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How Do Horses Sleep & Do They Sleep Standing Up?

There is much debate over the sleeping habits of equines. Do they always sleep standing up? Is it dangerous for them to sleep lying down? These are just a couple of the questions loving horse owners ask about their animals’ sleep habits.

Getting to the bottom of it isn’t as easy as it may seem. We’ve done the homework, however, giving you the best advice from the experts on just exactly what your horse’s sleep habits should look like.

Do horses sleep standing up?

The answer to this question depends upon what, exactly, you consider to be sleep. Horses, like humans, sleep in different cycles, or degrees, of rest. Just like humans, they can doze, experience Slow Wave Sleep (SWS), and also need Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is the deep sleep in which dreaming occurs, and yes, horses also dream.

Horses can doze and rest in the first stage, SWS, while standing. They can do this because of an amazing ability in the equine skeletal system. They possess a unique ability to lock their own limbs, specifically their rear kneecaps, into place, allowing their skeleton to hold itself upright without engaging the muscles. This is called a stay apparatus and is possible because of a special system of tendons and ligaments.

There is a good reason why horses are capable of resting while on their feet. This built-in survival mechanism carried over from the days when most horses were wild and didn’t have precious time to struggle to their feet before fleeing if a predator attacked For this reason, horses will never lie down if they do not feel safe.

Which leads us to the next question about horses’ sleep habits . . .

Horse sleeping

Do horses sleep laying down?

As mentioned above, horses are only able to engage in SWS sleep while standing, and REM sleep is necessary to horses, just like in humans. So that means a horse must spend some time laying down to sleep.

A horse cannot achieve REM sleep while standing because the muscles must be completely relaxed. Just like when humans have that falling sensation and jerk awake every now and then, horses also twitch and move in their sleep. Control of muscle function is lost during REM sleep and even the stay apparatus isn’t sufficient to allow the horse this much relaxation.

So how much of this deep sleep do horses need on a daily basis? Most experts say anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours a day is sufficient for the REM stage. Horses will only sleep this deeply during the dark hours after midnight, unless there is a sleep disorder.

Experts also agree that this REM sleep only occurs in short bursts, usually of 10-20 minutes at a time. The reason for this is likely due to the horse’s anatomy and physiology, the restriction of blood flow to vital organs when lying down, which makes it difficult for them to lie down for a long period of time. A horse can usually only lay down for a maximum of 45 minutes at a time.

Foal sleeping on the ground

How long do horses sleep?

Horses need anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours of REM sleep per day, but that only accounts for a small part of their rest habits. In total, most horses need 5-7 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period.

If a horse doesn’t get enough sleep, the adverse effects might not be visible for a few days, but eventually a horse may become irritable, bad tempered, and even dangerous. In some cases, a sleep deprived horse may even collapse in unlikely places, for example, at a show. There are quite a few documented cases of this.

There are many reasons why a horse might not get enough sleep, including stress, isolation, noise, lack of security from being in a new place, joint problems, inadequate space to lay down, and social insecurity caused from such situations as a new horse being introduced to a herd or a new aggressive horse nearby.

The effects of sleep deprivation in horses are lethargy and extreme drowsiness resulting in poor performance and attitude.

REM sleep disorder is a condition in which horses wake themselves up with excessive body movements, resulting in a sleep deficit.

Other sleep disorders in equines include narcolepsy, when a fully alert horse suddenly falls asleep, and hypersomnia, which is excessive sleep. Either of these problems could signify neurological disease and should be investigated by a veterinarian.

Foal asleep having a dream

Do horses lay down?

Though horses may not have to lay down to get their doze on, they do need to stretch out on one side for a few 10-20 minutes stretches at night to catch up on that REM sleep. You may not see them laying down much because they do their hard sleeping mostly after midnight in the darkest hours of the night.

If a horse is laying down during the day, they could just be sunning, but if it becomes common, or the horse stays down for a long period of time, it could indicate a problem. Sleep deprivation, colic, and other illnesses could be at play if a horse is spending a great deal of time laying down during daylight hours.

Foals spend more time sleeping than adult horses, much like infants sleep more than adult humans. Older horses might have trouble sleeping because of joint issues as they age, which is something to discuss with a veterinarian if you suspect sleep deprivation in your senior horse.

Do Horses Snore?

Yes, horses often snoring while sleeping. Horses usually snore quietly, but like humans, some do have annoying sleeping habits. For example, these horses below in the funny video compilation are clearly not average horses.

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