It’s Not Narcolepsy—It’s Sleep Deprivation

Has your horse fallen asleep while standing in his paddock or in the crossties, perhaps even collapsing to his knees? You may be tempted to label this as narcolepsy. But, narcolepsy as it exists in humans, a signaling error from the brain, doesn’t exist in horses. However, horses dozing off at inappropriate times is a sign of sleep deprivation.

Horses are known for being able to sleep while standing, but that’s considered napping rather than deep rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. They have a stay apparatus in their legs, both front and hind, which enables them to lock the bony columns of their legs in place with tendons and ligaments. So, they don’t need conscious muscular effort to stand.

To get true REM sleep, a horse must lie down, and therein lies the problem for some horses. In almost every case, sleep deprived horses don’t lie down for deep REM sleep. This is because they, as prey animals, feel unsafe being down in a vulnerable position or they’re in pain and feel they can’t lie down.

Horses should have 20 minutes of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep each day at minimum to remain healthy and functional. Photo by Ines Hasenau/stock.adobe.com

Help Your Horse Sleep

Film Your Horse

If your horse falls asleep during inappropriate times, try to get video of it to help rule out other conditions.

Rule Out Pain

Schedule your horse for a physical exam, and if pain is the reason your horse won’t or can’t lie down, seek your veterinarian’s help.

Social Structure 

A horse who’s wary of lying down will feel safer with a companion. Specifically a more dominant horse nearby for perceived protection.

Left photo by ElsvanderGun/gettyimages.com; middle photo by Tetiana Strilchuk/gettyimages.com; right photo by Callipso/gettyimages.com

Other Ways to Help

If your horse has recently gone from living outside to living inside, he may have trouble sleeping in brightly lit stalls. When you’re done in the barn, turn off the lights to let your horse get in a good snooze. 

Encourage your horse to lie down by making his stall extra cozy. If he’s in a stall, try adding some extra shavings to his regular bedding. This helps you see if he’s more likely to get some sleep.

Turn the barn radio down and keep things quiet so your horse can rest without interruption. If you do decide to keep music on in the barn, opt for something easy to listen to at a low volume.

[READ: IS YOUR HORSE GETTING ENOUGH SLEEP?]

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