A look at sleep patterns in horses

Understanding your horse’s sleep patterns — and what disrupts them — can help you care for his sleep needs to the best of your ability.

We tend to blame our bad moods, ill manners or clumsiness on the quantity and quality of sleep we get. Yet we never apply this to our horses. When a horse gives us a bad ride, a cranky reaction or other attitude blunder, we react without thinking about how his sleep patterns might be underlying the problem. The truth is, lack of sleep negatively affects our horses – both mentally and physically – so understanding their sleep patterns is extremely important.

How horses sleep

Horses can doze on and off in light sleep throughout the day and night, while standing up. They have a special support structure in their legs called the “stay apparatus” – soft tissue that locks their knees to keep the legs aligned. When the stay apparatus is locked, no muscle exertion is needed for a horse to stay upright and nap. Resting a hind leg that is slightly flexed with the hoof not fully on the ground is a normal position for a relaxed horse. It may appear he’s unsound for not wanting to bear weight on all four legs, but this is usually not the case. It’s just another sleepy stance that horses use to calm themselves and rest.

But despite their ability to snooze standing up, the old farm saying — “let sleeping horses lie” — is certainly wise. If horses can’t lie down and be totally non-weight-bearing with their heads on the ground, they will not achieve REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This stage of sleep is the most vital for your horse, and he needs 30 to 40 minutes a day. Without this short period of deep sleep, a horse will become sleep deprived within a week or so.

Sleep deprivation – signs and solutions

Little things can turn into big things when your horse isn’t getting enough REM sleep. It can cause damaging behavior like weaving, pacing, pawing, wood chewing, cribbing, kicking, weight issues, and irritability with people and other horses. “Your horse will show signs of physical and mental issues when he isn’t getting adequate sleep,” says Dr. Judy Marteniuka, retired Michigan State University Equine Medical and Extension Veterinarian.

Sleep deprivation can be caused by a number of factors. A stall or pasture that’s too small, for instance, can hinder a horse’s ability to find a comfortable sleeping space. This problem is often worse in seniors, who may have trouble getting comfortable even in large spaces. “Older horses can have pain associated with arthritis that makes it uncomfortable for them to get up and down,” says Dr. Marteniuka.

Luckily, there are several ways you can help horses that are having difficulty sleeping. According to Dr. Marteniuka, a veterinary exam is the first step. If your vet determines that physical discomfort is the reason for your horse’s sleep issues, he or she may recommend a pain management program, which could include anti-inflammatories, massage and/or acupuncture.

A hungry or thirsty horse won’t relax enough to sleep, so making sure your horse is fed and watered properly is important. Also, having a clean well-ventilated stall with 3” to 4” of bedding that is mucked out regularly will make it an inviting place for your horse to snooze.

If your horse is physically fine, it’s time to look at his emotional and mental well-being. Notice if he’s having trouble adjusting to any training or environmental changes like a new stall placement or pasture turnout. Pay attention to lights being left on, late busy barn activity, and loud noises that can keep your horse up and disrupt natural sleepiness.

Herd dynamics

In a pasture situation, it’s important to use care when placing horses outside together. “You should group horses together by similar temperaments and personalities, weight and body conditions, and even separate sexes,” says Dr. Marteniuka. “Easy access to water and food areas without crowding is crucial, so having a large enough turnout to accommodate the number of horses is very important.” By separating your herd, you’re ensuring that the more submissive members have a chance to sleep without being pestered by the more aggressive ones. “Having a big enough shelter area where horses can lie down and get up without being too close to one another will help with the herd dynamic as well,” adds Dr. Marteniuka.

In the wild, herds often have a guard horse. While the rest of the herd lies down to sleep, the guard horse will stay alert and keep watch. Different horses in the group will take turns guarding, but most of the time it’s the alpha (boss) mare’s role. The responsible guard will warn the others if there’s an emergency. In the wild, predators are extremely dangerous to a sleeping herd.  Even in our turnout pastures where there are more than two horses outside, they will instinctively take turns guarding each other.

Horses are neither nocturnal (awake with the moon) or diurnal (awake with the sun). Each horse will develop his own preferred sleep routine, and most are remarkably adaptable when it comes to making the best out of any situation. They adjust well compared to us humans, who tend to toss and turn in new sleep environments. Still, understanding your horse’s sleep patterns – and what disrupts them – can help you care for his sleep needs to the best of your ability.

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Laura Boynton’s steadfast love for animals started as a young child and continues to be a big part of her life today. After working as a veterinary technician for over 15 years, she now spends her days at an equine boarding, instructional, training and show facility in Traverse City, Michigan, where she was born and raised. She has a breeding program at home with her future husband, where they work together to pair AQHA show pleasure bloodlines with their handsome foundation stud. Laura enjoys showing in the all-around classes with her AQHA horses.