horse sleeping
Horse Health

What Happens When Your Horse Sleeps?

What happens when your horse sleeps? Does he dream like us, or is it just a period of blankness and inactivity?

The need to sleep is one of the most insistent drivers in the body, outside of breathing or reaction to pin. People can go on hunger strike but ultimately, they cannot stop themselves sleeping, except for relatively short periods of time.

And depriving people and animals of sleep impairs both learning and ultimately, health, as has been shown in sleep deprivation research, and in attempts to torture people.

What’s it for?

So why do humans, mammals, birds and even reptiles, all do it?

To understand why we sleep, first, we should appreciate that sleep is a behaviour That may sound strange, because we are more used to associating activities such as walking or eating with behaviours. But sleep is such a mixture of activity and rest that, although we often liken it to the state of unconsciousness, this is not an accurate description of it.

It is certainly true to say there is a change in consciousness when we sleep but we are not unconscious. Interestingly, although there are some very particular aspects in the patterns and frequency of sleep in horses, when they do sleep, they do so in a manner that is remarkably similar to humans. So what really happens to your horse when he sleeps?

Electricity and chemistry!

The upper brain stem is the part of the brain that is most instrumental in driving whether we or horses wake up or fall asleep. it is the ‘pacemaker’ of the sleep-wake cycle.

Through electrical impulses, it promotes activity in the forebrain and as it does, we are roused from sleep. In experiments performed on rats, where part of the brain stem was severed, the forebrain was not activated and the rats simply remained asleep all the time.

There is clear evidence that there are also very specific chemical messengers (or neurons) that work in conjunction with the electrical impulses that control our activities. One of these chemical messengers, known as serotonin, has a direct effect on the length of time we sleep, and we now know that low levels of serotonin mean less than normal sleep times.

Animals and humans who suffer from depression usually show abnormal sleep patterns (as a result of low serotonin levels), and significant time and study is now being devoted to attempting to improve sleep behaviours as a way of controlling depression.

Is it just for tired animals?

Why we sleep is the subject of continuing research. A number of scientists initially focused on the idea that sleep is a process of restoration and regeneration, but under close scrutiny, this proved to be an incomplete assessment. if all the brain was doing was helping the body recover from the stresses and strains of the day, then surely if we had run a marathon during the day, for example, we would require three or four times as much sleep as usual?

Even people who have been deprived of sleep for several days usually require only an hour or two extra the next night after to recover. Certainly they do not need to regain the 20 or 30 hours of sleep they have lost. Equally, people who have spent almost the entire day dozing on the beach, still sleep at night.

The idea of sleep being necessary only when an animal is tired is thrown into further disarray when we look at many marine mammals, such as the bottle-nosed dolphin or the porpoise. They have developed an extraordinary pattern of sleep in which one hemisphere in the brain remains alert in wakefulness whilst the other part of the brain sleeps. Not only is this essential for dolphins to allow them to continue to come to the surface to breathe, presumably they have also found advantages in being able to remain on the alert for predators but still get the necessary sleep.

Nothing to do?

Other scientists have suggested that sleep has evolved to keep an animal safe when there is nothing to do at night time. For humans this could perhaps be a plausible theory. Our ancestors would have done their hunting by day when it was easier to see and could have then learned to lie down in a safe place and not waste energy at night. Similarly, nocturnal animals that are active at night, spend most of the day time sleeping. But the theory also starts to unravel when we look at the many animals that acquire their food during day and night and therefore sleep whenever they can, including when they have the option to be active.

Surely for these animals, sleep would have been simply eliminated through the millions of years of evolution as an unnecessary interruption?

Part of the answer to this lies in the fact that sleep must be much more than just a response to a need of tiredness or to environmental changes at dawn or dusk, and its presence in all mammals and birds suggests that it must be necessary for some other reason.

The Stages Of Sleep

Studies of both human and animal subjects at sleep laboratories have shown that sleep is divided into two types, and Stage 3 and 4 of the first of these is called Slow Wave Sleep (SWS).


Stage 1

This is actually a transition between wakefulness and sleep as the animal becomes drowsy, starts to lower his head and close his eyes. it is the lightest form of sleep and sometimes is fleeting in duration.

Stage 2

Scientists believe this is the time when the brain uses electrical activity to ensure that the animal stays asleep. Older people, for example, do not show the same level of activity in Stage 2 sleep and as a result many of them report that they wake off and on throughout the night.


Stage 3

The animal starts to sleep soundly (even snores) and the body stops moving.

Stage 4

Deep sleep


After Stage 4, an animal moves into the second type of sleep known as REM or rapid eye movement sleep. Now a loss of muscle tone is accompanied with rapid movement of the eyes as they dart back and forth under closed eyelids (we now know that apart from breathing and eye movements, the body of the animal is actually paralysed during REM sleep). The heart rate goes up and down, breathing can be irregular and brain scans show that the brain becomes more active. in many respects, there are similar aspects to REM sleep and being awake. Scientists now think that REM sleep is the time both humans and animals practice becoming more sensitive to stimuli in the environment.

Certainly for horses, it helps them be more vigilant by becoming more sensitive to danger and so they become better at escaping from predators REM sleep also has an important effect on the learning centres of the brain. It seems to be the time when the brain can take stock of the experiences of the day by either; consolidating the information it needs, or flushing out unwanted, useless things that would just clutter up storage space.

In addition, this kind of sleep is critical to the brain’s ability to sort out and integrate differences between learned events and instinctive behaviours, such as a horse’s learned responses to fear-inducing events like being loaded into a trailer, which are coupled with instinctive fears.

REM sleepis also called paradoxical sleep because when it was first discovered in 1953, the scientists believed there was an unexpected paradox between the fast movements of the eyes and the stillness of the rest of the body.

horse riding road
Riding Safety

Horse Riding Into Danger?

Bridleways are in short supply throughout the country and many riders are forced to use roads, either for all their hacking or to make links between bridleways.

Unfortunately there are only about three million riders and more than 26 million motor vehicles – many driven by people who are not riders, who forgot the Highway Code on passing their driving test and who may think that horses have no right to be on the road!

Most drivers have no experience of horses and will not realise they are unpredictable and can react violently to innocent items of sounds. Wen you take your horse on the road, he is trusting you to keep safe.

Aside from making sure both you and your horse are legally and financially covered should the worst happen. You owe it to him to do all you can to ride safely and encourage drivers to be horse-friendly.

Get Noticed

‘Be seen, be safe’ is a message that’s frequently presented to riders as a key piece of riding advice – but amazinginly often, many of us ignore it. Traditionally, equestrians have been soberley-clad people but with today’s dangerous roads, riders should overcome a reference for sludge green or navy blue and consider the ease with which a driver can see them.

Coming across a rider in dark clothes, even on a grey horse, it’s no wonder a driver has little chance to slow down. In the same situation, a fluorescent vest or even a white t-shirt would give that driver vital time to cut his speed. A vehicle shooting by is not surprising if you have  camouflaged yourself against the hedge. A fluorescent hat cover alone can help by making you visible above cars or hedges.

High visibility clothing shouldn’t just be kept for riding in poor light. Even in the summer months, the contrast between bright sunlight and shade may mean a driver cannot see a horse under the trees. If you want to be invisible while you’re riding off-road, then at least wear a fluorescent vest on the road and stuff it in your pocket on bridleways, or have a reversible bright/sober-coloured jacket. But don’t forget it can be to your advantage to be easily-seen off-road too, for example if there are shooting parties, machinery, cyclists or dog walkers.

Next time you dress for hacking, think twice and wear a brightly-coloured top – that fuchsia pink t-shirt hidden at the back of the wardrobe or those crazy coloured leggings you bought after a few wines would be ideal!

Chase your council

Roadside verges would be a refuge for riders if only they could be used. Many are so overgrown that hazards are invisible, or they are littered with road signs which push the rider onto the carriageway. ‘Gardened’ verges which householders abuse or guard with stones are another robbery of riders’ safety.

The Highways Act 1980 Section 71 says there should be adequate margins for riders where the authority considers it desirable for safety. There are eight reported horse-related accidents 3 day and provision for horses gets less.What is your council doing to improve equestrian safety? Are its verges horse-friendly? Write to the chairman of the highways committee with your case for better verges.

Time to campaign

An accident is a bad experience, even if you and your horse are both unhurt. The last thing you may be thinking of is using such an incident to improve conditions for all riders, but the reaction of highway authorities increases proportionately to the severity of the accident, so try using an injury to demand the council improves safety.

The British Horse Society compiles statistics on horse related accidents which are invaluable in its campaign for safer roads. You don’t have to be a member to report an accident, but joining the Society would give it greater power to campaign for you.

The police record accidents involving horses using a specific form called STATS 19 if a human is injured. The statistics can be used to improve provision for horses so every rider in an accident on the road where someone is injured should report it. If you do not, you could be charged with failing to report an accident.

Many accidents are due to careless drivers but the law says you have a right to be on the road and drivers have a duty of care towards you. In the stress of the moment, don’t forget an accident with a horse is no different to any other – you must think of legal or financial repercussions and protect yourself from later allegations.

You can also educate any drivers you meet, perhaps at work or within businesses near you. Many companies are aware of the loss of staff time through road accidents and provide driver awareness training.You could offer to give a demonstration at their premises to improve awareness of the needs of horses on the road. Also, the BHS produces a striking poster and video which you could use. If you have an incident where a commercial vehicle has been driven recklessly, it is worth contacting the company.

Jane Wright had a horrifying experience. Lorries from a quarry close to her yard are common on local roads but usually their drivers slow down for the many horses in the area and give them a wide berth. On this occasion, Jane was hacking through a village when a lorry approached from behind. She could hear it coming and listened for the noise to change as the lorry braked. But it didn’t.

Knowing the driver must be able to see her, she suddenly realised he wasn’t going to slow down and she needed to get out of the way fast. Fortunately she was able to swing her horse onto a lawn just in time for the lorry to go belting past. Trying to calm her terrified horse, and feeling very shaken, Jane managed to note the registration number. Seriously disturbed by the near miss, she wrote to the quarry company and quickly received the reply that they were investigating this very serious incident.

As a result, the driver was given a written warning and driver awareness training, while Jane received formal apologies from both the company and the driver. This was far more than she expected and she was glad she had made the effort otherwise next time that driver met a horse, it might not have been a near miss.

Immediate action

Kirsty Magson’s 15-year-old daughter had a hideous accident recently while hacking with a friend, when one of the horses was badly injured by a van. The incident was devastating, made worse by the fact that Kirsty had to push hard – to Chief Constable level in her bid for justice.The case was eventually abandoned because the driver found a ‘witness’ prepared to say he was not at fault. Aghast, Kirsty realised how critical it is to note witnesses at the accident and get statements as quickly as possible. Later may be too late.

The trauma of an accident, perhaps with your horse suffering may make this seem impossible but Kirsty is sure now that she would be prepared and able to insist that the police interview witnesses immediately, or at the least get someone to note registration numbers for her. A prosecution for careless driving and full costs could have been successful but now even the insurance company involved has a counter-claim that the girls were not in control. Kirsty’s message is that immediate action counts so be prepared.