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AskHQ: Sleepy time…

Q: How can I create optimal conditions for my horse to sleep? How do I know if he is sleeping enough? He spends a long time in his stable each day, but he still seems dopey and tired.

Asked by Sarah Heggarty

A: Some horses spend so much time in their stables that they oddly enough don’t feel happy sleeping there. This can become a huge welfare concern. Sleep deprivation is a common problem in domesticated horses, often leading to owners feeling their horse has narcolepsy because he may suddenly fall asleep (and even collapse!) in odd situations. Changes in the environment can sometimes be sufficient to resolve these issues quickly.

It is, however, difficult to assess if your horse is getting sufficient sleep. Horses who are sleep deprived typically appear tired and less alert than other horses, but as this is such a subjective sign it can often be difficult for owners to pick up on the degree of tiredness of their horse. Horses typically need between three and four hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, of which 15 minutes is deep rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when the horse will lie on his side, fully recumbent. Older and younger horses may need more sleep than this.

These hours of sleep will be taken in brief intervals throughout the day and night, not in one long stretch. They are not saved up for when we decide it is ‘time for bed’, and it is impossible to ‘force’ your horse to rest. Many people think that by removing distractions within the stable their horse will sleep more, but this is in fact not the case. It is instead important to consider what else your horse has available to keep himself occupied with during his long periods in the stable, so that he does not become bored and agitated, which can lead to less sleep rather than more. At the very least, horses need ad-lib forage and ideally some other sources of enrichment in the environment.

To create the ideal conditions for sleep, owners should take into account the degree of stress in other areas of the horse’s life. Could any of the following be affecting your tired horse in some way?

  • Pain
  • Illness
  • Inappropriate diet
  • Harsh riding or treatment
  • Activity at the yard 24/7
  • Lack of movement

All of these factors have the potential to increase stress and consequently reduce sleep. In some cases, the issue may only be resolved by a complete overhaul of the horse’s living conditions – even considering a new yard that offers more turnout or quieter living conditions.