Many riders have the impression that their horse does not sleep at all. Every time they come to the stable or to the pasture, the horse is awake. Then, when it does lie down, it doesn’t really seem to be sleeping either.
In fact, horse sleep is quite different from human sleep habits. In our guide, you will learn, among other things, which sleep phases there are in the horse and why the horse has developed a sophisticated sleep rhythm.
Brief overview of “How horses sleep”:
-> Everything you need to know about horse sleep behavior explained in 30 seconds:
Sleeping positions: standing (shields) or lying down Duration of sleep: six hours/day sleeping and dozing
sleep phases: dozing/shielding, SWS sleep, REM sleep.
Sleep deprivation: Leads to health problems, must be recognized and corrected
How long do horses sleep?
It is difficult to give precise information about how long a horse sleeps. Depending on age, breed, husbandry conditions, season and the horse’s individual temperament, sleeping habits differ noticeably. Foals, for example, require significantly more sleep than adult horses. Horses that are exposed to many stimuli and have to exert themselves more also require longer rest periods.
Depending on the source, there are also different data on the sleep requirements of horses. The following data should therefore be understood as a rough guide.
Usually, adult horses spend about six hours a day dozing and sleeping, foals need a few hours more. During this time, the animals do not sleep all at once, but rather in individual stages throughout the day, which can last up to twenty minutes.
The sleeping and waking times of horses are distributed approximately as follows:
75% of the day the horses are awake. 25% of the day is spent in the three sleep phases, which are divided into the sleep phases described in more detail below: – Snoozing – SWS sleep (deep sleep phase) – REM sleep (dream sleep phase)
How long do horses sleep at night?
The main rest periods for horses are from midnight to the early morning hours and midday. During the night, horses sleep up to six times. During this time, the longest sleep cycle lasts a good fifteen minutes.
Sleep phases and sleep positions – how does a horse sleep?
Horses are divided into three sleep phases, which are often difficult to distinguish as a horse owner:
Snoozing or Shielding
Snoozing or shielding represents a phase between sleeping and being awake. It can also be classified as SWS sleep (see below). Horses rest during this period without really sleeping.
Mostly the horse stands while dozing, but it can also lie down. It hardly tenses its muscles. The animals stand relaxed with their lower lip hanging and their eyelids lowered. One hind leg is unloaded. The ears are turned outward, so that the animals can perceive sounds of the environment from all directions despite the relaxed position.
Horses snooze for about two hours a day.
The abbreviation SWS stands for “slow-wave sleep.” This sleep is also referred to as deep sleep. The animals have a slowed breathing and heart rate and the brain is in a resting phase. Horses often lie in the chest position, but they may also stand. Although their brains are not active, the animals are aware of their surroundings and can react immediately when danger approaches.
Even when lying down, horses are immediately on their feet and ready to flee at the slightest sign of threat.
Mares in foal or older animals that cannot get up quickly spend this sleep phase exclusively standing up.
Why do horses often sleep standing up?
While horses are dozing or in SWS sleep, they may stand. As when they are awake, they pay attention during these phases to see if they are in danger of harm. When they sleep standing, they can run away directly in case of danger, saving the time that would be lost by getting up to save their lives.
In order to survive as a flight animal in the wild, the horse has developed this sophisticated sleep rhythm, which allows it to get the rest it needs and to escape quickly in an emergency.
REM is the abbreviation for “Rapid Eye Movement.” The horse’s breathing and heartbeat are clearly slowed down and all muscles are deeply relaxed. In the REM phase, the brain is very active and probably processes the impressions gained during the day. This can be recognized by the twitching eye movements, from which the name of the sleep phase also results.
In the REM sleep phase, the horses lie stretched out on their sides. The eyes are closed and the animals appear to be out of it.
The REM phase of sleep is important for the regeneration of the horses’ muscles. It occurs mainly during the night rest period.
Since it takes longer to get back on their feet from this position, animals only lie down when they feel absolutely safe.
How do horses sleep standing up?
While in humans all muscles go limp during sleep, horses can sleep standing up without falling over. This is due to an anatomical peculiarity of the horse’s hindquarters, the so-called tension saw construction.
Due to the arrangement of the tendons of the horse’s hind leg, the knee and hock are connected and work in the same direction of movement. If the horse flexes or extends its knee, the hock joint is automatically flexed or extended as well. In extension, the horse can fix the patella on the medial crest of the roll, a part of the thigh. In this way, the leg is locked in the extension direction and remains in position during sleep without muscle effort.
You can compare the mechanism with a camping chair, where a kind of cuff can fix the hinge and the legs of the chair can be fixed in this way.
Do horses dream?
Researchers have taken brain wave measurements and found that horses have the same brain waves as humans during REM sleep. There is much evidence to suggest that horses can dream like humans.
The animals’ eyes are in motion during REM, and many horses twitch their legs, make walking movements or move their ears. Foals in particular often have a very lively REM phase. This suggests that horses also process what they have experienced in their dreams, just like we humans do.
Can horses have sleep disorders?
When there is a lot of stress or poor sleeping conditions, many horses do not manage to get into the more restful sleep phases. They doze, but do not manage to lie down and relax completely. However, it is precisely the lying down sleeping position that is important for the animals to be sufficiently rested. Horses lack restorative REM sleep and their need for sleep is not met.
If horses get too little sleep on a permanent basis, this can manifest itself as follows:
The coat becomes dull and lackluster.
The gaze is turned inward and the horse sometimes appears apathetic. It appears tired and shows a noticeable drop in performance.
There are balance disorders ranging from slight swaying to falls. The horse is distractible and has difficulty concentrating. The horse develops behavioral problems.
Where do horses prefer to sleep?
The animals need a quiet, dry, clean place that is large enough for them to stretch out comfortably. They need to feel comfortable and safe. Only then can they fall into REM sleep, which is important for their health.
If your horse is unsleepy, it may be due to the stall or the floor. Perhaps the stall is too narrow or the floor and bedding too damp? The animal may also be suffering from a change of stall or a restless environment, for example.
Important: React quickly in case of sleep deprivation!
If you suspect that your horse is weakening due to a lack of sleep, you must act urgently. The animal is struggling and can be seriously injured if it falls. In very bad cases, this can lead to putting a horse to sleep.
First, you should consider whether the sleep problems were triggered by a specific event. Has there been a barn move, a new herd member, or has the animal fallen ill? Is it having trouble lying down or getting up?
In addition, you need to investigate the animal’s sleeping environment. Maybe a different bedding or a different stall will help the animal relax again.
TIP: Call in the veterinarian if your horse’s sleeping patterns do not return to normal after a few days. Talking to the veterinarian or having him examine the animal may quickly find the cause of the sleeplessness. Or the veterinarian may recommend further measures.
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