Giving Your Horse Better Sleep
Gail M. Staines, Ph.D.
Founder, The Senior Horse
Ahhh, sleep. That wonderful part of life that we sometimes do not get enough of. Interestingly, us horse owners do not think about our horse’s sleep patterns or we believe one thing when the reality is quite different.
What humans think about horse’s sleep
According to Greening, et al. (2020), 50% of 582 survey respondents thought their horse slept more than 4 hours a day, while 17% did not know how long their horses slept. Interestingly, 29% did not think about how much a horse sleeps at all. These researchers concluded that horse owners are not aware of how much sleep a horse requires and how much their own horse actually sleeps.
How horses actually sleep
We know that horses sleep 3 to 4 hours per day (Campbell & Tobler, 1984). An interesting study conducted by Fuchs, et. al (2018) found that control horses consistently slept 3.5 hours/night. During this time, horses enter up to 5 different stages of sleep, somewhat similar to humans. Most equines studied laid down after midnight for about 2.5 hours sleeping. REM sleep occurred when the horses laid down “flat” – totally recumbent with muscles fully relaxed. Horses were in light or slow-wave sleep both standing and lying down.
Furthermore, Fuchs, et. al (2018) discovered that some horses actually collapsed (swaying to sudden collapse) from a standing to a lying position when in REM sleep. It is not clear why these horses fell. Some theories include discomfort due to their environment, poor living conditions, being insecure, and/or some type of medical disorder.
Why is quality of sleep important?
The quality of a horse’s sleep may be connected to behavioral issues, injuries, or other medical conditions. Owners of horses that collapsed during sleep found their equines became injured. Injuries ranged from abrasions, scars, and swollen joints to fractures of the tail and head. (Fuchs, et. al (2018)
Horses can become sleep deprived due to changes in their environment. A horse that goes to a show for several days or weeks may be in an area with different noises (e.g., fireworks, loud noises) and/or where the lights are constantly on. A horse that gets chased by another horse(s) when placed in a new herd may not feel that they can sleep for fear of being bullied. Lack of quality sleep may result in poorer performance, including collapsing on the cross ties or while being ridden.
Senior horses, in particular, can be prone to poor sleep patterns. For some older equines, laying down to sleep is painful and uncomfortable due to arthritis or other afflictions. They simply cannot lie down to get a good night’s sleep. If you believe that this may be an issue, talk to your veterinarian. Sometimes providing prescription pain relief can allow your senior equine to get a good night’s rest. (Barakat, 2020)
The best thing you can do for all of your equines (including seniors) is to provide them with the best care possible. If you believe that your horse is not getting enough quality sleep, contact your veterinarian. You can also capture their sleep habits by setting up a camera to record their activities overnight.
Giving them shelter, freedom to roam, a quality diet, fresh water, exercise, companionship, and a safe, comfortable place to sleep are all components of providing them with everything needed to be happy and healthy.
Barakat, C. (2020). Is your horse sleep deprived? Equus Magazine. https://equusmagazine.com/horse-care/horse_sleep_deprived_092308-10689
Campbell, S, S. & Tobler, I. (1984) Animal Sleep: A review of sleep duration across phylogeny. Neuroscience & Biobehavioural Reviews, 8; pp269-300.
Fuchs, C., et. al (2018). Polysomnography as a tool to assess equine welfare. Proceedings Measuring Behavior 2018. Manchester Metropolitan University. https://epub.ub.uni-muenchen.de/58598/
Greening, L. M., et al., (2020) The welfare implications of horse owners perceptions and knowledge of equine sleep. UFAW Virtual Animal Welfare Conference, June 6 through July 7, 2020. https://hartpury.pure.elsevier.com/en/publications/the-welfare-implications-of-owner-perceptions-and-knowledge-of-eq