Over time, many horses are affected by inadequate sleep as a result of the training regime they have in place or the uncomfortable environment they are kept. As such, horses are able to sleep standing up to make up for times when they did not get enough sleep. This can also be attributed to the feeding patterns that are in place or it may just be that your horse suffers from sleep deprivation.
So why do horses sleep standing up? Each horse has its own schedule for sleeping. This is especially the case for horses that are confined and worked daily. These kinds of horses tend to sleep standing up, where it will look like they are awake, but are really ‘off‘ in dreamland.
Horses tend to sleep for approximately 3 hours over a 24 hour period. Often you’ll notice that your horse will sleep for brief periods at a time, standing or lying flat on the floor. If the weather is good, then you will often find them snoring – sometimes caused by contractions and the result of all the extra weight on the respiratory system.
You might find that your horse is frequently in this one state more than the other horses, or your horse may prefer to sleep soundly when there is no activity around.
Sleep Stages in Horses
Horses have several stages of sleep, just like humans – drowsiness, slow-wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM).
As described, drowsiness is the early stage of watching your horse sleep standing up. This is often brought on by a lack of sleep but can also be attributed to narcolepsy.
When you first notice your horse begins to sleep standing up, they are often in a phase called ‘slow wave sleep‘. Often the horse will remain standing up but be in a drowsy stance. Your horse will drop his head lower than normal with his eyes closed.
Sleeping upright only allows horses a ‘slow-wave sleep‘ designed to allow them to rest while allowing them to take off at a gallop if alerted by a predator.
A horse might remain standing if not familiar with the security of the environment, allowing it to move quickly if required.
Horses also suffer from disturbed cycles of sleep when the barn and yard lights are on at night. The common practice can alter coat growth in the fall, encourage early loss, and interfere with hormone production (a hormone secreted by the brain after dark) which not determines hair growth only but also has a positive effect on energy, weight loss, metabolism, fertility, strength, immunity, memory, behavior, and sleep.
A horse with severe sleep deprivation will usually doze off when in an arena with other horses. What often happens is that while your horse is standing, they will have partial collapsing episodes due to the relaxed muscular tone that comes with sleep.
Narcolepsy can also be dangerous because the horse’s knees can bend when you are on top of it.
Sleep deprivation can occur in horses and might be evident as excessive sleepiness during the daytime or collapsing episodes unrelated to narcolepsy.
It is important that we recognize the sleeping problems that our horses have, prior to diagnosing any other problem. Watch your horse during periods when no one is there; when it’s calm, and the lights are off. You may be surprised to see at how often he sleeps or be alarmed at how little he does.
Quite similar to humans, horses are used to a routine, for sleeping – eating – riding. They are one of the most intelligent mammals, and their instinctive capacities are very powerful.
Sleeping & Horse Behavior
Before taking a horse as a pet or on your equestrian adventure, here are ten most interesting facts about horse sleep and then behavior.
1) Horses are natural outdoor animals. Their behavior is determined by what motivates them. One emotion particularly that motivates them is fear. So when in unfamiliar territory, horses sleep standing up for fear of predators
2) Horses are instinctive animals, and their instincts say they need companionship. They are social beings, and they hate being alone, so they sleep better when in a team. This is also a reason why they can communicate effectively with humans.
3) If this herd animal belongs to a group, your horse can immediately detect danger. If they sense the danger, they immediately run away. They avoid aggression as much as possible and running helps ensure their survival.
4) If horses are well trained, then horses can utilize their great memory. Horses can learn a routine from a set of behavior patterns frequently shown to them. The then know when to sleep and relax without injuring themselves from observation and experience.
5) When sleeping, horses can sleep standing up or lying down.
6) Horses prefer to begin sleeping in the ‘stand up position‘. This allows them to transition from being fully awake to drowsiness. Usually, the horse’s stance is with full weight on both front legs and a rear leg while the other rear leg is cocked, or “primed,” to kick if necessary.
7) Horses sleep with many short periods of rest, but they must lie down to reach REM sleep. The time required to reach REM sleep is two hours for a few days.
8) Regarding their eating habits, horses are born and have a strong and grazing instinct. They can eat fodder during the main hours of the day. Their diet also influences how well they sleep when tired.
9) In the world of horses, there is a difference between reacting and acting. When they react, they instinctively execute it. When they act, they execute the action with disobedience.
10) Horses are naturally curious. They regularly check for new and unusual things that are interesting. This can then lead to sleep deprivation as they explore.
Sleeping Sickness in Horses
In horses, sleeping sickness has three main strains;
- The Venezuelan strain is native to Central America and is the deadliest of all strains.
- It is, however, the rarest strain in the United States, the southern states being more at risk than the northern states.
- The Eastern and Western strains are named after the American regions in which they are most common.
Sleeping sickness is transmitted to horses by mosquitoes. Consequently, the risk of the disease is higher in Spring and Summer, when mosquitoes are likely to be more numerous. Carrier mosquitoes are not the original sources of the virus that causes the disease. They catch the virus from birds, rodents, and reptiles that carry it. Aside from horses, the virus can also affect humans.
Horses that have been infected with the Western and Eastern strains are generally considered to be dead-end hosts. This means that, except for a very short period of time during their illness, horses are unable to transmit the virus to the mosquitoes that bite them. This is another story for the more deadly Venezuelan sleeping sickness. Mosquitoes that bite sick horses with this strain are able to transmit the virus to other hosts.
Sleeping sickness disease in horses affects the nervous system of horses. Therefore, its symptoms are quite related to the nervous system. Curiously, this dangerous disease does not immediately lead to a manifestation of symptoms. Indications of the disease often do not appear until seven to twenty-one days after a mosquito bite. Without medical attention, an infected horse can die in less than two weeks.
The first symptoms include fever. The result is apparent disorientation and a lack of coordination. An infected horse will inexplicably start hitting objects. This indicates that the virus is already starting to affect the nervous system. In its later stages, the disease will cause severe depression in a horse.
At this point, the term sleeping sickness becomes the most appropriate. A horse will seem asleep because of its lack of interest in anything and its low carriage.
Unlike bacterial infections, there are virtually no good treatment options for severe viral infection. The best you can do for a sick horse is to provide comforting care.
We can give her medicine to lower her fever.
Some horses can survive sleeping sickness. However, these survivors often suffer from permanent brain damage.
This deadly disease can be prevented through vaccination. It is the best option for horse owners since mosquito eradication is practically impossible.
There are vaccines for all three strains, but since the Venezuelan strain is rare, some horse owners do not choose to have their horses vaccinated for this strain.