Do horses really sleep standing up? Well, yes and no. Imagine you are a prey animal that continually has to be aware of your surroundings. The thought of laying down to get a full night’s sleep can be terrifying. Especially because the wee hours of the night are when predators like to be on the prowl. Horses have been facing this situation since the beginning of time. In this article, we will discuss how and why horses sleep standing up.
When you see your horse standing out in the pasture with his head lowered and lips relaxed while his pasture buddies graze around him, he is not sleeping but rather lightly snoozing. And napping is something horses like to do! Napping helps to make up for the minimal amount of REM sleep horses get in 24 hours.
All land mammals require deep sleep called REM sleep. This deep sleep is what allows us to function correctly, both physically and mentally. To get good REM sleep, humans and horses alike have to lay down. Humans require several hours of REM sleep to function at full capacity. Horses, on the other hand, only require around two to three hours of deep sleep.
Another advantage that horses have is that their REM sleep doesn’t have to be consecutive. They can break it up. For example, a horse might lay down and sleep for 30 minutes, get up and graze, lay down, and rest for another short period.
Stress Affects REM Sleep
The amount of time a horse lays down to get REM sleep is wholly controlled by how safe they feel in their surroundings. Horses that are stressed by the threat of possible predators, loud, busy barns, or spaces that are too small to lay down and arise quickly will not get the necessary REM sleep. If this goes on for days, it will affect the horse both physically and behaviorally. Similar to how a lack of adequate sleep affects humans.
Why Don’t Horses Fall When They Snooze?
Built into the anatomy of a horse is a system called the stay apparatus. The stay apparatus is how horses can nap without falling. This is a protective feature nature gave horses so they can rest standing up while still being able to quickly flee from danger.
Stay apparatus is a term that refers to a collection of muscles, ligaments, and tendons that work together to lock significant joints in the limbs of a horse. When a horse cocks one hind foot, the other hindfoot carries the majority of the hindquarter weight. The weight barring leg uses the stay apparatus mechanism to lock that leg in position while resting the other hindquarter’s muscles, without falling. All four legs have a stay apparatus system. A horse will shift his weight from leg to leg, resting his muscles as he goes.
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Our Take Away
Horses do not actually sleep standing up; instead, they snooze. As a prey animal being able to snooze standing up is a survival trait. Nature designed horses with a stay apparatus. This unique feature allows them to shift their weight and rest their muscles without falling. It is amazing the different ways horses are designed to survive being a prey animal.