How Do Horses Sleep? See the Amazing Ways They Get Rest

Written by Erin Cafferty
Updated: November 11, 2023
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Horses are majestic and strong animals. They are also unique in the ways they get rest. While humans need to lie down for 8 hours at night to sleep, horses have the ability to feel rested after a 30-minute snooze standing up! So how do horses sleep standing up? And what other interesting sleep habits do they have? You’re about to find out.

A Horse’s Sleeping Habits

Cat dog and horse

Horses only get deep, REM sleep when they lay down to rest.

©Enna8982/Shutterstock.com

A horse’s sleeping habits differ from our own in a few ways.

Horses don’t need to lie down to rest like humans do and they also don’t need to spend as much time in the REM cycle. While both humans and horses go through several sleep cycles with different stages, their circulatory and skeletal systems are different from our own. This is why we don’t adopt the same snoozing habits as horses. So let’s get into what makes horse’s sleep so unique.

Do Horses Ever Sleep Lying Down?

For one, horses can sleep standing up and lying down. You might find a horse taking a quick nap on all fours, but they will opt for the ground when they need to go into a deep slumber.

You know that horses can sleep standing up and lying down, but did you know they need to lie down in order to enter the REM cycle? It’s true. While horses only need about 30 minutes of deep sleep a day, they can’t achieve this on all fours. That’s because REM sleep requires complete muscle relaxation which doesn’t happen when horses are standing up.

However, a horse’s ability to sleep lying down can be affected by a few different things such as:

  • Lack of space
  • Unsavory weather
  • Low standing in the pecking order
  • Physical discomfort or pain
  • Age

If your horse isn’t lying down to rest as much as they should, you need to address what’s preventing your horse from getting the amount of deep sleep they need to thrive. Your local vet will be able to help if the problem is physical.

How Long Do Horses Sleep at Night?

Secondly, humans need 90 minutes of deep REM sleep a night while horses only need 30 minutes. However, you can catch some horses napping for up to 6 hours a day if they feel safe.

Horses don’t need as much shut-eye as we do. Horses rest in short intervals spread out throughout a 24-hour period, with adult horses requiring between 3-6 hours of sleep a day (including a minimum of 30 minutes in the REM cycle) and foals or yearlings often spending twice as long catching z’s.

A Look at Sleep Patterns in Wild Horses

Wild horses need just as much rest as domesticated horses, they just need to be smarter about it.

While you might find domesticated horses napping alone in their field, wild horses only doze off when other animals in their herd are close by to watch over them. They adopted this way of sleeping thousands of years ago back before they were domesticated.

That’s because horses are prey animals with many natural predators like bears and cougars. This is why you won’t see an entire herd of wild horses snoozing at the same time — some horses will rest while the others watch over the herd (and watch out for predators).

Horses’ Sleep Habits Change As They Age

A foal needs close to 12 hours of sleep per day while an adult horse can get away with less than half. As a horse gets older, you might find them taking more naps. This isn’t anything to be concerned about because they get tired as they age, just like we do.

However, if your healthy, adult horse is spending more than a few hours lying down, this is not normal. Consider checking for signs of colic or other illnesses.

Equine Sleep Deprivation

On the opposite end, did you know horses can get sleep-deprived?

As large animals, a lack of shuteye can be incredibly dangerous for both horses and owners. Here are a few signs of sleep disorders to look out for:

  • Sudden collapse
  • Lack of evidence of lying down
  • Unexplained injuries on the fetlock, knee, or face
  • Increased daytime drowsiness
  • Hypervigilance
  • Poor performance

Why Do Horses Sleep Standing Up?

Animals that Sleep Standing Up - Sleeping Horse

Horses have the unique ability to sleep standing up or lying down.

©Lioneska/Shutterstock.com

Horses are prey animals with a high “fight or flight” instinct. With no hard shells or sharp fangs to protect them, they need to be able to get out of a dangerous situation quickly. If they are on the ground, they are vulnerable to any predators that might be lurking in the shadows. It also takes quite a bit of effort for horses to get up, whether they’re young or older. This is why you often see horses rest standing up.

Horses also snooze standing up because they are made for it! Their circulatory system is designed to work efficiently in an upright position.

How Do Horses Sleep Standing Up Without Falling Over?

Now that you know horses can sleep standing up, you might wonder how horses doze off this way without falling over. Great question!

Horses have joints in their legs called the “stay apparatus” that allow them to remain upright while their muscles relax. By locking the passive stay and reciprocal apparatus in place, they can stay balanced while they are asleep standing up.

The Amazing Ways Horses Rest

Animals that sleep standing up - horses in a field

Horses take turns sleeping so there is always someone to keep an eye out for predators.

©malafo/Shutterstock.com

Let’s recap what we learned:

  • You can find horses getting in a quick nap standing up or a deep slumber lying on the ground.
  • Horses only need to spend about 30 minutes in the REM cycle per day.
  • Horses take turns resting and standing guard.
  • Foals will snooze for up to 12 hours a day while adult horses only need about 3-6 hours of shuteye.
  • Rest is a necessary part of life, even for horses.
  • A horse’s stay apparatus is what gives them the ability to snooze standing upright.

Horses’ sleeping habits are based on centuries of living in the wild. While they were domesticated 6,000 years ago, they still hold onto their old ways when it comes to a good night’s rest.

But let’s be honest. If you could sleep standing up, wouldn’t you do it too?

The photo featured at the top of this post is © malafo/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Erin Cafferty is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on horses, mountains, and parks. Erin holds a Master’s Degree from Radford University, which she earned in 2018. A resident of Virginia, Erin enjoys hiking with her dog, visiting local farmer's markets, and reading while her cat lays on her lap.

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