Today we’re lucky enough to have a guest blogger that is going to tell us all about the sleep habits of our horses! How cool is this?
We all need sleep, including our horse companions. The structure and duration of the horse sleep cycle may be different than ours, but it’s no less important. A sleep-deprived horse, like a sleep-deprived human, is one that may be dozy, fatigued, and irritable. If you take a look at how a horse’s sleep cycle actually works, you can make sure your riding buddy is getting the rest he needs.
Horses are built for survival. As a prey animal, their sleep pattern is designed for protection. They don’t sleep in long eight hour stretches as we do. Horses spend five to fifteen hours a day asleep or in a state of rest. Nature has come up with some incredible ways to help them do it.
Horses really can sleep standing up. They have a stay apparatus in the front and hindquarters that take the work and pressure off the muscles and activate the soft tissues of the ligaments and tendons. That allows horses to enter light sleep stages for the majority of their resting time. If there’s danger, horses wake quickly and can run almost instantly.
However, horses have to enter rapid eye movement (REM) sleep for complete restoration. In humans, REM sleep is when memory consolidation, dreaming, and many other restorative processes take place. While we don’t have a perfect understanding of the equine sleep cycle, we assume that many of these same processes take place while they’re in REM sleep too. And unlike us, they need only 30 minutes of REM sleep per day.
During REM sleep, the body enters a temporary paralysis, which means horses can’t enter REM sleep while standing. They have to lay down for at least some of their sleep. In a herd situation, some of the horses will lay down to sleep while others stand and rest, and still others keep watch over the herd.
Horses can suffer from sleep deprivation due to a number of issues. Their place in the herd hierarchy, at the top or bottom, can get in the way. A dominant horse may stay awake to watch over the herd and get less sleep than the other herd members. A horse that’s low in the hierarchy may get pushed out of good sleeping areas or get woken more often. Either situation can lead to sleep deprivation.
The hard ground can also interfere with sleep. Hard mats or soil may be uncomfortable, especially for an older horse with arthritis. Horses don’t need a pillow, but some kind of soft bedding to cushion the ground can help them get better rest.
They also need plenty of space to get up and down. Their stall or corral should be large enough that they can lay down and get up without a problem. In a herd, there needs to be enough bedding that several animals can lay down at once. That also makes sure that the lowest horse in the hierarchy can rest without being disturbed.
Finally, watch for signs of illness that could make getting REM sleep difficult. We’ve already mentioned arthritis, but any condition that makes getting up and down difficult or laying uncomfortable could cause sleep deprivation.
With the right conditions and plenty of space, your horse should naturally get the sleep he needs.