Horses have somewhat strange sleeping habits. It’s often hard to know if they’re resting, sleeping, or kind of moving between the two states. And a common questions owner’s have is do horses sleep at night?
Horses do sleep at night. The majority of sleep for most horses will come during night-time hours. They tend to use the night to transition between REM deep sleep and a state of rest. Most horses will also sleep at points during the daytime.
So that’s the simple answer – they do sleep at night – just not exclusively at night like most humans do (unless you’re unlucky enough to work the night shift).
However, there’s quite a lot to understand about horses and sleep.
I’ve been riding and caring for horses my whole life, and in that time I’ve picked up the ultimate 11 facts about horses and their sleep at night. There’s a lot to know, but I’ve picked out some of the more important facts and tips for helping your horse dream peacefully!
1. Horses Have Excellent Night Vision
Horses (probably due to evolutionary adaptation) can see just as well in partial/dim lighting than they can at midday [Source].
So if you’re worried about the barn being “too dark”, don’t feel like you need to keep a night light on if some natural moonlight or lights from the exterior get into the barn to some extent.
Horses do need about 15 minutes to adjust to darkness to be able to see adequately, so don’t be so quick after turning the lights out to go mess about in the barn.
Regardless of how well your horse can see in the dark, you should always exercise caution when handling your horse in darker hours of the night.
They could still become startled, or accidentally step on your foot. Night time may be the time they are normally alone and not disturbed, so they may be genuinely surprised by you trying to be kind by giving them a midnight snack of extra hay.
If you do need to make a night pit stop, you may want to try turning on a few lights and waiting a few minutes before entering the stall. This way the lighting is bright enough for you and your horse to see, but not overwhelming.
Waiting a few minutes will give your horse’s eyes time to adjust so they can realize it’s you paying them a visit, and not the boogie man.
2. Whiskers Around the Eyes, Nose and Lips Help Horses Navigate in Complete Darkness
In complete darkness, horses’ sense of sight cannot be as reliable. When horses cannot rely on their eyes for navigation (especially in an enclosed stall) , they can use their whiskers also known as vibrissae [Source].
Unlike humans who can reach out and use their hands to touch walls and door knobs, horses can’t do much besides feel the floor under their feet.
These whiskers are their way of interacting with the environment to be able to receive sensory information of where they are in space and what is around them. Horses can use these whiskers to see how close they are to the wall, to water buckets, hay and more [Source].
This is why is has come under scrutiny quite recently about discontinuation of the trimming of these whiskers for aesthetic reasons for competitive show horses.
Regardless if you choose to trim or not to trim, make sure your horse is safe at night in their stalls. All snaps and hooks should be secure and facing towards the walls.
Any sharp edges should be removed or filed down smooth. And of course make sure your floor is smooth and flat and if you use mats that they are even and not curling up.
3. Horses Only Close Their Eyes to Sleep During REM Sleep
Horses don’t spend too much time sleeping in general. When they do sleep, a lot of it is light sleep and not deep REM sleep. Mostly horses sleep for several minutes at a time and in relaxed laying position or locked in a standing position [Source].
When horses are in REM sleep their muscles will all completely relax and their eyes will close. In all other times of rest, horses will either have their eyes open or half-closed during their numerous cat naps throughout the day and evening. Horses may chose to slip into REM during the night hours when the barn is quiet and they can fully relax.
If your horse’s eyes are closed and they are laying down, they may be in deep sleep and easily startled – so do your best to be quiet and calm and stay out of their way just in case if they scramble to their feet in a hurry.
4. Music May Help Horses Be More Relaxed at Night
A study was performed using 7 horses at Hartpury University to see if music had any affect on horses behaviors at night. The experiment was done over 9 nights including 2 initial days without music, 5 days of classical music – more specifically Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – and then a final 2 days without music for a second time.
The researchers found that the horses showed outwards signs of more relaxed behaviors such as munching on hay or laying down when music was played [Source].
More research needs to be done in this area, but this experiment does elude to a potential correlation between better rest and relaxation with horses at night when classical music is played! Obviously not everyone in your barn may appreciate you playing music so ask around before you decide to test your theory.
5. Alteration in Nightly Sleep Patterns Cold Predict Illness in Horses
Researchers based at the Nottingham Trent University are diving into how potential alterations in sleep patterns could predict health problems in horses. These type of alterations are hard to spot as most REM sleep is done a night in the peace and quiet of the barn (and darkness).
Researchers are attempting to capture sleep habits through video surveillance to understand each individual horse’s pattern [Source]. This could eventually evolve into sensors that can detect movement and night time behavior. From there the possibilities are endless as far as collecting data on temperature, heart rate and beyond.
Any change in your horses behavior, especially their wake-sleep cycle, should be investigated.
6. Horses Sleep The Most at Night
Horses typically spend their nights going back and forth between resting and REM sleep. Obviously every horse is different and if you tend to ride your horse most evenings, they may adopt a sleep schedule where they sleep more during the day and less at night.
If you find that your horse is sleeping or resting more at night, try to keep to that routine and avoid disturbing them too much in the later evening hours. You should also ask your barn/facility what time is lights out for the horses, and what time people are allowed in the barn until at night. This may give you a better idea of your horse’s nightly routine.
7. Horses Can Suffer From Sleep Terrors When Sleeping at Night
Just like people, horses can have nightmares also called night terrors or sleep terrors. Like people, nightmares can be very distressing and can cause people (and horses) to have interrupted sleep and not be able to complete restful sleep that is crucial for overall health and function.
You may find that these horses seem cranky or lethargic during the day. It’s even possible for horses to look like they are buckling and catching themselves or even collapsing completely because they’ve dozed off without locking their legs first.
You may witness your horse having these terrors if they are asleep but their legs are paddling or kicking around. Other episodes could be more extreme like lashing out, screaming and overall disorientation [Source]. Any behaviors like these should prompt a consult with your vet.
8. A Horse in a Herd May Resist Sleeping at Night
If you horses gets turned out at night with a herd of horses, it’s possible your horse serves as alpha or leader of the herd. Naturally, horses may be more vulnerable at night as their predators can more easily sneak up on them.
On the other hand, usually the darkness will help in concealing their location. Regardless, it’s often the role of the top horse of the herd to watch and stand guard of their community.
This may cause your horse to not sleep during the night, and instead sleep more during the day time when the herd is less at risk “to be attacked”.
As long as your horse isn’t showing signs of stress or sleep deprivation, this is just something that will be unique to your horse’s sleeping habits.
However, if it becomes problematic, you may have to intervene and be creative with a solution. This could mean that your horse is separated form the herd at night (if possible) so they can sleep without the responsibility of the herd. This may be distressing for your horse, so again you may have to get creative with your resolution ideas.
9. You May Be Able to Tell If Your Horse Is Sleeping at Night
If your horse is laying down at night to sleep, there may be a few things you can pick up on.
If your horse has a stall with shavings there may be a tell-tale sign. Shavings on the underside of their belly, in the forelock, mane or base of the tail or even shavings stuck to the hair on their face or ears may indicate that your horse is laying down at night – either to rest or sleep.
Also manure stains on the underside of the belly or on the sides of the body or neck may also give a hint that the horse either laid down to sleep or just took a roll in their poo (lucky you).
It maybe harder to tell in horses with dark or short coats, or when it’s winter and your horse is stabled with blankets. So just because you don’t see these signs, don’t raise the alarm.
10. What To Do If You Think Your Horse Isn’t Sleeping at Night
If you suspect your horse is not sleeping, it would be best to consult your veterinarian after you’ve confirmed your suspicion. Setting up a 24 hours surveillance should do the trick to figure out if your horse is sleeping.
Of course 24 hour surveillance works if your horse is in it’s stall, except when being ridden, for the entire 24 hours. It’s possible your horse is sleeping outside in the paddock during the day (or night) and not in the stall.
If your horse is buckling or completely collapsing, this is a sign of sleep deprivation and a veterinarian should be consulted immediately regardless if you have confirmed lack of sleep [Source].
If you do suspect this to be the case, the horse should be handled with extreme caution. Horses like this can be unpredictable, not only with their moods but their movements. They could become aggressive out of no where, or fall or stumble without warning. These horses should also not be worked until their sleep is under control. This is for safety of both horse and rider.
11. Every Horse Has Its Own Sleeping Routine
When all is said and done, no two horses are the same. This goes from anything from what type of bit they prefer, if they like mares of geldings, and yes, if they prefer to sleep during the day, the night, or both. As humans, we may just assume that all horses sleep at night, just like we do – but there’s much more to it than that.
A lot of things may impact your horse’s sleep schedule like when they are worked, when they are fed, how loud or quiet the barn is, or even what their indoor living arrangements are like.
Horses do sleep at night, but not always, not exclusively, and not for a full 8 hours like we all hope and dream of for ourselves. Do your best to create a wonderful environment for your horse to catch some Zzz’s if they so choose, but don’t be alarmed if most of the night is spent munching on hay and brief naps!
Ahern, Tom. (2018). Sleep Attacks with Associated Sleep Terrors in a Six Year Old Thoroughbred Geldi. World Journal of Veterinary Science. 6. 10.12970/2310-0796.2018.06.03.
Ask the Vet: Clipping A Horse’s Whiskers. SmartPak Blog. https://blog.smartpakequine.com/2017/06/clipping-a-horses-whiskers/.
Barakat, C. (2003, September 10). Your Horse’s Night Vision. The Horse Owner’s Resource. https://equusmagazine.com/horse-care/nightvision_091003-8169.
Behaviourist, J. H. | E. (2020, April 21). Does music affect how stabled horses sleep at night? JUSTINE HARRISON | EQUINE BEHAVIOURIST. https://www.equinebehaviourist.co.uk/blog/2020/4/21/does-music-affect-how-stabled-horses-sleep-at-night.
Monday Myth: Horses Don’t Need as Much Hay at Night. SUCCEED Equine. (2017, March 27). https://www.succeed-equine.com/succeed-blog/2017/03/27/myth-horses-dont-need-much-hay-night/.
The Otherwise Apparently Healthy Collapsing Horse. The Horse. (2018, February 11). https://thehorse.com/110342/the-otherwise-apparently-healthy-collapsing-horse/.
Your Horse’s Whiskers – Should You Clip Them? Pro Equine Grooms. (n.d.). https://www.proequinegrooms.com/tips/grooming/whiskers.