carried out on horses and the results confirmed that, just like us, a horse’s brain is at its most active when they’re in the REM sleep phase.

Of course, we can only guess what they’re dreaming about, but one thing is for sure and that is that they’re happy and content which is always a good thing.

Do horses suffer from sleep disorders?

Sadly horses are no different from us in that they can suffer from sleep deprivation and it can be just as serious in horses. If a horse isn’t able to get 30 to 60 minutes of deep REM sleep a night for a week or more then he will more than likely suffer from some sort of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation can lead to bouts of ‘sleep attack’ which cause the horse to fall asleep without warning. These sleep attacks often result in the horse’s legs buckling which in turn means they may trip a lot. 

If this is happening to your horse then it’s important to know why he’s not getting enough sleep and to deal with that issue. The two most common reasons are:

  • Physical – Often due to the horse experiencing pain that is preventing him from relaxing enough to sleep.
  • Psychological – If your horse doesn’t feel safe then he won’t relax and won’t be able to sleep deeply and therefore can’t enter the REM phase of sleep.

Enjoyed this article? Then you might be interested to know how horses see How the world looks from a horse’s point of view.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.

Recommended products 

Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.

  • Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
  • Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
  • TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
  • Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
  • Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
  • Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.

Shopping lists

I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉

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