How Horses Sleep

Last Updated on February 19, 2022 by Allison Price

What is the best way for your horse to sleep well? Experts in equine behavior say that it may not be what you think.

It’s nearly time to get warm for the next class. Your stomach is starting to churn like a tornado. Your horse is looking at you. Do you feel the excitement?

Nope. No. He is standing right next to you, his eyes closed and his head hanging. He’s standing next to you with his eyes closed and head hanging.

To sleep well, you will need a comfortable bed, privacy, darkness, eight hours of quiet, and eight hours of uninterrupted peace and stillness. Your horse’s needs may be very different. Understanding these differences will help you make sure your horse gets the rest he requires.

How Horses Sleep

Sue McDonnell, PhD is the head of the Equine Behavior Lab at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She says that horses have sleep patterns similar to prey species that evolved in open plains. She notes that there isn’t much research on horse sleep. She has accumulated detailed data over the past 20 years on the daily behavior of stabled and wild horses, including their sleep patterns, in many different settings around the globe. She and two other experts in equine behavior will share their knowledge. So, read on to find out what your horse needs for sleep.

To Flee
While not all horses fall asleep while waiting at a show or in a stall, they can all sleep standing up. The stay apparatus is a kind of internal hammock that your horse uses. It’s a system of ligaments and tendons. He can lock his legs so that he can relax his muscles without having to keel over. The stay apparatus is used to reduce fatigue and rest muscles even when he’s not asleep.

A prey animal’s ability to stand up and sleep is an advantage. Horses can run quickly if a mountain lion approaches through the underbrush. Horses also plan to make a quick escape by choosing the best resting spots. They seek out sheltered areas, but they position themselves to escape quickly. Sue McDonnell says that they are like volunteer firemen who park their cars in parking spots so they can pull out quickly. Many horses that are kept in box stalls will rest facing the door, while others may be positioned at the rear of the stall.

Horses can snooze while standing but they need to be able to rest and sleep. Scientists believe horses need to lie down in order to enter deep sleep stages. Horses experience deep sleep in both slow-wave (SWS), and rapid-eye movement (REM). (SWS is characterized by slow, synchronized waves of electrical activity in the brain as recorded by electroencephalography. REM sleep is marked by rapid brain waves and jerky eye movements. REM sleep appears to be more common when the horse lies flat on his back, instead of resting on his chest.

Horses seem to have REM sleep as well. Their eyes are open and move quickly back and forth under closed lids. Sue McDonnell even saw horses “trotting” in dreams. It is not clear what horses dream about.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!