When I became a horse owner, I originally worried a lot about my horse and all aspects of his life! How, I wondered, would I know if he was getting enough to sleep and how would I be able to tell. I’d heard about horses sleeping standing up, but also grew up in the country and knew for sure horses often dozed laying down- so I wasn’t sure what to think! As I learned more about housekeeping I learned that horses can sleep standing up or lying down, but their sleep is deeper when they do lay down. As prey animals, horses have to be careful about when and where they lie down to sleep, and have evolved to only need a relatively small amount of sleep lying down.
Your horse will typically manage their own sleep well, although sleep disorders are possible in all mammals, including horses. One potential cause of a horse not sleeping well is a disagreeable housing situation- such as spending nighttime pasture turnout with a herd that bullies your submissive horse. This can occasionally affect sleep for horses who spend nights in stalls, also, if the horse they are stabled next to is disruptive through the night. Horses rely on the security of a herd to sleep safely, trusting that their herd will help keep them safe as they sleep. If your horse isn’t sleeping because of herd dynamics or a particular horse that bullies them, try switching up your horse’s nighttime routine. Spending the night in a stall (or switching stalls, if your horse already is stabled at night) may help improve your horse’s sleep quality.
So, Do Horses Really Sleep Standing Up?
Have you ever wondered why horses sleep standing up instead of laying down like other animals? It turns out, that myth is only half true. It is true that horses are able sleep standing up, but to enter deep, restful sleep a horse actually does need to lay down.
In the wild, horses are prey animals. Horses are able to sleep standing up because if a predator was to attack a herd of horses, the horses would lose precious escape time scrambling to their feet. A horse off its feet is more vulnerable to attack. But horses do lay down on their sides to sleep for periods of time, usually at night.
In horse herds, even in domesticated herds, one horse almost always remains standing while the others lay down and sleep, and this position is alternated through the night. You can observe this behavior easily in horses as you watch your horse’s herd or even observe herds pastured near roads you travel. One horse will stand while the others lay down.
As you watch your herd, notice which horse most frequently stands and if all of the horses are laying down without a standing sentinel. If one horse is standing most of the time, it may be a cue that that particular horse does is not bonded well with his herd and is not able to rest easily in their company. If all the horses lay down regularly, it’s a good sign that your horses feel safe on your farm and comfortable in their herd dynamics.
If Horses Lay Down, Why Don’t I See Them Sleep Like That?
Because horses have spent millennia as prey animals, their bodies are hypervigilant- evolved to be alert and reactive to the smallest stimuli. You might have missed catching your horse sleeping because your horse was able to hear you coming from a distance and jump to their feet.
Many of the pictures of horses “sleeping” I’ve been able to capture as a horse owner and amateur photographer are actually photos of horses in the middle of rolling, such as this photo of my grey curly gelding who appears to be sleeping in a near-fetal position.
How Long Should a Horse Lay Down
Horses can lie down to rest overnight but if your horse stays lying down for an extended period it warrants an emergency vet visit. When horses lay down their circulation, which depends on muscles contracting in legs as they walk to help move blood, becomes compromised and with time they can become very ill. Healthy horses lie down regularly for hours at a time, but if you see your horse struggling to rise and is unable to stand, your horse is in an immediate health crisis and needs a vet immediately.
Some horse owners train their horse to lay down on command. For tips on training this trick, check out out tutorial on training a horse to lay down.