If you’re new to horse-keeping, you may wonder how horses sleep, do they ever sleep resting down, and what can you do to ensure a good and comfortable rest for your horse.
Horse sleeping patterns are very different from our sleeping patterns and even from the sleeping patterns of our pets, for example.
Understanding how, when, and why horses sleep the way they do will give you a better understanding of your horse’s behavior.
It will also allow you to make changes or improve the sleeping conditions of your horse.
In what follows, I’ll explain everything you need to know about how horses sleep.
Do Horses Ever Sleep?
Even though it may not seem so, horses do sleep. However, their sleeping patterns are so different from ours that you may wonder if your horse ever gets a shut eye at all.
But rest assured that your horse does rest and sleep when it feels tired, even though to you it may seem like they’re just standing up.
That’s because horses need very little sleep (they spend just 12% of their days sleeping) and they don’t sleep for hours back-to-back, instead they’ll doze off for short bursts of time.
How do Horses Sleep?
You may have heard that horses sleep standing up. And while there’s some truth to that, when standing, horses actually just doze off a little.
When standing, horses do not enter into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is what we know as deep sleep. The reason for this is that horses are prey animals, and in the wild, they needed to stay alert in case a predator was attacking.
By just standing instead of lying down, horses can save precious time by not having to get up when they’re in danger.
But don’t their legs get tired after standing up for so long, you might ask? Yes and no. Let me explain!
When you spot a horse snoozing standing up, you’re seeing something called the ‘stay apparatus’ in action.
This mechanism allows horses to rest while standing up by locking a horse’s joints into place. Meanwhile the horse bears its weight on three legs, relaxing one of its hind legs.
You’ll actually notice that one of the hind legs is slightly raised up. That’s the leg that’s relaxing.
You may think this hurts or it’s tiring for the horse, but actually this stay apparatus mechanism allows the muscles to somewhat relax, without having to lay down to sleep and waste time getting up in case of imminent danger.
Without this mechanism, the joints of the horse would get very tired indeed, especially seeing how they’re large animals with a lot of weight to bear.
When and How Long do Horses Sleep?
You may think that because of their large size, horses need a lot of sleep. Well, that’s not the case. Unlike humans, and many other mammals, horses not only sleep for short periods of time, but they do so frequently throughout the day.
Usually, horses will sleep anywhere from 2.5 to 3.5 hours in a 24 hour period. And that’s not even in one go.
They’ll doze off for periods of 10-15 minutes at a time, at various times during the day, resulting in a whopping number of sleep sessions compared to that of a human.
This isn’t the case with foals, however, whose stay apparatus isn’t yet developed and who need extra sleep because they’re still developing themselves.
As a result, a foal under the age of 3 months will spend half its day sleeping laying down. As they grow and develop, they’ll spend less and less time sleeping. Until old age, that is.
Old horses will also sleep longer compared to younger adult horses.
As for the time of day that horses sleep, that can be different from horse to horse. Some horses will prefer sleeping more during the day and much less or not at all during the night.
But what do horses do at night if they’re not sleeping? This too can be explained as an evolutionary response to being prey animals.
Because of how their gastrointestinal tracts are designed to always be digesting small amounts of food, they need to spend a lot of time grazing. And at night, they’ll do just that.
Besides grazing, they’ll also keep a lookout for other members of the group that may be sleeping.
Why Some Horses Lay Down When Sleeping?
A horse that’s snoozing standing up cannot relax all its muscles to go into deep sleep or REM sleep. For this, they need to lay down. And to lay down, horses need to feel safe.
In an area with a realistic threat from predators, horses may not get comfortable enough to lay down, so they don’t unless they feel it’s safe.
If there’s a comfortable and safe place for your horse such as a stable or a stall, they’ll lay down a couple times a day to sleep.
But laying down for extended periods of time isn’t good either for horses. First, it’s because it can restrict blood flow, then because there’s too much pressure on internal organs.
Therefore, horses will sleep through a combination of standing up and laying down that in total will not add up to more than 3.5 hours during a 24 hour period.
It may seem odd to you, but it’s completely normal for a horse to be sleeping so little.
Another aspect of horse sleeping that I want to mention is whether horses keep their eyes shut or open while sleeping.
Usually, when in REM sleep, horses will have their eyes shut as well. In the light sleep mode, when they’re standing up, horses might keep both or one of their eyes open.
This goes to show how different the two sleep modes are. In the REM sleep mode, when the horse is laying down, its eyes are shut because it feels safe and comfortable to do so.
In the light sleep mode, they don’t relax as much and stay alert, and that is also reflected by the fact that one or both of their eyes are open.
A horse that’s nervous or stressed by its surroundings will not lay down to sleep. So, unless they know they’re safe from predators, horses will doze off standing up.
Can Horses Sleep Outside?
You may be wary of allowing your horse to sleep outside, but they do seem to like it. After all, wild horses sleep outside all the time.
So yes, horses can sleep and rest outside if it’s comfortable and safe for them to do so. Assuming that your facilities provide the safety they need, horses can be left outside even throughout the night.
Horses will even lay down to sunbathe on warm days, stretching out flat on the ground.
In fact, it’s not unusual to see a group of horses laying down in the sun.
But when this happens, other horses in the group will remain standing up keeping lookout for the horses that are laying down.
This is a common behavior in horses kept together in a paddock. Some horses will remain standing up and alert while other horses go into deep sleep laying down. Then they’ll switch places.
Even though horses sleep very little, they need those couple of hours of sleep per day and they also need REM sleep, otherwise they’ll be sleep deprived just like humans that don’t get enough sleep.
Because sleep deprivation in horses can be dangerous, you need to address the reasons why your horse isn’t sleeping.
These reasons can usually be traced back to the fact that your horse isn’t feeling safe enough to lay down to sleep, or physical such as an injury or pain that’s keeping your horse from relaxing.
Even though horses can sleep outside, they need a dry area, so that they’re not forced to sleep on the wet ground or on the ground covered in mud.
A run-in shed is perfect for this purpose. But an area with trees they can go under is also acceptable.
Ultimately, horses used to sleep in the wild, so it’s not something that they’ll be wary of doing. Just make sure they’re protected from the harsh elements and that they have food and water at the ready.
Do Horses Have Dreams?
Horses sleep standing up. Once they are asleep they enter a deep state of relaxation and have been shown to be in a very deep sleep. Horses can sleep for 3-4 hours at a time, but usually wake up every 20-30 minutes to check their surroundings.
When horses do sleep, they mostly sleep standing up and are generally awake for about 20 minutes before falling asleep again.
Horses never truly enter a REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep (which is when we dream), but if they do have dreams the experience is very similar to ours. Horses can suffer from nightmares just like we do, but rarely show signs of it when awake.
Horses have a good memory that allows them to learn new things quickly and remember important things such as where food is located, danger areas and where friends are located.
Horses form deep bonds with other horses and humans alike (called “friendships”), which last long after the friendship has ended or even after death has occurred.
The bond between horses and humans is especially strong, as when working together humans and horses form an unbreakable bond that helps both species survive in the wild.
It may seem unusual that horses sleep so little or that they can even rest while standing up, but for them it’s what comes naturally.
When horses roamed freely in the wild, it was important for them to stay alert and be able to spring into action whenever they were threatened by predators. And that was easier to do while standing up.
Therefore, account for these differences in sleeping patterns and make sure your horses feel safe and comfortable so they can partake in all the sleeping and resting styles they’re accustomed to.
And now that you know of the different sleeping positions horses may assume when sleeping, you can even keep track of your horse’s sleeping patterns.Horse Health