During the nationwide lockdowns many ventured further into the countryside to walk and cycle, over this time there was a huge increase in the number of reports about “dead” horses lying in fields. Most of these have been false alarms … because those horses were merely asleep, not dead! It’s all down to the popular belief that horses only sleep standing up!
We know better! Horses and ponies enjoy a comfy snooze lying down in the grass or in their stables, just like the rest of us. The thing is, happy, healthy horses CAN and do sleep on their feet, and they don’t need to lay down to get their quota of ZZZs as much as humans do.
How Long do Horses Sleep?
We sleep, ideally, about 8 hours a day, usually at night. Horses however need only about three hours sleep out of 24 hours (depending on their age – foals for example need more nap time), and they grab their sleep in stages, dozing on their feet and occasionally, when they feel safe, laying down to have brief periods of REM deep sleep when their muscles are fully relaxed.
Why do Horses Sleep Standing Up?
Horses have evolved to be predatory animals, so they need to be constantly on alert to flee – yes, even our domesticated well-cared for and protected horses and ponies have this innate urge to be on constant alert.
That’s why nature has endowed them with what is known as the “stay apparatus” … an anatomical mechanism that provides the means for them to stay standing even when they’re not fully awake.
The horse’s kneecap locks up with ligaments and tendons, completely naturally and painlessly, allowing them to doze while standing.
When he needs a snooze the standing horse will lock one of his back legs into place, and the other will be slightly raised so just the tip of the hoof is in contact with the ground, making him look like he is leaning on one hip.
His head and neck will droop, his ears will be relaxed, the eyes closed and the lower lip will probably hang down or even twitch.
This means its sleep time for your four-footed friend, but rest assured he’ll spring awake at the first sign of danger!
When Horses Sleep Laying Down
When horses need deep sleep, or want to sun themselves on a warm day, they will lay down. Horses need REM (Rapid Eye Movement) deep sleep for a couple of hours a day, but they’ll take it in short bursts of about 20 minutes – unlike we humans who need to sleep all night with cycles of REM sleep to feel rested.
Horses are not nocturnal or diurnal. The cycle of day and night means nothing to them. They simply doze or sleep when they need to, although they will adjust their sleep needs to their regular routine and their pace of work.
You may notice if you have several horses in a field that one or more always stays awake while others sleep. This is because nature dictates there has to be a lookout to be alert for danger.
Yes, just like us, there are factors that interfere with a horse’s ability to have enough sleep, and in their case its usually down to stress or feeling unsafe.
A horse that isn’t sufficiently rested will be cranky and show behavioural issues – and they can’t resort to a cup of coffee to keep them going!
Spooky horses, in particular, will probably not feel safe falling asleep, so you can help them by ensuring they have a safe, secure place to get some rest.
If they’re turned out full time, a run-in shelter will help. If they come in at night make sure the stall is big enough for them to lay down in comfortably. Also, make sure there are no real or perceived threats in their environment.
It also helps to have companion horses near at hand to keep vigil while others sleep. It’s been proved that horses kept alone are more likely to suffer sleep disorders. Also make sure the horse is not kept in a noisy environment, such as near a busy road or airport.
If you have a sleep deprived spooky horse you could try using calming supplements to allay fears, but it is best to try to improve his confidence and environment. Some older horses may have trouble laying down to enjoy valuable sleep due to arthritis or joint problems. These could be assisted by feeding joint supplements. In both cases it’s a process of trial and error to see which work best.
Tell your non-horsey friends, next time they spy a horse that looks dead to the world, laying flat on the ground, rest assured he is by no means dead, just feeling safe, restful, happy and having a good sleep!