Whether you ride horses or just admire the majestic animals from afar, at some point you might have wondered how horses sleep. Maybe you saw a horse lying in a field and wondered if horses sleep lying down or standing up. If you have pets, you probably already know that the sleep habits of dogs and cats differ quite a bit from that of humans. Just like other animals, horses have their own unique sleep requirements and patterns that differ from ours.
This article focuses on everything you might want to know about how horses sleep. Do horses really sleep standing up or must they lie down? Can they dream like humans do? How many hours of sleep do they need on a daily basis? How are horses’ sleeping habits the same or different compared to those of other large animals? Keep reading to find the answers to your questions.
How Horses Sleep
Horses Sleep Both Standing Up and Lying Down
Like cattle and some other animals, horses are capable of sleeping in a standing position. Sleeping while standing is beneficial because it tricks potential predators into thinking the animal is awake and less vulnerable. The ability to sleep while standing is due to a series of leg ligaments and bones called the “stay apparatus” that allows certain large animals, such as giraffes and zebras, to lock their legs.
Contrary to popular belief, horses do not do all of their sleeping standing up. Horses engage in light sleep while standing, but cannot experience REM sleep unless they lie down. Horses regularly take short naps while standing throughout the day, which is likely the reason many people assume horses always sleep standing up.
Horses Sleep Less Than Humans
Although horses are much larger than humans, often weighing over 1,000 pounds, they do not require as much sleep as humans do. Most horses only need 5 to 7 hours of rest each day, and less than one hour of that rest is REM sleep, one of the deepest sleep stages. The amount of sleep a horse needs changes over their lifetime. Foals can sleep half the day away, while the oldest horses need only a few hours of sleep each day.
Horses also sleep at different times than humans do. They are not diurnal like us, nor are they nocturnal. Horses can sleep at any time, day or night, and generally spread their sleep out across each 24-hour period by sleeping for minutes at a time instead of one long block.
Horses Experience REM Sleep, But Not While Standing
Horses likely dream since they experience REM, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep, while lying down. Horses move their eyes during this deep sleep stage, and sometimes even lightly move their legs. At this point in time, we can’t know what it is that horses dream about, but it seems likely they dream about things they experience in waking life.
Horses Often Sleep with a Buddy Lookout
Horses often lie down to sleep when there is another horse nearby that remains standing. This practice likely evolved as a protective method. If all horses in a herd were to lie down to sleep at the same time, they would become more vulnerable to a predator’s attack.
Horses Can Have Sleep Problems
Horses can experience sleep disorders. If a horse is having sleep trouble, the most common cause is sleep deprivation. A horse might become sleep deprived if it feels that sleep is unsafe, either because there are predators nearby, or the horse is alone and has no buddy to look out for it. Horses can also have trouble sleeping because they are in pain, their sleeping space is not soft, or they must compete for sleeping space with other horses.
Horses Yawn, But Not Because They’re Tired
Like humans and many other mammals, horses yawn at times. Unlike humans, their yawning isn’t a signal that they’re becoming tired or need to sleep.
Both wild and domestic horses yawn, with male horses yawning much more frequently than female horses. Researchers have found that when horses yawn, it is often a signal of stress or frustration. For example, a horse might yawn because they are enclosed in a small area and want more space, or because they see food they want to eat and cannot access it.
Although there are many differences between the ways humans and horses sleep, there are also similarities. Horses enjoy sleeping on soft bedding and can have their sleep disturbed by noise and stress. Sleep helps horses restore their energy and is closely tied to their weight and other aspects of their health. Like us, horses can be negatively affected by sleep deprivation.
If you enjoyed learning more about the way horses sleep, consider reading some of our other articles about animals and sleep:
- How Do Animals Sleep?
- Pet Sleep Resources
- Do Fish Sleep?
- How Much Do Cats Sleep?
- How Much Do Dogs Sleep?