How Do Horses Sleep?

From Issue: Discovery 4/1/2000

Dear Todd,

Maybe they close their eyes and count sheep? OK-maybe not! But seriously, if you live around animals that eat grass and run around in a pasture all day, you begin to wonder when they get some shuteye. It’s an easy question to answer if you’re talking about an animal like a dog or cat because we see them curl up into a comfortable ball and doze off. Horses are different be­ cause they are flight animals. No, that doesn’t mean they have wings. It means they have to be ready to run­ away from danger. They don’t have thick armor or sharp teeth, so a horse’s best means of defense is a good, fast gallop. Taking off from an upright stance is a whole lot easier than having to get up first, and then start running.

So that leaves the big question: How does a horse sleep standing up? The answer lies in a system of tendons and ligaments that work together with the knee cap. Animal experts call this the “stay apparatus.” It’s a pretty clever design, really. At any time, a horse needs only to relax the muscles on his front legs, and the stay apparatus will kick in. For the back legs, a horse must rotate its hips to activate the built-in locking mechanism.

Over a period of 24 hours, a horse will be drowsy for about two hours, sleep lightly for two hours, and sleep deeply for less than an hour. But these are totals. Each day, the horse has several drowsy and sleep periods of only a few minutes each. Of course, the horse can sleep lying down if it so chooses, but God has designed this magnificent animal to get forty winks on four legs.


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