Fox Hunting Life with Horse and Hound
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FHL WEEK, November 7, 2019

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How Horses Sleep

Horses

by Bill Fish

sleeping horse

Do horses really sleep standing up or must they lie down? Can they dream like humans do? How many hours of sleep do they need on a daily basis? How are horses’ sleeping habits the same or different compared to those of other large animals?

Like cattle and some other animals, horses are capable of sleeping in a standing position. Sleeping while standing is beneficial because it tricks potential predators into thinking the animal is awake and less vulnerable. The ability to sleep while standing is due to a series of leg ligaments and bones called the “stay apparatus” that allows certain large animals, such as giraffes and zebras, to lock their legs.

Horses do not do all of their sleeping standing up. Horses engage in light sleep while standing, but cannot experience REM sleep unless they lie down. Horses regularly take short naps while standing throughout the day, which is likely the reason some people assume horses always sleep standing up.

Horses Sleep Less Than Humans
Although horses are much larger than humans, often weighing over 1,000 pounds, they do not require as much sleep as humans do. Most horses only need five to seven hours of rest each day, and less than one hour of that rest is REM sleep, one of the deepest sleep stages. The amount of sleep a horse needs changes over their lifetime. Foals can sleep half the day away, while the oldest horses need only a few hours of sleep each day.

Horses also sleep at different times than humans do. They are not diurnal like us, nor are they nocturnal. Horses can sleep at any time, day or night, and generally spread their sleep out across each twenty-four-hour period by sleeping for minutes at a time instead of one long block.

Horses Experience REM Sleep, But Not While Standing
Horses likely dream since they experience REM, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep, while lying down. Horses move their eyes during this deep sleep stage, and sometimes even lightly move their legs. At this point in time, we can’t know what it is that horses dream about, but it seems likely they dream about things they experience in waking life.

Horses Often Sleep with a Buddy Lookout
Horses often lie down to sleep when there is another horse nearby that remains standing. This practice likely evolved as a protective method. If all horses in a herd were to lie down to sleep at the same time, they would become more vulnerable to a predator’s attack.

Horses Can Have Sleep Problems
Horses can experience sleep disorders. If a horse is having sleep trouble, the most common cause is sleep deprivation. A horse might become sleep deprived if it feels that sleep is unsafe, either because there are predators nearby, or the horse is alone and has no buddy to look out for it. Horses can also have trouble sleeping because they are in pain, their sleeping space is not soft, or they must compete for sleeping space with other horses.

Horses Yawn, But Not Because They’re Tired
Like humans and many other mammals, horses yawn at times. Unlike humans, their yawning isn’t a signal that they’re becoming tired or need to sleep.

Both wild and domestic horses yawn, with male horses yawning much more frequently than female horses. Researchers have found that when horses yawn, it is often a signal of stress or frustration. For example, a horse might yawn because they are enclosed in a small area and want more space, or because they see food they want to eat and cannot access it.

Conclusion
Although there are many differences between the ways humans and horses sleep, there are also similarities. Horses enjoy sleeping on soft bedding and can have their sleep disturbed by noise and stress. Sleep helps horses restore their energy and is closely tied to their weight and other aspects of their health. Like us, horses can be negatively affected by sleep deprivation.

Posted October 22, 2019

Bill Fish writes for Tuck.com, a company dedicated to sleep. Other articles may be found on how dogs, cats, fish, and other animals sleep. For humans, it is a one-stop resource and guide to sleep and bedding.