Help your horse sleep bet­ter

Deep slum­ber is as im­por­tant for your horse’s health as it is for your own. Here’s how to en­sure that he gets enough of the right kind of rest.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Kim Ma­ri­ette

Deep slum­ber is as im­por­tant for your horse’s health as it is for your own. Here’s how to en­sure that he gets enough of the right kind of rest.

Just about any work­ing adult ap­pre­ci­ates a good night’s sleep, and a whole in­dus­try has grown up to help us achieve that goal: From cus­tom-stuffed pil­lows to white noise ma­chines, there’s no end to the prod­ucts and ser­vices de­signed to en­sure restora­tive slum­ber. Con­cern about sleep rarely ex­tends to our horses, how­ever. We know that rest is im­por­tant to equine health but pretty much leave it up to our horses to get the sleep they need. And that can be a prob­lem. Bustling modern barns and eques­trian fa­cil­i­ties aren’t al­ways con­ducive to nor­mal equine sleep pat­terns, and it can be par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult for horses to get rapid eye move­ment (REM) sleep.

The deep­est and most restora­tive phase of slum­ber, REM sleep is vi­tal to a horse’s well-be­ing. But to achieve REM sleep, a horse must lie down--ei­ther in ster­nal re­cum­bency or flat out on his side.

That means he won’t get enough by doz­ing while stand­ing in the pad­dock or in a trailer be­tween classes at a horse show.

Trou­ble is, it’s easy to miss the ear­li­est signs of sleep deprivatio­n in horses. Much like a per­son who man­ages to sub­sist on five hours of sleep per night, a horse can sol­dier on for days or even weeks without qual­ity sleep. But it will catch up with him. An ex­hausted horse may lit­er­ally fall asleep on his feet, seem­ing to col­lapse as his knees buckle. Or he may slowly sink to the ground as if he’s pass­ing out.

A sleep-de­prived horse can get drowsy just about any­where, but his lapses are most of­ten no­ticed when he’s stand­ing tied to be groomed or tacked up. Usu­ally it takes only one or two of these star­tling---and po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous---episodes for an owner to rec­og­nize that some­thing is wrong and call the vet­eri­nar­ian.

Of course, it would be bet­ter to head off sleep deprivatio­n in the first place. And it’s eas­ier than you might think to help your horse get the sleep he needs. By tak­ing a crit­i­cal look at his rou­tine and en­vi­ron­ment, you’ll likely find sim­ple ways to im­prove the qual­ity and quan­tity of his sleep. Some prob­lems will be ob­vi­ous, oth­ers less so. Here are four ques­tions that will help you de­ter­mine whether your horse is get­ting the sleep he needs.


As prey an­i­mals, horses can’t re­lax un­less they feel safe. Ex­actly what that means varies among in­di­vid­u­als ---some horses feel se­cure enough in their en­vi­ron­ment to doze even if they are alone. Of­ten, how­ever, horses rely on a sys­tem of sen­tinels, where one or two mem­bers of a herd stand watch while the rest lie down to sleep. You’ve prob­a­bly seen this sys­tem in ac­tion if you’ve ob­served your herd on pas­ture dur­ing sunny, breezy days, which seems to be pre­ferred equine nap­ping weather. What you might not no­tice is that horses take turns stand­ing

Call your vet­eri­nar­ian if you sus­pect your horse isn’t sleep­ing be­cause he finds it too painful to lower him­self to the ground.

guard through­out the night, so that each mem­ber of the herd can rest. Even horses kept in stalls ex­hibit this be­hav­ior. If you visit your barn at night, you’ll likely find most of the res­i­dents in var­i­ous stages of doz­ing, sleep­ing and wake­ful­ness. Even though they aren’t in a nat­u­ral herd sit­u­a­tion, one or two an­i­mals will al­ways be awake, tak­ing their shift of the night watch as their neigh­bors sleep.

Horses who rely on the sen­tinel sys­tem need to have a trusted peer nearby. In an es­tab­lished herd sit­u­a­tion, al­pha mares typ­i­cally ful­fill this role. (The guard mare gets her rest when her sec­ond-in-com­mand) re­lieves her.) How­ever, in an un­sta­ble herd---where the peck­ing or­der is un­clear or in flux---a fear­ful horse may not feel com­fort­able enough to lie down. Horses kept in stalls can have sim­i­lar reser­va­tions, as can horses kept alone.

If you sus­pect your horse isn’t sleep­ing be­cause he feels in­se­cure, try ex­per­i­ment­ing with herd re­group­ings. See which horses he as­so­ciates with, then try putting that group in a pad­dock or in ad­join­ing stalls. Give the new ar­range­ment a few days be­fore de­cid­ing whether it’s help­ful. If you sus­pect your solo horse needs com­pany to sleep, con­sider adopt­ing or fos­ter­ing a friendly res­cue horse to fill the role.


Horses need to lie down to en­ter REM sleep, but ill­ness or or­tho­pe­dic prob­lems may make this too dif­fi­cult or painful. Arthritic knees or hocks may pre­vent a horse from ly­ing down, for ex­am­ple. And, in one case doc­u­mented

by a vet­eri­nar­ian, an ex­hausted horse had en­teroliths---stone-like min­eral for­ma­tions in his in­testines---that shifted and caused pain when he was on the ground.

A good way to de­ter­mine if pain is pre­vent­ing a horse from sleep­ing is to watch him over the course of a week to see if he rolls. Most horses love a good roll, par­tic­u­larly in the sum­mer after sweat­ing or be­ing hosed off. Rolling, how­ever, will be as painful as ly­ing down to sleep, so a horse who avoids it might have a phys­i­cal prob­lem.

Call your vet­eri­nar­ian if you sus­pect your horse isn’t sleep­ing be­cause he has trou­ble low­er­ing him­self to the ground. Some­times sleep deprivatio­n is the first sign of arthri­tis. In other cases, wors­en­ing arthri­tis keeps horses from deep sleep. Your vet­eri­nar­ian may sug­gest a sim­ple so­lu­tion such as giv­ing the horse a non­s­teroidal an­ti­in­flam­ma­tory med­i­ca­tion like bute. If more in­ter­ven­tion is called for, joint in­jec­tions might make sense. Don’t ex­pect in­stan­ta­neous re­sults, though. It may take a few days for the horse to be­come com­fort­able enough to lie down and sleep.

If arthri­tis isn’t the cause of pain-re­lated sleep deprivatio­n, your vet­eri­nar­ian will try to rule out other pos­si­ble causes. This process may re­quire some time and money, but con­sider it an in­vest­ment: A prob­lem sig­nif­i­cant enough to keep a horse from sleep­ing may be af­fect­ing his health in other ways as well.


Horses who spend most of their time in stalls or even small pad­docks may have trou­ble ig­nor­ing the hus­tle and bus­tle of a busy barn. A horse may main­tain a height­ened level of alert­ness if there are al­ways horses cross-tied in the aisle by his stall or a pa­rade of horses and rid­ers con­stantly go­ing by. And, es­pe­cially in the sum­mer, barn ac­tiv­ity can be­gin be­fore dawn and stretch late into the night.

Also, horses may de­velop tem­po­rary but sig­nif­i­cant sleep deprivatio­n at shows and other events. The ac­tiv­ity at the show grounds, com­pounded with the phys­i­cal stress of the com­pe­ti­tion, means that a three-day show can leave a horse ex­hausted.

If your barn tends to be busy, ob­serve your horse to see if the ac­tiv­ity level is keep­ing him awake. Is he able to doze as a horse is tacked up in the aisle nearby? Have you ever seen him ly­ing down in his stall when there is ac­tiv­ity around him? In­di­vid­ual re­sponses will vary; what’s nor­mal to one horse may be chaos to an­other and your horse may feel the need to stay on his feet even if oth­ers don’t. Also be aware that horses can change in this re­spect. As he ages, even a sea­soned show vet­eran may be­come less tol­er­ant of the ex­cite­ment of a busy barn.

If pos­si­ble, ar­range for your horse to spend sev­eral hours a day---or overnight hours---in a qui­eter part of the prop­erty. This might be a larger pad­dock, where he can move away from any com­mo­tion, or a stall at the end

of the aisle, out of the heav­i­est traf­fic pat­terns. Also con­sider en­forc­ing “quiet hours” when ev­ery­one ex­cept es­sen­tial work­ers must stay clear of the barn.

Horses quickly learn a barn’s rou­tine and re­spond ac­cord­ingly. Quiet hours from 10 p.m. un­til 6 a.m. aren’t un­rea­son­able at most prop­er­ties. Keep lights as dim as pos­si­ble dur­ing the early morn­ings and late evenings, and turn them off overnight. Dark­ness in the barn and a sched­ule for quiet time can help horses get the down­time they need.

If you’re away from home at a show or event, you’ll be lucky if there’s an en­forced quiet time at the barn. To en­sure your equine ath­lete gets his rest, try to get a stall on the end of the row so that he only has neigh­bors on one side and be­hind him. You can also hang a heavy can­vas or some type of stall-dark­en­ing cover over the bars at night to help your horse re­lax and sleep.


Com­fort is a key com­po­nent in equine sleep but what we con­sider lux­u­ri­ous might not seem that way to your horse. For in­stance, you might think that a horse would like to lie down in a stall deeply bed­ded with wood shav­ings. But stud­ies have shown that horses bed­ded on shav­ings lie down less of­ten and for shorter pe­ri­ods than do those in stalls with straw bed­ding. Mean­while, horses at pas­ture seem to pre­fer hard-packed sur­faces to lie on, choos­ing dirt or an over­grazed area of sparse grass for doz­ing or sleep. This might be rooted in instinct: A horse needs to be able to get to his feet quickly in a cri­sis---and that’s eas­ier to do on a firm sur­face. Of course, each horse has per­sonal pref­er­ences as well.

In­dulge your horse’s in­ner Goldilocks by find­ing the sur­face that’s “just right” for him. It may be a new type of bed­ding, rub­ber mats or a com­bi­na­tion of the two. (Keep in mind that stall mats can lose their “spring” over the years and be­come smelly if urine be­comes trapped be­neath them. The so­lu­tion may be to re­place the ones you are cur­rently us­ing.) Like­wise, you can cre­ate a quick-dry­ing, firm area in your horse’s pad­dock by putting down crusher run gravel and cov­er­ing it with sta­bi­lized top­soil. Not every bed­ding/ foot­ing com­bi­na­tion is fea­si­ble lo­gis­ti­cally or fi­nan­cially, but with some cre­ative think­ing, you can prob­a­bly come up with a few op­tions to try.

Ahorse fast asleep on his stall floor is adorable, and one laid out flat, snor­ing in the sun, is the pic­ture of contentmen­t. But sleep in horses isn’t just a be­hav­ior, it’s a phys­i­o­log­i­cal process that is crit­i­cal to his well­be­ing. En­sur­ing your horse gets the best qual­ity sleep pos­si­ble is part of pro­tect­ing his over­all health.

Of­ten horses rely on a sys­tem of sen­tinels, where one or two mem­bers of a herd re­main stand­ing while the rest lie down to sleep.

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