How do horses sleep: standing or lying down?

How does a horse sleep: standing or lying down?

Having had a few sleepless nights, you can see how important sleep is to your body and its proper functioning.

The same is true for horses: equines need enough quality sleep to stay healthy and perform well. So how do horses sleep? Do they stand or lie down? Why don't they fall over when they sleep standing up? And what are the different types of sleep in horses? We will answer all your questions in this article.

How do horses sleep?

why do horses sleep standing up

In the collective imagination, there is the belief that horses sleep standing up. Is this true?

Do horses sleep standing up?

Yes, horses do sleep standing up, but what you need to know is that they can also lie down and sleep in a lying position. And they often lie down to sleep! The major difference between lying down and standing up to sleep is related to the depth of sleep the horse will enter. When they are lying on their chest with their forelegs bent under their chest, they will fall into slow wave sleep. And only when they are lying on their side, with their legs stretched out, will they enter REM sleep.

Where do horses lie down?

Horses do not lie down everywhere. They look for a clean, dry place to lie down. And if they can't find a place they like, they often don't lie down at all.

Note: if they lie down on a wet floor, they can develop rheumatic diseases. Also, if they sleep in boxes with too little bedding, there is a risk of scratching: the thicker the bedding, the more comfortable it will be for your horse... And expensive too!

Horse Mug

Why do horses sleep standing up?

When in a herd, horses will only lie down to sleep if they feel safe. This is especially true when lying flat on their side with their legs outstretched: in this position, the horse will not be very reactive to flee if threatened and it will take him longer to get up than if he was sleeping standing up. Horses are relatively anxious and fearful animals (potential prey of predators in their original environment). When they sleep standing up, they don't waste time getting up and, in case of emergency, can run away quickly. A horse that does not feel safe in its environment will not lie down at all, or only for a short time.

do horses really sleep standing up

Types of sleep in horses

Horses have different forms of sleep and rest, which are not always well differentiated from the outside.


Drowsiness is the stage between waking and sleeping. It is mentioned here separately, but it is actually a preliminary stage of slow wave sleep. From the outside, it is not possible to tell which of these two states a horse is in.

Slow wave sleep

Slow wave sleep is referred to as SWS, short for Slow Wave Sleep. During this non-REM sleep process, the horse's breathing rate and heartbeat slow down, and even slight muscle movements can still be perceived. The horse's brain is virtually inactive. Horses can also enter this type of sleep while standing. This type of sleep is accompanied by a constant lowering of the head, its eyes are half or completely closed and it changes its load on the hind legs at regular intervals. When a horse lies on its chest during sleep, it is still in slow wave sleep. In this phase of sleep, horses remain alert and aware of what is going on around them, and wake up at the slightest noise.

REM sleep

This is the deepest phase of sleep in horses. Circulation and breathing are reduced, but the brain remains active. Its eyes are closed, contracting and causing rapid eye movements, hence the name REM (Rapid Eye Movement). Studies have shown that horses enter slow wave sleep first and only then into REM sleep. Since muscle tension is greatly reduced during this phase, this type of sleep is only possible when the horse is lying on its side (with its legs extended). This phase is particularly important for muscle recovery. Indeed, the muscles of the neck and the skeleton are then completely relaxed. It is also during this phase that the horse dreams; its brain shows an intense activity: the horse can make uncontrolled movements, even move its legs as if it were in the meadow trotting!

Beware of REM sleep deficit

Horses with REM sleep deficiency often fall and may even collapse. As a result, they get small or large injuries, such as fetlocks.

how long do horses sleep standing up

Horse anatomy and sleep

How is it that horses can sleep standing up?

In humans, all muscles relax during sleep. Well, in horses it's the same thing... But why don't horses fall when they sleep standing up? The reason is simple: they don't fall down thanks to the specific anatomy of their lower limb joints: they have a sophisticated mechanism of attachment by the kneecap that allows them to stand upright without having to work their muscles. The ball and socket joint locks onto a relief on the femur, thus preventing the leg from bending. In this way, with their patella locked, they can stand with their muscles relaxed safely, even when they are dozing.
Every ten minutes or so, horses change their support leg. They can have light sleep or deep sleep phases while standing. But REM sleep is not possible in the standing position.

In groups, sleep is contagious

When horses are in a herd and lie down, the other members of the herd are often also "contaminated" by the phenomenon. However, not all horses in the group lie down at the same time. Usually, one or two horses will take on the role of watchdog. They will stay close to their sleeping mates and watch them.

do horses really sleep standing up

How long does a horse sleep?

Horses do not need as much sleep as humans: most of them "only" sleep three to five hours a day. But they do sleep in short intervals of no more than 20 minutes spread throughout the day.

Sleep in short intervals

Horses generally sleep at night between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. and during the day between 12 noon and 2 p.m. At night, they sleep about six times, with their longest sleep cycle lasting about 15 minutes. Otherwise, they also doze for about three and a half hours a day. In the stable, horses stay awake about 75% of the day and spend only 4% of their time in REM sleep.
Note that foals sleep much longer and more frequently than adult horses. Fillies sleep almost more often than foals in the side position.

Sleeping position and exercise

The sleeping position is also influenced by physical strain. Exercise and work have an impact on the sleep of horses: horses that work a lot tend to sleep longer than their counterparts in the lateral position. Horses that exercise a lot will therefore need a large box with good quality bedding.

What about wild horses?

In the wild, it is obviously not humans who dictate the daily rhythm of wild horses. However, there are no major differences with domesticated horses in terms of sleeping time or position. Only the highest and lowest ranking horses sleep less than the rest of the herd. The former because he has to protect his herd and watch his fellow horses, the latter because he is often woken up and driven away from where he fell asleep.

Horse Watch

Pay attention to the quality of your horse's sleep

Quality sleep is essential for horses

As a horse owner, it's important to pay attention to your horse's sleep habits. In equines, as in humans, sleep deprivation or lack of sleep can lead to a weakened immune system and therefore cause health problems. Healthy sleep is especially important for the body's recovery. Especially when you expect your horse to perform at a high level.

Consequences of lack of sleep

The first classic signs of sleep deprivation in a horse are irritability, hypersensitivity or a more fearful animal than usual. Later, this can lead to stomach ulcers, more frequent colic and a consequent loss of performance. Don't keep your horse awake for long periods of time, he may collapse. Regular sleep disturbances will cause stress, loss of condition and may lead to behavioral problems.

do horses sleep standing up or lying down

How to help your horse sleep?

A clean and hygienic sleeping area

A horse in the stable does not have the same choice of sleeping area as a horse in the field. It is therefore important to pay special attention to the surface on which the animal will rest. Its bedding should be clean and dry, so that it does not have to lie on its own excrement. In some cases, he may not lie down at all if the floor is too dirty. If possible, avoid hard or smooth floors, and opt for straw, which is very popular for horses to lie on.

Take it outside!

For maintenance work or saddlery, we advise you to take the horse out of its box. In order to relax thoroughly, horses need visual, olfactory and auditory contact with their fellow creatures. Furthermore, a horse should not spend too much time in its stall. Walking and grazing are activities that will keep him busy, stimulate him, and prevent him from developing unwanted behaviors, such as stereotypies or tics (palliatives to boredom or lack of contact with his peers). Overall, movement is good for his health; it also reduces the risk of him developing colic from lack of activity.

Put him next to friendly horses in the stall

Sometimes horses can't stand each other. If your horse is in a stall next to a neighbor he doesn't like, it can lead to stress and lack of sleep. Therefore, it is advisable to think carefully about the allocation of boxes, and to install him next to a friend!

The size of his box

If your horse is in a stall, make sure it is big enough for him. Indeed, it should not be too close to the walls. Choose a stall that is two and a half times the size of your horse.

A stress-free environment

Also make sure that your horse is in a stress-free environment, whether it be visual or auditory disturbances. Remember to turn off the lights and music in the stables at night!

 do horse sleep standing up

My horse doesn't lie down to sleep anymore, why?

There are several possible causes. First of all, your horse may have difficulty getting up or lying down. This is often the case for older horses, for whom getting up is extremely tiring. They often stand up and lie down less often. As a result, they will not have the necessary REM sleep phase induced by lying down.

If your horse is in a stall, it is quite possible that the stall is too narrow or that the floor is wet. Psychological causes such as fear or increased nervousness cannot be excluded. It's up to you to investigate!

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