Horses Need Sleep

I would like to talk about horses’ sleep and rest patterns. It’s not something people traditionally consider, but is so very crucial to a horse’s wellbeing and performance.

How do you feel after weeks of sleep loss? Staying up late, getting up early, never getting that extra day where you sleep until you’ve caught up…

That’s how horses feel when they aren’t able to rest.

Yes, horses can sleep standing up, but that’s for times when they are terrified of being eaten by a predator. Their bodies are on constant alert, ready to wake up and bolt. It would be similar to you sleeping on public transportation. Can you do it? Sure. Do you get deep, refreshing sleep? Not at all.

Horses need the same type of sleep. Deep sleep is when muscles relax and healing occurs.

Muscles are constantly changing. They stretch and contract. They build up lactic acid and get sore, the same as we do. We need rest and relaxation. We take hot baths. We soak in Epsom salts. We do stretches. We buy support aids for our joints when we are sore.

Horses are the same, but their muscles get even more work because they are carrying us, plus tack, plus they have a belt that cinches around their ribcage (the girth).

There are many reasons that horses don’t get good sleep. Let’s explore the top three:


When horses are in pain, they are afraid to lie down. This goes back to the fact that they are prey animals. If they lie down and a predator approaches, they may not be able to get back up quickly.

Pain can also cause them to not want to use certain joints that are necessary for the horse to lie down or get back up. Pain is the primary reason horses do not get good rest and suffer from poor performance or behavior problems.


Horses need to feel safe in their environment. There are numerous reasons that they may not feel safe enough to lie down to rest.

Boss horses in the pasture can bully the less dominant horses in the pasture.

Loud barns that don’t turn off lights, don’t have proper ventilation, aren’t cleaned well, have major mice/rodent populations, etc.

Horses are much like us in that we want to be safely tucked in our beds with the lights out, the ceiling fan on, and the doors locked when we go to sleep.


Horses that don’t feel well don’t rest well. Respiratory diseases such as heaves, influenza, strangles, and even allergies will cause a horse to be tired because it can’t breathe well. Horses have enormous lungs, and they need them to function properly.

Cushing’s disease can cause many problems such as sore feet, insulin resistance, skin sensitivity, and chronic infections. There are good treatment options now, so please have your horse evaluated by your veterinarian if you have an older horse who isn’t thriving.

How do you know if your horse is getting proper rest? You should see your horse resting. My horses come in their stalls during the day when it’s hot so they can be under fans and away from bugs. It is very common for me to walk into the barn midday and not see a single head over a stall. They will all be lying down and taking a nap. That is what you want. If you never see them lying down, look for signs. They should be dirty or the stalls should show signs of a horse that has laid down.

Narcolepsy (falling asleep standing up) is not an actual disease but rather a symptom of a sleep-deprived horse. When a horse is standing in the cross ties, being groomed, it will fall asleep because it knows that you are there, and it is safe. It’s like having a massage in a quiet room. You will fall asleep if given the opportunity, especially if you haven’t been resting well at night.

My point is this: Your horse needs good, deep sleep. You are responsible for creating an environment where that can happen. Be watchful and aware of your horse’s sleep patterns. Watch for signs that your horse is lying down.

We got a new, older mare about 6 weeks ago for my daughter. When she came to us, she was stiff and nervous. After tending to her for over a month – including good dental care, chiropractic, acupuncture, joint injections, massage, and herbal supplements – we finally saw her lying down.

It took us 5 weeks to get her comfortable enough with the pain in her body, the stress in her new environment, and her nutritional status to be able to relax and rest.

She is a much happier mare now and is getting back to her former performance levels.

Happy Horses are always the goal!

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