Last Updated on February 21, 2022 by Allison Price
How many times have you seen a non-horseperson panickingly run up to you and say, “Your horse has died in the pasture!” Although your heart may skip a beat initially, you soon realize something: a sleeping horse can appear a lot like one who doesn’t know better.
Horses can’t sleep while they are standing up, which is a common misconception. While we can forgive those who don’t know better, it is best to learn as much as you can about your horse’s sleeping habits. What do you know about horses and sleeping?
1. Horses like to be able to protect themselves from predators by standing while they snooze.
Horses are prey animals and their survival depends on their ability avoid or outrun predators. They are clearly at a disadvantage when they are asleep. Horses prefer to sleep up as it is the best way to get some z’s. They don’t have the time to move if they are attacked. They stand so that they don’t run away.
2. Thanks to their “stay apparatus”, horses can sleep standing up.
The stay apparatus allows horses to remain vertical when they are not conscious. It locks the horse’s kneecap using ligaments and tendon. Although it sounds frightening, it isn’t dangerous. It’s totally natural and all horses born with the ability to do so know how.
If a horse is lying down, you can see its back legs. The horse will only lock one leg of its back into place and raise the other slightly so that their tip touches the ground. This can make a sleeping horse appear to be cocking its hip.
3. To get REM sleep, horses must lie down.
Horses can get a quick snooze while standing but they cannot get the REM sleep they need without relaxing all of their muscles. Horses need REM sleep just like humans. Horses, however, only require about 2 to 3 hours of REM sleep per day.
This type of sleep is common in horses. They will lie down for 20 minutes, then get up and go back to sleep.
4. Horses don’t sleep all night like we do.
Horses are either diurnal or nocturnal, meaning they are active during the day. Horses don’t fall into deep sleep at night. Instead, they alternate between activity and rest. Horses might have a quick snooze while standing up and then graze for a bit before moving to their side to sleep. If they are left to their devices, they will continue the same routine until the sun rises.
The routine of your horse’s sleep will greatly influence their sleeping patterns. They will be more inclined to go to bed at night if you work them most of the day. They will adapt to their own sleep schedule if they are allowed to have the day off.
5. Horses like to sleep in pairs.
Horses do well in groups. Horses are herd animals and work together to protect their herd.
You won’t find a whole family sleeping together in the wild. This would make everyone more vulnerable to predators. Horses are trained to rest in shifts. Those who aren’t asleep stand watch and switch on and off to make sure everyone is well-rested.
6. Your horse may be cranky because they’re not getting enough sleep.
Although horses don’t require as much sleep as humans do, they still feel exhaustion. Horses don’t need coffee to get them through the day. It is usually easy to determine if a horse is getting enough sleep. They will start to display their lack of REM sleep if they aren’t getting enough.
7. Horses can’t sleep if they feel unsafe or stressed.
Your horse will instinctively know that it is dangerous to fall asleep in an unsafe spot. While some horses are more sensitive to this danger than others, it is important that all horses have safe places to rest.
A run-in shed is best for horses who are outside all day. You should ensure that your horse can comfortably lie down in their stall if they are brought into the barn at night.
Horses who have recently moved to a barn may go days, or even weeks, without REM sleep. If they feel stressed, they might stop sleeping. You could have a new member in their herd, or the smell of a mountain lion or coyote nearby. Your horse won’t fall asleep if she is stressed.
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!