How Much Sleep Does Your Horse Need?

horse sleep, horses nervous system, rem sleep horses, phases of horse sleep, horses need to lie down, alexa linton

How Does Your Beauty Sleep? And why is it important?

By Alexa Linton, Equine Sports Therapist

Sleep is one of my very favourite things. It’s at the top of my list of essentials for the well-being of my body, mind, and spirit — right alongside chocolate, a yummy and nourishing meal, and a great ride on my mare, Diva. Anyone who has experienced even mild insomnia knows that the negative impact of insufficient sleep on your brain, your mood, and your productivity is remarkable, and that a few nights of poor sleep can lead to general grumpiness, short temper, feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm, and impaired memory and focus. There are some very clear physiological explanations for the effects of poor or inadequate sleep, including a resultant dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system impacting everything from heart rate to blood pressure, and digestion to elimination, mood, and memory. Sleep is commonly referred to as some of the best medicine there is for whatever ails you, providing the body with much-needed recovery and rejuvenation. It’s no wonder sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. But, what about your horse? Is he sleeping enough, and getting the right type of sleep? And if not, how is this contributing to his overall well-being?

Have you ever seen a horse that sways when standing and resting, or comes close to buckling onto his knees, or has scars on the front of his fetlocks? Having a horse in my herd with these “sleep attacks” demonstrated how common it is for domesticated horses to struggle with sleep deprivation and specifically, not enough deep restorative rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Similar to sleep-deprived humans, these horses may show changes in mood, performance, physical well-being, and energy levels.

horse sleep, horses nervous system, rem sleep horses, phases of horse sleep, horses need to lie down, alexa linton

Photo: Dreamstime/Viacheslav Nemyrivskyi

Just as human beings may not sleep so well in a big and busy city with excessive stimulus from lights, sirens, people, and other factors, the quality of the sleep of domesticated horses is largely impacted by their environment. And like us, the quality of their sleep can be affected by pain; whether they are able to lie down safely and comfortably and get up with ease when there is danger; the feeling of safety and protection in relation to herd-mates; the presence of a comfortable place to lie down; and the quiet and stillness necessary to fully rest. When I meet a horse that I suspect of struggling to get enough sleep, I commonly hear that he is rarely seen lying down (even if he may roll); that he has had a traumatic or intense past; that he is not at ease with herd-mates or does not have a herd-mate that can look out for him; or that he struggles with other health conditions that may prevent deep restorative sleep including arthritis, digestive issues, or mobility issues limiting his ability to lie down or get back up.

What does healthy sleep look like in horses? We can recognize three phases, with the first when standing where there is still awareness but deep relaxation. Next, also possibly in standing, the horse enters a phase of deeper relaxation with only slight muscle tone where his brain waves slow substantially. In the final phase where REM sleep occurs, called paradoxical sleep, the horse must lie down, generally coming out of the second phase first to fully ensure that the environment is safe to lie down. The horse will then go back through the first two phases of sleep and then, if all feels well, he will either lie down on his side or tuck his head into his side to enter the third phase of sleep. This deeply restorative phase of sleep is characterized by rapid eye movement under closed lids, loss of reflexes and muscle function, and active brain waves. While humans need between two to three hours of paradoxical sleep per day, horses only require 30 to 60 minutes per day and don’t follow daily sleep cycles requiring this every day. However, after loss of this type of sleep for one week or more, many horses will begin to show signs of sleep deprivation, such as swaying or falling from standing. Essentially, because of their exhaustion these horses move into paradoxical sleep without it being preceded by slow wave sleep, losing muscle tone and reflexes while standing.

horse sleep, horses nervous system, rem sleep horses, phases of horse sleep, horses need to lie down, alexa linton

In the first phase of sleep, the horse stands with awareness but deep relaxation. In the next phase, the horse is in a phase of deeper relaxation and may still stand with only slight muscle tone. In the final phase of paradoxical sleep, the horse must lie down. Photo: Shutterstock/Sari ONeal 

For some horses this issue can be solved fairly simply by changing their environment, for example by bringing the horse home from a show where he was unable to lie down or get a peaceful rest; by adding more comfortable bedding or sand to his living space; or by shifting his herd-mates or barn buddies so that he feels safe to close his eyes and fully relax. For some horses it may mean addressing issues of pain and immobility that are preventing them from lying down, through medications, supplementation, and/or body work. For others it is more complex, potentially rooted in trauma or requiring a larger shift in nervous system or endocrine function.

Related: How to Deal with Tension in Horses

horse sleep, horses nervous system, rem sleep horses, phases of horse sleep, horses need to lie down, alexa linton

A group of Icelandic horses sleeps while one stands guard. Photo: Shutterstock/Malafo

For some horses, like people, their nervous system is hyper-vigilant, stuck in the flight-fight impulses of the sympathetic nervous system and not conducive to deep rest, which needs healthy vagal tone in the parasympathetic system. Good vagal tone, an expression of the health of the vagus nerve (the tenth cranial nerve) supports the rest and digestive capacities of the autonomic nervous system, and can be compromised in situations of high stress and trauma. Thankfully, it can also be repaired and restored by building a solid foundation of trust; creating a supportive environment for rest, relaxation, and social engagement; and supporting healthy nervous system function. With these horses I tend to do a lot of cranial work to open the pathway of the vagus nerve, as well as work at the poll, diaphragm, rib cage, digestive system, and heart, all in support of healthy function of this essential part of the nervous system. Incredibly, the vagus nerve is highly involved in the function of the heart, lungs, and the digestive, elimination, endocrine, and immune systems, and supporting this one nerve naturally improves the function of all of these systems.

horse sleep, horses nervous system, rem sleep horses, phases of horse sleep, horses need to lie down, alexa linton

Horses need a large space to lie down and get up safely, and an area with comfortable bedding to lie down on. Photo: iStock/Elen11

Recently, I worked with a human client who had suddenly stopped sleeping a few weeks previously I found that her vagus nerve was being compressed both at her cranial base where it exits through the jugular foramen, as well as on its transit between her heart and left lung on its path through the diaphragm. After getting these areas opened up, she started sleeping again. It really is an excellent place to work to support whole body health and I encourage you to research ways to support your own vagus nerve function (there is a lot of research coming out in this area).

Related: How to Get and Keep Your Horse's Attention

If you suspect your horse is not getting an adequate amount of sleep, especially paradoxical sleep, here are some ways to support him:

  • Assess the horse’s environment and change what you are able. Many horses are sensitive to noise, light, electric fences, and proximity to traffic (both human and vehicular). Sugary feeds can increase adrenal stimulation, which can impact sleep. It is also critical that horses have enough space to lie down and get up safely and that they have an area with softer footing to lie on. Ask your barn friends about your horse’s habits when you are not around and watch for signs of side-lying or rest. 
  • Is the horse able to move? Horses in the wild walk incredible distances every day. Does the horse’s environment allow freedom of movement? If not, do you support the horse’s movement through riding, walking together, and other exercise? Are there ways you can enrich the environment to support more movement, such as adding a herd-mate, increasing the space, adding slow feed nets in several places, or creating a paddock paradise? 
  • Consider the horse’s herd-mates or barn buddies. Does your horse seem to feel safe and comfortable with them around? Does one of them stand guard when others are sleeping? Is there enough space to comfortably get up and away from other horses if necessary? If your horse is alone, consider some sort of equine companion. Very few horses feel safe living on their own, especially if there are no other horses within sight.
  • Check over the horse’s body. If you suspect pain from arthritis or other changes, work with your veterinarian to learn more through radiographs and possibly medication or supplementation. Work with a body worker to ensure that the horse’s body is comfortable, that he is capable of lying down and getting back up, and that the vagus nerve is free and functioning. 
  • Build trust in your bond by spending “chill time.” You will be amazed at how hanging out with your horse without an agenda can increase his vagal tone and ability to relax. Use this time to cultivate your own vagal tone through deep breathing, slow walking, matching the horse’s movements, humming, and working with touch that feels good for both of you. For more on this check out the work of Elsa Sinclair.

For horses and humans alike, there are not many things more healing than a good sleep. Supporting your horse towards a healthy dose of restorative paradoxical sleep is an essential part of his wellness and can improve his health in so many ways. Lack of sleep can also be indicative of changes needed in his internal or external environment to cultivate greater well-being physically, emotionally, and mentally over the long term. If we all slept well, I have a feeling the world would be a happier and healthier place — and I hope this article supports you and your horses towards a well-rested future! 

Related: Equine Physiology and Fitness

To read more of Alexa Linton's articles on this site, click here.

 

Main Photo: AdobeStock/Müüüde

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