Understanding Equine Sleep Patterns

Have you ever looked out at your precious horse taking a snooze, and wondered if he’s sleeping soundly? With very different sleep patterns than humans, horses have special requirements in terms of length and REM sleep patterns. Needing far less continuous sleep than humans, a horse will sleep on and off throughout the day for an average of 3-5 hours.

On Their Feet

Horses can rest on their feet and snooze throughout the day off and on. As a prey animal, the ability to sleep on his feet allows him a quick getaway if needed. With his large mass, lying down for an extended time isn’t in his best interest, so your horse will do a lot of sleeping on his feet.

A unique part of a horse’s anatomy is located in his hind leg, and called the stay apparatus. This mechanism allows his stifle joint to “lock” into place, and keep him upright. You might see your horse stand “hipshod” or three-legged, as he locks the stay apparatus, and rests his weight on the other leg. This is another bonus for a prey animal. Being able to sleep standing in a locked position, means that he could get away in a moment’s notice, if needed.

Horses will often rest their opposite leg when sleeping standing up. PIC by Femke/adobe.stock.com

REM Sleep

REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement is the deepest sleep, that results in dreams and muscle relaxation. Horses need to spend less time in REM sleep than humans. A general belief is that horse’s will spend about 30-60 minutes in REM sleep. To achieve this, they must be recumbent. In order for your horse to lay down and achieve REM sleep, he needs an environment where he feels safe and comfortable.

Provide your horse with a comfortable place to lie down and get some shut eye, whether in the corral or pasture. This could be a bedded stall, or ensuring that there is soft ground somewhere in his pen. A horse that is low on the totem pole and constantly trying to evade bully horses will often not lie down to sleep. If he’s fighting for feed, uncomfortable or in pain, or the environment is constantly loud and bright, he might not achieve the REM sleep he needs. This can lead to a myriad of problems, including collapse. A horse’s stay apparatus can fail if falling into REM sleep while standing, and health or behavioral issues can arise when a horse isn’t sleeping properly.

To achieve true REM sleep, a horse must lie down. Yvonne/adobe.stock.com

On the Lookout

If you have a herd of horses, you might notice a pattern. When some of the horses lie down to rest, you’ll notice at least one of them will stay standing. Since horses are herd animals, and maintain their prey instincts, one will always stay standing to keep a lookout for danger.

[Know How To Check Your Horse’s Vital Signs?]

Related Articles
portrait of chestnut horse eating hay from feeder in horse paddock in autumn in daytime
Why You Should Consider Hay Analysis
HR_24BON Grooming Feature_01
Groom to Win
Grooming Secrets to Show Like the Pros
HR_24BON_Conformation Clinic_Performance-Mares_01
Conformation Clinic: Performance Mares
HR_24BON_Crabbe Dont Call it Maintenance_crabbe_01
To Inject or Not to Inject
Don’t Call It Maintenance! 
Receive news and promotions for Horse & Rider and other Equine Network offers.

"*" indicates required fields


Additional Offers

Additional Offers
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.