The Sleepy Pony; Understanding Sleep Deprivation in Horses


One question I get asked frequently by “non-horsey” people is “do horses really sleep standing up?”.  Most horse people would answer a firm “yes” to that question, but if we  dissect equine sleep patterns, we can only give a vague “yes but no” answer.  We’ve all seen horses doze off in a field or stall while standing up.  In order to sleep this way they are engaging their “stay apparatus”, an assortment of tendons and ligaments that allow them to rest easily on three legs with one hind leg cocked in order to make a quick getaway if a predator suddenly were to appear.  While horses do indeed sleep this way, they actually need to lay down in order to enter deep sleep (Slow Wave and REM sleep).  Horses do not need as much sleep as humans do, but they do require between 2-4 hours of sleep per 24hours, and that includes at least 30 – 60 minutes of deep sleep. For a more in depth article on horse’s sleep patterns, check out Erica Larson’s piece on Understanding Equine Sleep Deprivation.


Horses who do not regularly receive the minimum amount of sleep required to function properly can become sleep deprived.  There are countless stories circulating the horse world of horses and riders standing patiently at the in-gate or warmup area of a competition when suddenly a horse drifts off to sleep and nearly collapses.  Usually this horse will catch himself before he falls, and wake back up instantly.  This is a classic example of a sleep deprived animal.  Sleep deprivation may also show itself in a number of ways, including sluggishness under saddle, dozing while grooming or tacking up, and even expressing agitation or irritability towards things that normally wouldn’t upset them.  And although the cause of narcolepsy in horses has not been fully determined, there are theories that suggest that sleep deprivation can develop into narcolepsy if sustained over a long period of time.


So why do horses become sleep deprived, and what can we do about it?  There are two common factors that influence a horse’s ability to sleep during a 24-hour cycle.  The first factor is pain.  If a horse is having a musculoskeletal issue, there is a good possibility that they will avoid laying down, as it takes quite a bit of effort from the body to lay down and get back up again.  They also may not want to lie down on an area where they are injured or are experiencing pain.

The second (and most common) factor for why horses may develop sleep deprivation is environmental.  As prey animals, horses are extremely in tune with their environment and they will not allow themselves to relax into sleep if they feel a threatened or stressed.  This could exhibit itself when a horse moves to a new barn, arrives to show grounds, during inclement weather, or any other adjustments that may make the horse feel out of sync with its environment.  Along with this also comes the impact that we as people have on our horse’s ability to sleep.  If you’ve ever taken your horse to a competition, you know that the “show” never stops.  Even after the riders have competed, stalls must be mucked, tack must be cleaned, and there is busy activity well into the night.  Then at the very early hours of the morning, braiders arrive, the lights go on, music might start playing, and the day begins. Some barns even choose to leave a light or two on throughout the night, which can affect a horse’s ability to sleeps as well.


If your horse is exhibiting symptoms of sleep deprivation, you should first investigate what factors may be causing it.  Is the horse in a new situation that is stressful to him?  Does your horse have enough shavings to make laying down inviting?  What is the evening / nighttime activity like at the horse’s home?  (Many horses choose to sleep at night because that is when activity at the barn has come to a minimum, but horses can and do sleep during the day as well).  If you cannot rule out any of the above issues, then you should begin looking for symptoms of pain which may be causing your horse to resist laying down.


Massage can offer great benefits to horses who are not sleeping properly.  By engaging the Parasympathetic Nervous System (the system of the body that is responsible for sleep), massage can encourage a horse who is under a stressful situation to “rest and digest”.  Horses who receive regular massage sessions are known to be better equipped to adjust their sleep patterns, even in new environments.  Massage can also offer musculoskeletal relief from pain, which can encourage a horse with muscle pain to lay down.  Working out trigger points, stress points, and adhesions in the muscles allows the horse to move with less pain, which in turn allows them to lay down more freely.  Emerald Equine Massage is always happy to work with horses who are exhibiting sleep deprivation.


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