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How Horses Sleep Standing Up – Facts

When I became a horse owner, I worried a lot about my first horse and all aspects of his life! How, I wondered, would I know if he was getting enough to sleep? How would I be able to tell if he wasn’t sleeping well?

I knew that horses sleep standing up, but I also grew up in the country and had regularly seen horses laying down in fields- so I wasn’t sure what to think! 

As I learned more about horse-keeping 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. Because lying down to sleep was risky in the wild, horses evolved to only need about 30 minutes of recumbent (lying down) sleep in each 24 hr day (source).

how horses sleep

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 indoors in stalls 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.

Horses who are naturally more relaxed and who know you well will be more comfortable laying down in your presence.
Horses that are naturally more relaxed and that know you well will be more comfortable laying down in your presence.

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.

Horses are able to sleep standing up, but need to lay down sometimes for deep sleep
Horses are able to sleep standing up, but need to lay down sometimes for deep sleep

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.

horses napping 2
If all members of a herd are off their feet and napping, it’s a sign that the herd feels very safe.

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 the photo of my grey curly gelding who appears to be sleeping in a near-fetal position.

Horses DON'T sleep like this! The brown horse in the foreground is mid-roll, giving the appearance that she's sleeping on her back.
Horses DON’T sleep like this! The brown horse in the foreground is mid-roll, giving the appearance that she’s sleeping on her back.

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.

Frequently asked questions:

Do horses sleep on their side?

Horses may sleep on their side or on their belly, with their legs tucked up underneath them. Generally, horses that sleep on their side with their legs extended can rest a little bit deeper, but horses often don’t take this position unless they feel very safe in their stall, pasture, or herd.

Are horses nocturnal?

Perhaps you’re wondering if horses are nocturnal because you’ve seen them active outdoors at night. In fact, horses are very adaptable in their sleep patterns. While horses are generally awake during the day and asleep at night like humans, horses adapt well to a practice many horse owners use during the hottest months of the summer in which horses are turned loose in pastures to graze in the cool of the night, and put up in stalls in a shaded barn (usually with the luxury of box fans helping them stay cool) during the day.

Horses’ sleep patterns are very different than ours – they rest by dozing on and off throughout the 24 hour period and taking one or two periods of lying down sleep that rarely exceed 30 minutes. Humans on the other hand have a much more set wake/sleep cycle. While it’s disruptive for humans to try and shift their sleep schedule, horses adapt well to it.

How much do horses sleep?

According to veterinary researchers, horses need about 30 minutes of laying down sleep each day, and will spend about 12% of their day napping while standing up. (source)

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