Do Horses Sleep Standing Up or Lying Down?

February 7, 2019
Horses sleep in one way or another, according to the circumstances. But we must bear in mind that they stay alert instinctively to avoid being preyed upon.

All animals need to sleep, but we all rest in different ways. Are you curious about knowing whether horses sleep standing up or lying down? Keep reading and we’ll answer this question!

Characteristics of horse rest

Before talking about whether horses sleep standing up or lying down, we need to know a little bit about the kind of rest that they require. Unlike felines, for example, who sleep soundly throughout the whole day after eating copious amounts of food, horses need to stay alert for predators.

It doesn’t matter if the horse is standing up or lying down, or whether his eyes are open or closed. A horse will always be alert to what’s happening around him and ready to flee from danger.

It’s for this reason that it’s not easy to determine how many hours a day horses sleep. In general, it’s estimated that foals sleep about 30 minutes of every hour (12 hours a day, that is). Young horses sleep 15 minutes every hour (about six hours a day). Adults only sleep about three hours per day.

We also know that horses sleep more when it’s hot, and if they’re sick. The environment has a lot to do with it also. Light and darkness are related to periods of wakefulness and sleep, respectively.

Other reasons why horses might sleep more or less are the time of the year, heat, pregnancy, or breastfeeding.

A horse sleeping standing up.

But, how do they sleep on their feet? It’s thanks to what’s known as “stay apparatus,” present in the hind legs of a horse. The animal is able to sleep standing up without collapsing, thanks to this.

To do this, the kneecap locks over the femoral trochlea and blocks the hock as it lightens the weight on the limbs. This mechanism also works when the horse is awake, so it doesn’t get as tired as humans would if we had to stand up all day.

So, do horses sleep standing up or lying down?

Actually, they sleep both ways. What differs is the ‘depth’ of sleep or rest. The horse can sleep standing up without losing its balance, but only dreams in REM phase (Rapid Eye Movements) when it lies down.

In REM phase the eyes of a horse move very fast and some will move their legs as if they were trotting through a meadow. When the animals lie down they do so on their side. Or, alternatively, with their chest on the ground, aiming to relax their muscles entirely.

During their periods of daily rest, horses may have between two and four sleep cycles and wake up between cycles so as not to lose their alertness, which is very important to their survival. It’s also worth noting that horses are able to wake up much faster than other species from a nap. They can get up and run away from danger in a matter of seconds.

A horse lying down.

Some believe that horses sleep soundly in order to save energy, to cement a learning experience, or to purify certain brain chemicals. Just like with other living beings, including humans.

Horses aren’t the only animals who sleep on their feet, there are many other species of mammals who sleep standing up. Among them are cows, donkeys, asses, bison, buffalo, elk, deer, wildebeest, reindeer, gazelles, elephants, rhinos, and giraffes.

Some birds can also rest without having to lie down. For example, ducks, hens, flamingos, sparrows, pigeons, canaries, seagulls, storks, swifts, and turtle doves.

So, here’s the answer as to whether horses sleep standing up or lying down. Now you know!

Carson, K., & Wood-Gush, D. G. M. (1983). Equine behaviour: II. A review of the literature on feeding, eliminative and resting behaviour. Applied Animal Ethology. https://doi.org/10.1016/0304-3762(83)90139-6