Do Horses Sleep At Night? 11 Facts and Tips

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White horse sleeping on the grass at night

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 question owners have is, do horses sleep at night?

I’ve been riding and caring for horses my whole life, and in that time, I’ve picked up the ultimate 11 facts about if horses 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

Likely due to evolutionary adaptation, horses can see just as well in partial/dim lighting as they can at midday.

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. 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. The night 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, 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 bogeyman. 

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.

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, water buckets, hay, and more.

This functionality is why there’s discussion around discontinuing the practice of trimming these whiskers for aesthetic reasons on competitive show horses. 

Whether 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 smoothly. Make sure your floor is smooth and flat. If you use mats, ensure they are even and not curling up. 

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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 a relaxed laying position or locked in a standing position.

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 choose 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 lying down, they may be in deep sleep and easily startled. Do your best to be quiet and calm and stay out of their way just in case they scramble to their feet in a hurry. 

4. Music May Help Horses Be More Relaxed at Night

A study was performed using seven horses at Hartpury University to see if music had any effect on horses’ behaviors at night. The experiment was done over nine nights, including two initial days without music, five days of classical music – more specifically, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – and then a final two days without music for a second time. 

The researchers found that the horses showed outward signs of more relaxed behaviors, such as munching on hay or lying down when music was played

More research needs to be done in this area, but this experiment does allude 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 Nottingham Trent University are diving into how potential alterations in sleep patterns could predict health problems in horses. These types 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. This could eventually evolve into sensors that can detect movement and nighttime behavior. From there, the possibilities are endless as far as collecting data on temperature, heart rate, and beyond. 

Any change in your horse’s behavior, especially their wake-sleep cycle, should be investigated. 

White horse sleeping in a field in twilight

6. Horses Sleep The Most at Night

Horses typically spend their nights going back and forth between light resting and REM sleep. 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 when lights out for the horses is 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. Nightmares can be very distressing and can cause people (and horses) to have interrupted sleep, which can harm 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. Any behaviors like these should prompt a consult with your vet. 

8. A Horse in a Herd May Resist Sleeping at Night

If your horse 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, the darkness will typically 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 daytime when the herd is less at risk of being “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 from 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 lying 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 lying down at night – either to rest or sleep.

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 may be 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 24-hour surveillance should do the trick to figure out if your horse is sleeping.

Of course, surveillance works if your horse is in its 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 a lack of sleep.

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 nowhere or fall or stumble without warning. These horses should also not be worked until their sleep is under control. This is for the safety of both the horse and the 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 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 you work and feed them, 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 to accomplish for ourselves. Do your best to create a wonderful environment for your horse to catch some Zzzs if they so choose, but don’t be alarmed if most of the night is spent munching on hay and taking brief naps! 

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