Question: How is it that horses can stand up and sleep. We are having an argument at our barn. I think it’s an old wives tale, as my horse stands but never seems to fully sleep in this position. We are also arguing about the effects of a light on in the barn all the time. Please, I need your help on this one, as our whole barn is at odds right now! Does sleep affect behavior?
Answer from April Reeves: Horses indeed sleep standing up. They use what’s called “Equine Stay Apparatus”, a system of tendons, ligaments and muscles in the horse’s leg. The lower leg joints lock with assistance from the above and the suspensory apparatus.
These parts work together to keep the horse’s legs in a standing, locked position. While your horse may appear to be awake, he is likely asleep enough to kick out at you if you were to approach him unexpectedly.
Horses will sleep about 3 hours out of the 24 hours in a day. They will sleep for brief periods at a time, either standing or flat out on the ground. During good weather conditions, you will often find them snoring (too much weight on the respiratory system) and twitching. Each horse has his own schedule. Horses that are confined and worked daily often take up time spent in drowsiness, where they appear awake, but are really ‘off’ in another world. Your horse may be in this state more than the others, or he may prefer to sleep deeply when there is no activity around.
Horses have several stages of sleep much like we do – drowsiness, Slow wave sleep (SWS) and Rapid eye movement sleep (REM).
Many horses are affected by the lack of sleep they receive, and often exhibit this need during their training times. If you are having problems with your horse, you need to look at leadership as only one of the reasons for your horse’s behavior. Feed may also be part of your horse’s attitude problems, or your horse may be suffering sleep deprivation.
“Training alone is not a substitute nor a cure for all behavior problems.”
According to Marijke van de Water, horses need to lie flat out in order to experience deep sleep with REM. Sleeping by standing up only allows them a ‘short wave sleep’ designed to let them rest while enabling them to take off at a gallop if alerted to a predator. Horses also suffer from disturbed sleep cycles when barn and yard lights are left on at night. This common practice can alter coat growth in the fall, encourage early shedding, and interfere with the production of growth hormone (a hormone secreted by the brain after dark) that not only determines hair growth but also has a positive effect on energy, metabolism, weight loss, strength, fertility, immunity, memory, behavior and sleep patterns. Marijke suggests you experience how this feels yourself by sleeping several nights with a light on. (Her book, below, is a fabulous study on horse behavior, feeds, nutrition and natural supplements and products for your horse).
A horse that suffers from serious sleep deprivation will often doze off while you are standing him in the arena, talking with friends. (Narcolepsy) can be dangerous, as the horse’s knees can buckle while you are on him.
It’s important that we recognize sleep problems in our horses when trying to diagnose another issue. Watch your horse during times when no one is around; when it’s quiet, and the lights are off. You may be surprised at how often he does sleep, or be alarmed at how little he does.