Question!

How do horses sleep?  How can I tell if my horse is sleeping or not? 



Ever wonder why your cat sleeps about a thousand hours a day and your horse is always awake?  Part of it has to do with their natural instincts - cats are hunters, and horses are the hunted.  As animals that are eaten, horses put themselves at risk by sleeping, so their sleep cycles are radically different from cats.

 

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Comet is CLEARLY unfazed by the paparazzi taking his picture while he's sleeping.  

 

Horses generally sleep for three to four hours a day.  A horse’s sleep is composed of three stages:  Drowsiness, for about two hours, slow wave sleep for about three hours, and REM sleep, for about 45 minutes.  Horses enter the drowsiness stage standing up, with one hind leg cocked.  They have the amazing ability to “lock” one stifle so the leg is solid as the other one rests.  This sling apparatus allows for a quick getaway if need be and some stability as your horse snoozes.  

 

When your horse is on his chest or flat out on his side, he’s most likely slow wave sleeping.  Their muscles are relaxed and they are definitely resting!  Next comes REM sleep, which includes loss of muscle tone and total relaxation.  This stage of sleep lasts for about 45 minutes or so per 24 hour day and your horse typically rests on his sternum and tucks his head.  This position facilitates the easiest breathing.  

 

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Napping in the sun!

 

Some horses get their rest during the night, some during the day.  Many horses are so regular you can set your watch to them, others vary their patterns for whatever reason - season, weather, light, how much food he has in front of him, you name it.  

 

It is well documented that horses will not sleep if they are not comfortable with their surroundings or they don’t feel safe.  You may notice in a herd setting, some horses will sleep while others stand watch.  The same principle applies in a barn setting, the horses in stalls must feel like it’s safe to lay flat and sleep.  This is actually one reason that I like to pick out shavings from tails every single day - a tail free from shavings is a sign your horse may not be comfortable enough to sleep.

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And now he's drifting in and out of slow wave sleep.  He must have partied too hard last night.

 

Horses that go on for days and weeks without sleep can develop dangerous problems, including collapsing.  Often they fall to their knees and wake up when their nose hits the ground.  This is clearly a safety issue for you if you are riding, and a safety issue for them if they go down in a stall and bonk their head on the way down on a window, bucket, wall, etc.  If you suspect a sleep disorder, contact your Veterinarian right away.  There are many reasons for a horse to not sleep, from arthritis, pregnancy, injury, travel, and fright.  You and your Veterinarian can figure out the reason and help your guy get some shut eye.   

Do your know your horse’s sleep pattern?