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How Do Horses Sleep? – Why They Doze While Standing

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Just like humans, horses sleep in different cycles. They can doze, experience slow wave sleep, and dream during REM sleep. Most people assume that horses sleep standing, which is only partially true. They are able to doze in light sleep while standing, but since the REM sleep stage requires their muscles to be fully relaxed, horses must lay down during deep sleep. In this article we’ll go over everything you need to know about how horses sleep.


Horse sleeping on its back
Horses lay down during the deep sleep stage of their sleep cycle

Overview

Sleep is an important biological function for all animals, and horses are no exception. They experience all of the major sleep stages, including deep sleep which is critical for helping their bodies recover. In the wild, this is important since horses frequently spend time and effort trying to outrun predators. When domesticated, horses spend the day lugging people, heavy produce, and farm equipment. Some horses are bred for their speed and used as racehorses, which requires them to expend a considerable amount of energy.

All of these activities take their toll on the minds and bodies of horses. Imagine how tired you would be if you spent your day racing with others, with someone riding on your back. Sleep ensures that their bodies recover and heal themselves.

Most people assume that horses sleep standing up, which is partially true but doesn’t tell the whole picture. You can thank Hollywood for this misconception, since horses are always portrayed as sleeping standing up in movies. This is why it is not surprising that we all have this mental image of a horse standing up, eyes closed, dreaming of running freely in the wide open plains.

Horses don’t sleep standing up. Horses snooze standing up. What’s the difference? Aren’t they the same thing?


Why do horses sleep standing up?

When you see a horse in the standing position with its eyes closed, it’s not technically sleeping. It’s dozing. Dozing refers to the light sleeping stage. Horses spend a large amount of time dozing. Want some proof? Drive by a ranch or a pasture with horses and count how many of those horses are active. Check how many of them are grazing and how many are walking or running around. Now, check how many of them are just standing with their heads down and their eyes closed.

Horses can get some light sleep without having to lay down. This is due to a special mechanism in the equine anatomy known as the Stay Apparatus. A horse can lock its kneecap, using ligaments and tendons to keep its joints aligned. All while standing perfectly still. As a result, the horse’s bones stay in the locked position, enabling it to snooze standing.

Sleeping on one’s feet is uncomfortable for humans. This is not the case for horses. For horses, lying down is more uncomfortable. Due to their large sizes, their blood flow might be restricted if they spend long periods of time lying down, which can result in excessive pressure on their internal organs.

The Stay Apparatus is a product of evolution and a means of survival for horses. Before humans learned how to domesticate horses, they are wild animals. And if prey species like horses want to survive in the wild, they need to always be ready to outrun their predators at a moment’s notice.

A quick escape from an attack by a predator wouldn’t be possible if they sleep lying down. They would be forced to waste precious seconds if they had to get up every time they were attacked while sleeping. And in the world of predators and prey, those few seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Even now when most horses are stabled, this prey animal survival technique has been forever embedded in their genetic makeup.


Horse dozing while standing
Horses tend to remain standing when they doze

Sleeping in a safe environment

Before a horse chooses to lie down to sleep, it has to make sure that it’s in a safe environment. Unlike humans who just lie down whenever they feel sleepy, horses need a sense of security before they do so. Lying down can be very dangerous if you live in an environment where you can be a predator’s dinner in an instant.

This kind of environmental stressor is not limited to just wild horses. Even domesticated horses have the same sleeping habits and need a safe environment before they decide to lie down. Even thought they don’t have to worry about being eaten by a mountain lion or other predators, a horse in a ranch or in a stall won’t lay down if it’s feeling stressed out.

Most horses use the buddy system for sleeping. When one horse is sleeping, the other stays awake to watch over. When the sleeping horse wakes up, the watch-horse will take its place and the other will be the new watch-horse. This arrangement or rotation is not just for horses in barns. A group of horses or a herd of horses will also exhibit the same pattern.

There are many reasons why a horse might be hesitant to sleep lying down. A loud and busy barn can disrupt a horse’s sleep. If the stall they are in is too small, a horse won’t be comfortable enough to lie down and get proper sleep.


What are the normal sleep patterns of horses?

Studies show that horses have four phases of sleep: diffuse drowsiness, intermediary, slow-wave, and paradoxical.

Diffuse drowsiness refers to light sleep. This is when a horse stands with its front legs parallel. It has a slightly lowered head and neck. It is also common for the horse to display a downward gaze with relaxed eyelids, ears, and lower lip. During this stage, you might notice the horse resting one of its hind legs. While the horse rests one of its hind legs, the hind-end weight gets support or carried by the other rear limb.

The Intermediary Phase is the phase just before the horse lies down. This is the stage where the horse is alert and examining its surroundings. If satisfied that there is no immediate threat, it lies down. Once lying down, the horse will go through the diffuse drowsiness state again.

A horse needs to feel safe before it will enter the Slow-Wave phase. A drowsy horse often lies in sternal recumbency. This means that the horse is on its abdomen with its legs tucked under. In this stage of sleep, a horse often has its head slightly raised. Up to this point, the horse can get easily aroused from its slight slumber. Horses, in general, lie on their side when they want to move into slow-wave sleep.

In paradoxical sleep, the horse needs to lie down so all of its muscles can relax. This deep sleep stage is the phase where the horse experiences REM sleep. Although the horse is in deep sleep, its brain is still very active while its body is stuck in a paralyzed state. If you see a horse in paradoxical sleep, you will notice that it moves its head to the side and to the ground. The horse does this so its head can remain propped up, ensuring that it has an easier time breathing compared to when they are lying on their sides.


Horse sleeping on its side
Horses don’t like sleeping on their side, since it can affect their blood flow

Why is REM Sleep important for horses?

Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep is the most important stage in the sleep cycle. It is particularly important for developing the nervous system, and is the stage where new memories get created.

Studies have shown that even if an animal is allowed to sleep uninterrupted if they get constantly woken up from REM sleep, they will have a reduced ability to learn.

A sleep-deprived horse quickly becomes week. It loses the ability to control its body temperature. Its metabolism exhilarates. When this happens, it will require more food than normal, yet it will still lose weight.

The lack of REM sleep results in a change in neurotransmitter activity in the central nervous system. This negatively impacts the wellbeing of the horse, interfering with its ability to learn and store new memories, which is similar to how sleep deprivation affects humans.


What are the reasons why a horse won’t or cannot lie down to sleep?

  • Pain. If a horse associates lying down with pain, then it will not do so voluntarily. If a horse experiences musculoskeletal pain (such as osteoarthritis, abdominal, or thoracic pain), it might avoid laying down.
  • Dominance displacement. Some horses, particularly geldings, take the role of the dominant horse in a group. This is similar to the Alpha male of wolf packs. There is a theory that these horses do not sleep often because they feel that it is their responsibility to keep vigil over the herd. This condition is often found when there is no alpha male in the herd.
  • Sleep Terrors. Some horses experience sleep terrors, just like humans. You will them lying on their sides with their legs moving as if they are running. They then suddenly rise in confusion and fear. They often remain in this agitated state for a few minutes.

Group of horses laying down in grass
Horses lay down in groups

What can be done help a horse get more sleep?

There are several techniques that one can employ to help a horse feel safe enough to achieve REM sleep.

The first option is to add a companion horse. This is a technique that works that live on farm pastures, as well as those who sleep in barn stalls or paddocks. Even if the horse cannot see its companion, it can sense that it is not alone in the paddock. This is enough to make the horse feel secure enough to get deep sleep.

Horse owners should also remove aggressive horses from the area. Aggressive horses can disrupt the harmony in a group and intimidate “weaker” horses. When this happens, the other horses will always be on guard and end up experiencing sleep deprivation. They will display behavior similar to when a predator is on the hunt for them. As a result, they will forego deep sleep so that they can quickly escape from the aggressive horse.

An increase in the size of the stall or paddock can also help horses sleep more. As mentioned earlier, horses need enough room for them to lie down and sleep comfortably. If a horse can stretch properly while sleeping, they can get into a deep sleep in a shorter time.

You should also move a horse away from loud noises. Horses are easily agitated by the loud sounds generated by highways and traffic. Just like humans, horses need a quiet place to sleep. The best thing that horse owners can do is make sure that the paddock or shelter is far away from the source of loud noises. Even the constant humming generated by power lines can prevent horses from sleeping soundly.


What are the common sleeping habits of horses?

Horses usually lie down to sun themselves. It’s common to see several horses lying down at the same time. This is their version of a communal sunbath on a warm spring day. When in cold snowy conditions, horses tend to spend less time lying down.

The sleeping patterns of horses also change as they age. A young horse, a foal or a pony under three months of age, can sleep for up to 12 hours a day. On the other hand, adult horses sleep only for about 3 hours in an entire 24-hour period. Much older adult horses sleep more but not as often as foals.


Dozing horse with eyes closed
Horses doze in the standing position


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The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. Read our full medical disclaimer.

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