Why Do Horses Sleep Standing Up?

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Why Do Horses Sleep Standing Up

Out of all the living creatures in the world, horses sleeping while standing up seems to be the most unique way of dozing off. But why exactly do horses sleep this way?

If you are curious to find out more about horses and their sleeping habits, read more from this article below. We will cover some fast facts and scientific explanations as to how horses can sleep in this position, the reason for doing so, and why it’s important to know about this.

Why do horses sleep standing up?

So why exactly does a horse doze off while completely standing still on the ground? Here are the main reasons why they do so:

Horses are prey animals

If you live in the wild where animals can easily attack you, how would you feel? Would you feel threatened? Would you be able to sleep well?

In a horse’s case, since they were naturally prey animals in the wild, they had prey survivor instincts. Similar to how certain prey animals, such as birds, sleep upright, they, too, sleep in this way. Horses needed to stay alert in case they get hunted anytime soon.

With that said, horses can be easily chased down by various animals, such as wolves, mountain lions, bears, and coyotes. This prey position has also led them to develop an elusive nature, which is why they tend to become easily startled at the sight and sound of danger.

Their sleeping habit, however, is not exactly a deep sleep. Horses can sit down if they want to, but it’s just that they don’t want to. Horses sleep while standing up just to stay on their ground in case something tries to hunt them. When they wake up and hear the sounds of predators, they’ll quickly make their escape, which is a good survival instinct for them.

Horses find it difficult to quickly stand up

Standing up as a horse is much more tedious than having to run away from predators. In the wild, horses become prey so they developed a skill that allows them to completely stand on their guard while also dozing off when they need to.

The anatomy of a horse is what makes it difficult for them to stand up. A horse has a straight back so they will need to take some time before they could get up. And, unfortunately, this wasted time would allow the predator to gain an advantage over them.

Therefore, to survive such inconveniences in the wild, horses learned how to adapt. They quickly mastered the art of sleeping lightly with their feet completely still on the ground so as not to have wasted time when escaping from a predator.

With that said, a horse lying down versus a horse trying to get up is much easier. If your horse gets too tired, they will eventually take naps in the form of lying down. After all, a horse’s legs are their best assets because without them, they wouldn’t survive in the wild and they would’ve never been used as transportations by humans.

To take care of their legs, they need to be very careful when managing them. If they quickly stand up, it could cause problems since it would take a lot of time and effort as compared to just lying down. Not to worry – if your horse becomes accustomed to a quiet and secure farm or barn, the horse will most likely sleep lying down sometimes to give its legs a little beauty rest.

Why Do Horses Sleep Standing Up

Horses take turns to sleep

In the wild, horses depend on their group for defense against the enemies. They all take turns on who will guard their team for the night so one must be somewhat awake yet also somewhat dozing off. This also led them to develop this standing-up act to fool the predators.

If at least one horse in the group is semi-awake, they have a better chance of survival against predators that are trying to land a hit on them. Then, this horse passes the turn to another horse in their circle of friends. All horses need to have their beauty sleep in some way or another so having turns is just a way of returning the favor.

Horses in captivity, such as those in barns and stables, still use this method of keeping everyone safe. However, it still depends on the environment that they live in. In a countryside where the surroundings are not that threatening, horses will feel less terrified and will most likely have longer REM sleeps and fewer stand-up acts.

How does a horse sleep standing up?

It’s all thanks to their special set of legs. Also known as the stay apparatus, this special set of legs allows the horse to stand up without falling. Their tendons and ligaments are unique to them such that they can stand up and relax without losing balance when they sleep.

When they do this trick, they are only merely dozing and not entering REM sleep (mentioned below). Therefore, if you do see a horse sleep this way, they are not exactly totally sleeping so they are easily woken up when there’s trouble or if you want something from them.

Horses are, after all, servants during the war so they have to be ready at all times. Their ever-ready personality makes them great war companions, as well as a handy form of transportation back in the days when cars weren’t invented yet. Still, they are animals that deserve all the love and comfort so they need to take a rest when they need to.

Can a horse sleep lying down?

Absolutely! There’s a difference between their REM sleep, also known as their deep sleep, and their light sleep where they doze off standing up.

REM sleep is where they need to rest their legs and completely regain stamina. That’s when they will most likely lie down so that they would have a good night’s sleep. However, with that in mind, naturally, horses don’t require a lot of REM sleep compared to most animals. That’s why they rarely lie down sleeping.

horse sleep lying down

Moreover, if you do see horses lying down like lions or cats, it could be an unusual and odd sight to look at. Some people who are used to seeing horses standing up all the time might even report the horses for being dead when they’re just sleeping!

In truth, a horse will just lie down to feel comfortable and rest its legs from all that standing while sleeping. If they are in a safe and comfortable place, they’ll have even more of this opportunity because they will feel less threatened without prey around them, unlike in the wild.

How long will a horse sleep standing up and lying down?

A horse will sleep in only a few minutes if they choose to stand up, being watchful over predators and dangers that might lurk nearby. On the other hand, if they choose to lie down comfortably to relax their legs, they might fall asleep in about a few hours or so.

On the other hand, a horse will need about 12 hours of sleep a day. Similar to most domesticated animals like dogs and cats, their sleep hours and nap times are short bursts that are broken down within the entire day. Just as they only feed few amounts of food (e.g. grass or hay) but frequently, horses also sleep similarly.

With that said, a horse’s sleeping activity will vary depending on the following:

1. Where they live or stay

A horse living on a barn with a lot of action going on might feel a little intimidated so they might sleep less often. They could doze while standing up but you’ll less frequently see them lying down. On the contrary, on a laid-back ranch, you’ll probably see a couple of horses sleeping on their sides, which might sound a little unsettling, but they’re just getting their beauty sleep!

2. Other animals in the area

If your horse lives with other barn animals, such as pigs and cows, they might feel alerted to their noise and might not sleep properly. That’s also true if your barn or ranch has domesticated pets like cats or dogs.

3. Noise levels around them

Aside from possibly the noise of chickens and rooster crows in the morning, a horse could also get disturbed easily if they are in a stable or barn that’s near traffic areas or industrial sites.


As a whole, horses do sleep standing up but it’s only a small little nap. The real deal is when they lie down, but don’t mistake that for something terrible that happened to them unless there are dangerous telltale signs!

While it looks scary to see a horse sleep on their side as if they are lifeless, horses only want to relax their legs if they ever want to lie down, so why not let them? After all, without a horse’s legs, they won’t get our carts moving and won’t be able to send us to our destination.