Do Horses Sleep Standing Up?

Yes, horses do sleep standing up, but not all the time. Horses spend most of their lives on their hooves, and they rest on their hooves too.

If you’ve ever been around horses, you’ve probably noticed that they spend a lot of time standing.

One question you might have asked yourself is whether horses are in a deep sleep while they stand up? Read on to find out.

A bay clydesdale cross welsh horse having a snooze in a straw bed

Sleeping Horse. Topper, our Clydesdale x Welsh gelding having a snooze after work

How Do Horses Sleep?

Horses have the ability to nap while they are standing.

When they do this, they aren’t in a deep sleep, but just resting. So, in a sense, they are sleeping. However, when they are in this state, they can easily be brought out of it and remain alert.

This isn’t the case when they are in a deep sleep. Think about when you have a nap. It usually isn’t a very deep sleep, and you can wake up in no time.

When you’ve been in a deep sleep, however, you might feel groggy and wonder which century you have woken up in!

A horse will have naps when they’re a bit tired, but they will also have a deep sleep when they need it. They just don’t go about it the same way.

Do horses only sleep standing Up?

No! Sometimes a horse has to get a proper, good sleep in their schedule. In other words, they need to take some time for a REM (rapid eye movement) sleep – this is a deep sleep.

When they sleep like this, they will lie down so that they can properly rest. So, if you ever see a horse lying down in their stable or field, you don’t need to panic over it.

A horse that is lying down is probably absolutely fine, unless there is a reason to suggest otherwise. If a horse feels safe, they are more likely to lie down and sleep, even in a field.

This kind of sleeping doesn’t last for hours, though. A horse will usually only lie down to sleep for two or three hours a day, but even this is done in intervals.

They often also have another horse with them who will act as lookout while they sleep.

Why Do Horses Sleep Standing Up?

Horses nap while standing up because of safety. Humans assume that horses developed in open plains and fields, which makes them inherently vulnerable to predators.

If they were to lie down every time they needed a nap, they would be putting themselves in danger. Think about the last time you saw a horse lying down.

When they eventually stood up, it wasn’t an instantaneous event – they needed a moment. If they were lying down and a predator approached them, they would be more likely to get caught.

Why don’t horses fall over when they are sleeping?

Horses are able to lock all the major joints in their legs. This allows them to remain standing up! If they couldn’t do this, they would end up falling over.

Even in this state, a horse can switch between which back leg is locked and which one can rest. They will always have at least three hooves on the ground, and one will be resting.

Considering that these animals can weigh anywhere between 70 and 1200 kilograms they need it!

Clydesdale horse yawning at Strathorn

Sunny our two year old Clydesdale Colt. Typical teenager, barely awake!

Is a sleeping horse dangerous?

Knowing how to recognise a sleeping horse is incredibly important, whether you work with them or just admire them. This is for two big reasons:

  • If a horse gets startled, they could hurt you

  • If they get startled, they could hurt themselves

These are big animals (usually), and even a little pony could do some damage if you aren’t careful. As such, it’s imperative that you know how to tell if a horse is sleeping if they are standing up.

To recognise a hose that is sleeping, or more accurately napping, while standing up, there are a few things you can look out for.

Please bear in mind that horses will also do the below things in different situations. One of these is not indicative that a horse is sleeping.

The trick is recognising several of these factors. Sometimes horses like to just relax, so take everything into account before making a decision.

You can look out for the following signs that suggest a horse is napping:

How can you tell a horse is sleeping?

  • Three locked legs – three legs will be straight, or “locked” to prevent them from falling over.

  • One leg resting – one back leg will be resting.

  • Relaxed body – their body will look relaxed rather than rigid or stressed.

  • Eyes closed – their eyes will be closed. Their faces will look sleepy and adorable.

  • Ears back or to the side – their ears will usually be pointed back or to the side while they rest, rather than pointing forwards.

  • Relaxed breathing – their breathing should be deep and rhythmic rather than shallow.

How should you approach a sleeping horse?

Be very careful not to startle or frighten the horse. This is important no matter what the horse is doing because horses will run.

They are flight animals, which means that they will very rarely, if ever, fight if they feel threatened. A startled horse can easily trample you with their immense strength and weight.

If they don’t hurt you, they could easily hurt themselves with a sudden, panicked movement. Approach your horse head on if you can, and don’t try to “sneak” up on them.

Speak quietly to them, or click your tongue as you get closer so that they can wake up before you are in front of them.

This way, they won’t get startled, and they can see that it’s you approaching them, and not a predator. You could also shake a bucket of food or treats for a nice surprise.

The key is simply to not startle them, and keep your distance before they wake up.

Final thoughts

Horses are strong animals, which means that they can accidentally hurt you if you aren’t careful. When it comes to sleeping horses, always try to wake them up gently before you’re right in front of them.

If you don’t, you risk them hurting you or themselves when their flight response kicks in.

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