Sleep is an integral aspect of life for not just horses, but all animals. As an equestrian, it’s important to understand how, when, and why horses sleep the way they do. So how does a horse sleep?
It’s simple. Horses sleep lying down. That said, however, they can sleep standing up as well! They have different sleep postures because the kind of sleep they experience in either posture is different.
Both are, however important for the overall well-being of the horse. Are you a little confused? Not to worry! In this post, we’ll highlight several points on sleep in horses and help you understand them better.
Types of Sleep for a Horse
To start us off, let’s first brush up on some biology. Horses are mammals, just like humans. For mammals, there are two types of sleep, REM sleep, and non-REM sleep. (REM means Rapid Eye Movement)
Sleep occurs in phases, and non-REM includes the first few phases. In this stage of sleep, dreaming is possible.
REM sleep refers to the latter stages of sleep, which can also be referred to as deep sleep. In this phase of the sleep cycle, several things happen to the body.
Several bodily functions are performed at a slower rhythm or intensity compared to their levels when awake. Movement is also limited, and dreaming occurs more vividly than is the case in non-REM sleep. Throughout a sleep cycle, REM and non-REM sleep alternate until waking up.
The Sleep Pattern of a Horse
For humans, there are several theories on what amount of sleep is necessary each day, with the consensus leaning towards 7-8 hours as being ideal.
I’m raising this point because astoundingly, horses require less sleep than we do. Studies have shown that horses can thrive with as little as 3-4 hours of sleep a day!
Based solely on their size, I imagine most people or amateur equestrians would think horses do similar sleep hours as humans. That would be a wrong assumption on their part, as we’ve seen.
The total sleep hours for a horse accumulate in several installments throughout the day. These sleep installments can last anywhere between 15-20 minutes to one or two hours.
These installments are then attained by the horse sleeping either when lying down or standing.
Sleep Lying Down vs. Standing Up
At this point, we have mentioned two key facts about horse sleep.
The first is that they experience REM and non-REM sleep. The second is that that they accrue their needed sleep in several chunks of time over the day. (Each time-chunk lasting around 15-20 minutes)
The other important bit about horse sleep is that horses can sleep either lying down or standing up.
For a horse to truly experience the required REM sleep, it has to lie down. This is because of the changes mentioned earlier that occur in the body during REM sleep.
When standing, on the other hand, horses aren’t able to experience much of deep sleep (REM sleep), and as such, mostly experience non-REM sleep in this posture.
Horses Sleep While Standing?
We’ve so far mentioned that horses sleep either lying down or standing up. Sleep while lying down is self-explanatory, but how does a horse manage to sleep while standing?
It’s all thanks to something known as the stay apparatus. While it may almost sound like a Harry Potter spell, it’s something entirely different!
The stay apparatus is a collection of ligaments, muscles, and tendons found in horses, that allows them to stabilize their limbs and joints while standing.
Horses stand on 3 legs when the stay apparatus is engaged. This allows them to rest the raised leg during the sleep period. The leg in rest changes throughout the day so that they can all eventually have a chance to rest.
While the stay apparatus is commonly only associated with horses, it’s present in several other mammals as well.
Sleep needs according to age
Horses require only a few hours of sleep (4 hours at most) a day to survive. Is this the case for horses of all ages, however? Quite simply, it isn’t so.
Foals can sleep for up to half a day!
In their first few months, they get to enjoy deep sleep for up to 12 hours. At this stage of their life, they can’t use their stay apparatus just yet, so they just sleep on the ground.
As they grow older, from say 4 months onward, their sleep requirements start to reduce until eventually getting to the 3-4 hours required by adult horses.
From our experience with toddlers, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that foals sleep that much. It’s simply a biological imperative that young ones get lots of sleep as they are only beginning to develop.
Why Sleep is Important
The most important aspect to keep in mind about sleep is that it’s an involuntary process. That seems to emphasize its vital role in the well-being of all animals, horses in this case.
Here are a few reasons for the importance of sleep for horses:
- Sleep allows the horse to get rid of the fatigue it has accumulated throughout a day’s activity.
- Sleep is important for continued growth and maturation, especially in foals.
- Sleep allows horses to fight off diseases, infections and regenerate worn-out cells in the body.
- Sufficient sleep ensures the horse is well-rested and able to continue performing optimally every day.
- Getting enough sleep is necessary for the emotional, psychological, and social well-being of a horse, otherwise, it would constantly be irritable. An irritable horse can be dangerous to deal with!
Effects of Inadequate Sleep for a Horse
Sleep is an involuntary and necessary part of life. If a horse doesn’t get enough of it, several things could go wrong.
A few pertinent examples of what could go wrong are:
We’ve seen that sleep helps ward off diseases and infections. A horse that doesn’t get enough sleep is prone to developing an illness further or end up suffering new ones.
Sleep relaxes the body and mind. If there isn’t enough sleep for a horse, the built-up mental and physical fatigue can make the horse irritable and hostile. A horse in this state can be dangerous to handle and can even cause harm to those around it.
What Affects Sleep in Horses?
Several aspects can affect or interfere with a horse’s sleep. We can categorize them as follows:
Think of this aspect in terms of security and comfort.
If a horse feels it’s not in a safe environment, its instincts won’t allow it to sleep peacefully. In such a case, sleep would be hard to come by, and if it did, it would be continually interrupted because of the sense of impending danger.
On comfort, even horses don’t just lay on any type of ground. As an equestrian, your horses should have hospitable stables for their comfort.
The physical condition of a horse can also impede its sleep. Just like how we can’t seem to sleep well when we’re sick, horses are the same.
When you notice a change in the sleep behavior on your horse, ruling out disease and injury should be an important consideration.
The fact that horses dream may indicate that they can also experience nightmares or night terrors as we do. Several studies have shown that this can inhibit getting proper sleep.
Explaining a Horse’s Sleep Behavior
So far, we’ve highlighted two unique aspects regarding a horse’s sleep. They are:
- The fact that they can sleep while standing.
- The fact that they require only a few hours of sleep.
What then is the reason for these facts?
On the first fact, there are several reasons to explain that behavior. Recall that horses are social animals and are genetically prey animals.
Because of their position as animals of prey, they had to develop several mechanisms for flight in case of attacks. The stay apparatus is one such mechanism. With it, they can quickly wake up from a light sleep and flee immediately a threat arrives.
Their social characteristic means they live and depend on other horses for survival. In the wild, horses take turns sleeping since having them all asleep at once would make them susceptible to attacks.
That could be why they instinctively sleep a few hours in intermittent periods.
They also can’t lie down for long periods since the pressure created by resting the horse’s weight on one side can interfere with the working of some internal organs.
Do Horses Snore?
Yes! Horses do snore. Snoring is not something unique to humans.
Snoring is essentially breathing loudly, which occurs when air flows through relaxed tissues in the nasal and throat cavity when asleep. As the air hits these tissues, they are made to vibrate, creating the noisy breathing we call snoring.
We’ve looked at several aspects concerning sleep in horses in this post and hopefully, you’ve learned something new that can help you understand your horse better.
Remember to create a conducive environment for your horse at all times and more so when it comes to sleeping arrangements. Inadequate sleep is very detrimental to your horse’s well-being!