Domesticated horses have never spent any time in the wild, but have many traits from their wild ancestors honed by years of evolution. Horses sleep standing up and laying down based on these evolved traits. Many horse owners wonder why their horse sleeps in a certain way and most of these traits come from a basic survival instinct in horses from hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
Do Horses Sleep Standing Up, Sitting, or Lying Down?
Horses have an amazing ability to sleep standing up and lying down. Horses were prey animals, meaning an animal hunted by other animals. This meant they needed to see quickly if a predator was near enough to be a threat. Sleeping standing up enabled horses in the wild to get rest, but still be able to move quickly if a predator came along. If the horse was laying down, it would be much harder to get up and run away from a predator.
Horse Sleep: Standing Up
Horses spend approximately 5-7 hours per day resting, but actual sleep usually happens late at night. While resting and sleeping standing up does help your horse to recover from exercise or activity, they are only able to achieve slow-wave sleep while standing. Horses cannot achieve rapid eye movement (REM) phase while standing because they will lose muscle tone and fall.
Horse Sleep: Sitting and Laying Down
Most horses will sleep laying down during late night hours or if they feel comfortable in a group situation. Horses need a minimum of 30 minutes of sleep laying down to get the proper amount of REM sleep and avoid sleep deprivation. REM phase can only be achieved while horses are laying down due to the resulting loss in muscle tone.
All About the Stay Apparatus
Anyone who has ever observed horses sleeping standing up wonder how they can do this without falling down. Horses have a unique ability to sleep while standing because of the stay apparatus. The stay apparatus is a series of muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the equine thoracic and pelvic limbs that help stabilize the limb. These muscles, ligaments, and tendons all work together to allow certain muscles to relax while maintaining the extension in other areas. Horses will also use this handy apparatus to rest their muscles after a long workout.
Why Do Horses Need to be Able to Sleep Both Laying Down and Standing Up?
Horses lived on large plains and were the prey for many large predators. They needed to be on alert for predators at all times and ready to run at a moment’s notice (hence the Fight or Flight instinct). If a horse was only able to rest laying down, they would become very vulnerable to predators. So, horses evolved to sleep in both a standing and laying down position to reduce their vulnerability and still get the sleep they need.
Do They Sleep With Their Eyes Opened or Closed?
Horses can sleep with their eyes open, closed, or somewhere in between. The horse’s eyes are a good indicator of how deeply the horse is sleeping. Closed eyes are usually an indicator of deep sleep.
Why Deep Sleep is So Important for Horses
Horses can experience sleep deprivation just like humans. Similar to humans, sleep deprivation can cause a wide range of other issues, including reduced performance, irritability, lack of appetite, and general lethargy. When horses get the appropriate amount of deep sleep, they are able to perform at a higher level, are more alert, and are in better health.
When Do Horses Get the Deepest Sleep?
The deepest level of sleep is known as rapid eye movement (REM) phase. This phase of sleep is the most restorative. Horses need to be either lying down on their chests or side to achieve REM phase. Horses need between 30-40 minutes of REM sleep within 24 hours to avoid sleep deprivation. They do not need to get REM sleep all at one time, so this could occur throughout 3-4 sleep sessions.
How Much Sleep Should a Horse Get in a Day?
Adult horses have different sleep requirements compared to foals and senior horses. Foals will sleep as much as 12 hour per day, while adult horses will only sleep for roughly 3 hours per day. Senior horses tend to nap more often than an adult, but less than a foal.
What Time of Day Do Horses Usually Sleep?
Horses will rest between 5-7 hours throughout the day and sleep for 2.5-3 hours per day. Most horses will sleep laying down and achieve REM sleep in the late evening, after midnight. However, some horses will sleep laying down during the day if they are very comfortable in their environment. Many horse owners will notice their horse will rest or sleep periodically throughout the day rather than at one time like most people do.
What Happens if a Horse Doesn’t Get Enough Sleep?
Horses can suffer from sleep deprivation if they do not get sufficient sleep. You’ll notice they are very tired during the day. Proper sleep is very important to a horse’s overall health. If a horse goes for a longer period of time without sufficient sleep, it will begin to affect their overall health negatively.
How Does Stress Impact Equine Sleep?
Horses are prey animals and are prone to environmental stressors. If a horse is not comfortable in their environment, does not have enough space, or is very low in a herd situation, their sleep will be affected. For example, if a horse is low in a herd it is likely they will be pushed around by other horses and forced out of the group rather than resting.
How Do Horses Sleep in the Wild?
The stay apparatus enabled horses to rest and sleep while staying alert for predators. Horses also lived in herds in the wild. These herds helped to create more safety than an individual horse could provide. Several horses would stay awake and watch for predators while others in the herd slept. This alert system was especially important when the herd had small foals and senior horses in the group.
How Can I Facilitate Good Sleep For My Horse?
Horses sleep well when they are comfortable and feel secure. Horse owners can facilitate good sleep for their horses by creating a peaceful, comfortable area for their horse. Make sure the stall size accommodates the horse and has enough room for them to lay down. Matting and thick shavings also make a big difference to horses as they lay down and stand up. For horses in turnout, a cool shaded area with grass is ideal for sleeping. If possible ensure the pasture is not near a lot of activity that will keep horses awake.
Do Horses Nap?
Horses nap on a regular basis. You will notice horses standing with one hind leg cocked up after a workout or in their stall. This is the horse equivalent of a nap as the stay apparatus takes over and they enter slow-wave sleep.
Do Horses Sleep in Groups at the Same Time?
Horses in a herd will rotate who sleeps at the same time. This behavior evolved from herds on the plains. Some horses would stay awake to alert the herd of a predator while others rested. This kept the entire herd safe while still enabling rest.
- How long can a horse safely lay down?
Horses can lay down for up to 2 hours to sleep or rest. Most horses will lay down at least once per day to sleep. This is perfectly safe unless the horse gets cast, and is unable to rise.
- How do I know if my horse is just sleeping or if it’s not feeling well?
Horses will generally exhibit a variety of signs if they are not feeling well. Lethargy, or being tired, is often associated with many diseases and illnesses. If you are concerned your horse is not feeling well, take their vital signs and note if any are outside of normal range.
- What happens if a horse lays down too long?
If a horse has been laying down for more than a few hours at a time, check to see if they are cast or injured. If not, check vital signs and contact your veterinarian.
- What is the stay apparatus? How does it facilitate equine sleep?
The stay apparatus enables horses to rest and sleep while standing. A combination of muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the equine thoracic and pelvic limbs work together to allow certain muscles to relax while keeping the limbs stable. The stay apparatus allowed horses in the wild to rest while remaining alert for predators.
- Why is it bad for a horse to lay down?
It is not bad for horses to lay down. Horses need to lay down to achieve REM sleep each day. Laying down allows horses to relax all of their muscles and achieve this restorative phase of sleep.
- Why do horses sleep standing up?
Horses sleep standing up to stay alert and prepared to run from predators. While domesticated horses now are unlikely to need this ability, it is a strong trait that evolved from wild horses.
- Is it OK for a horse to lay down?
Horses need to lay down for periods during the day to achieve a sufficient amount of sleep. If a horse is not injured or stuck (cast), laying down is restful for them.
- How long can a horse lay down for?
Horses can lay down for several hours per day. Most horses will do this in several sleep sessions rather than one long one like most people.
- How long do horses sleep standing up?
Horses will rest or sleep standing up for 5-7 hours per day. These sleep sessions are generally brief and throughout the entire day.
- Do horses sleep at night?
Horses do sleep at night, but not exclusively. Most horses will lay down and achieve REM sleep after midnight when it is very dark out.
- Why do horses sleep so little?
Horses sleep for brief periods throughout the day, but ultimately do sleep less than a human. The reduced amount of sleep needed by horses has evolved over hundreds of years. A horse that slept for hours at a time was easy prey for a predator and did not make it.
- Where do horses sleep on a farm?
Many horses like to sleep in their stalls because they are comfortable and mostly private. Other horses will sleep in the pasture in shaded, grassy areas.
Horse sleep patterns and needs are very interesting and have a solid base from their wild horse ancestors. Horses need less sleep than humans and sleep for brief periods throughout the day, both standing and laying down. It is important for horses to get a sufficient amount of sleep each day to maintain good health. Horses can suffer from sleep deprivation if they are not able to get enough sleep.