How Do 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? Just like us sleep is vitally important to them too but unlike us, they don’t get all of their sleep in one go and they certainly don’t need as much sleep. The average horse (if there is such thing) will spend around 12% of their day (just under 3 hours) asleep but instead sleeping for a solid three 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 minutes asleep at any one time.

Do horses sleep standing up?

It’s actually a common misconception to say that horses sleep while standing up, yes they do ‘deep’ doze while standing but they won’t sleep deeply or enter the REM phase of sleep. When horses need to sleep deeply they will lie down.

The reason that horses do stay standing while they doze though is because they’re prey animals. This means that if there’s a predator around then horse doesn’t need to waste precious time getting up, making their getaway much quicker and ultimately helping to save their life.

How do horses sleep standing up?

If you’ve ever felt yourself start to nod off to sleep 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 the ’stay apparatus’ mechanism which uses a group of ligaments, tendons and muscles to lock the horse’s joints in place. This mechanism allows the horse to relax their muscles and stay upright. If you’ve ever watched a horse doze with one leg relaxed you’ve seen how they stay apparatus works. The horse will rest his weight on three legs at any one time, shifting the non-weight bearing leg from time to time. 

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 to also quickly move if there are any predators about.

How long do horses sleep for?

As a rule, horses will sleep for anything from 2.5 to 3.5 hours a day but they don’t get this sleep in one go instead, a horse will sleep little and often throughout the whole day. You may notice that horses spend a lot of their time (when they’re not eating that is) standing on three legs and think that they’re asleep but this isn’t usually the case. Horses do doze while they’re standing up but they don’t actually sleep like this which is why people often think that horses spend more time asleep than they do. 

On average a horse will only spend around 10 minutes asleep each time they do sleep but they’ll sleep like this at various times during the day. This means that a horse will sleep around 15 to 21 times a day.

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.

What do horses do at night?

As you’ve already discovered horses don’t sleep during the night in the same way that we do which means that they spend most of the night awake but what do they do during the night if they’re not sleeping. Their gastrointestinal tract is designed to always be digesting a small amount of food which means that horses need to spend a lot of their time eating. As a direct result of this, horses will spend most of the night grazing.

In the wild horses have a lot of natural predators so when they’re not eating they’re looking out for anything that may want to try and eat them so if a horse isn’t eating or sleeping then he’ll be the herd lookout. Each horse will take turns in doing this during the night, taking it in turns means that the whole herd will get a chance to eat and to sleep.

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 if not both eyes. 

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!

Can a horse sleep on its side?

Sleeping while lying down is actually important for horses, this is because while they’re lying down they’re able to sleep deeply and enter the REM phase of sleep. This phase of sleep is important to all animals because it stimulates the brain which is crucial to learning as well as to forming memories. It’s not known why but REM sleep is also vitally important for the longevity of all animals. A recent study carried out by NINDS found that rats that were prevented from entering the REM phase had a drastically shortened lifespan – dropping from 2 – 3 years to a shocking 5 weeks.

If a horse doesn’t lie down to sleep then it’s a sign that he may be stressed or nervous. Horses will only lie down when they feel relaxed and are confident that they’re safe and aren’t at risk from predators.

Can a horse sleep in a trailer?

You might think that if you have to travel a long distance with your horse that he’ll be okay because he can sleep on the way but this isn’t the case. Of course, he won’t be able to lie down in the trailer and sleep properly but you might be surprised to know that he won’t be able to doze either. This is because although horses can doze standing up they can only do this if they’re stable. What I mean by this is that if you’re traveling then your horse will be moving a little too. Every time you change your speed or go round a corner your horse will have to adjust his balance so that he doesn’t fall over. This means that he’s not able to relax his muscles and therefore not able to doze. 

If you do have to travel for an extended period of time then it’s important to have regular stops and allow your horse to stretch his legs and doze if he wants to.

Can horses suffer from sleep deprivation?

Sadly horses are no different to 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 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 manes he often trips. 

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 enter the REM phase.

Do horses dream?

At some point during the night, we all dream and horses are no different in that respect. EEG’s carried out on horses indicate that, just like us, their REM sleep is when their brain is most active which supports the idea that they dream.

Just as is the same with dogs horses will twitch their legs and tail while they’re dreaming, some horses will even whinny while they’re dreaming. We can only guess what it is they’re dreaming about this phase of their sleep is essential for their physical and mental wellbeing as it helps to develop and improve their learning and memory.

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