As a human, you know how important sleep is. Sleep is equally as important to horses. For years you’ve been told that horses only sleep standing up and your horse has a full range of sleep while doing so. It’s time to debunk that myth.
Horses require about 30 minutes to an hour of REM sleep, which can only occur when your horse is able to lie down due to the complete muscle relaxing required. Being natural flight animals, however, horses can put off this much-needed REM sleep for prolonged periods. When a horse doesn’t receive an adequate amount of REM sleep, he can become sleep deprived and this can result in health issues and an inability to perform his job at his best.
Causes of Sleep Deprivation
Pain or discomfort. When your horse is in pain, such as having arthritis in his joints, it can make it hard for him to get up and down easily. This results in him spending more time standing up and inhibiting him from being able to lie down to sleep.
Loneliness. Your horse is a herd animal, so being alone in a pasture or pen can make him feel vulnerable to predators. Being around other horses gives him a sense of security that he can let his guard down to lie down and sleep.
A new environment. Traveling to a show or event can make your horse anxious and nervous. Being in a new location or just unexpected changes in his environment, such as removing a horse that he was attached to, can cause him to feel uncomfortable enough to continue to prolong his REM sleep.
Reduced amounts of darkness. Darkness is required for your horse to sleep so that he can release melatonin, which is also required for a restful sleep. When attending a show sometimes lights constantly are left on in the barns, reducing the amount of darkness your horse is used to having to sleep.
Inadequate bedding in his stall. Generally, horses prefer to lie down in a comfortable area. When your horse is forced to be in an unclean pen or a stall without shavings, he will be less likely to lie down because it’s uncomfortable.
Too small of stall. Your horse needs enough space to be able to lie down and get back up. If your horse is bumping into fences or walls, he will feel restricted and often times physically unable to sleep while laying down.
The Rhythm of Sleep
Circadian rhythm refers to the internal clock in all humans and animals and is strongly influenced by the daily cycles of daylight and darkness. In relation to sleep, darkness triggers the signal to release melatonin, the hormone that initiates sleep and restfulness and maintains sleep throughout the night.
Circadian rhythms are especially strong in horses, meaning horses are more susceptible to losing sleep when darkness is reduced or removed from their environment—as at major horse events where barn lights are on all night or veterinary clinics when lights are left on for continued observation of patients. This means the horses have constant exposure to blue light, which is shown to suppress melatonin levels and reduce restful sleep.
Sleep isn’t typically included when developing a horse’s daily-management plan. Poor management of sleep in horses can result in series injury or health issues. Especially if your horse is traveling often to compete, sleep is inherently important to his success. Developing a sleep plan that’s right for your horse may require veterinary guidance.
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