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Sleep deprivation in horses - what it is and how to prevent it

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

It`s such a fantastic experience to be able to hang out with a herd of horses, whom respect my space while relaxing in my presence. When horses come to lay down and rest around me, it makes me feel like being part of the herd and inhibiting the role of the lead mare.

Which is not so far fetched. In an interview with veterinarian Joe Bartone in Equus Magazine I found some interesting facts about horses and sleep:

Horses need from 30 to 60 minutes of deep sleep daily, and to achieve this they have to lay down. Bertone has documented 127 cases of sleep deprivation in horses. Overstimulation, stress, keeping horses in an unnatural herd setting or alone without other horses as well as physical issues, are the most common reasons for a horse to experience sleep deprivation.

"Many horses need a strong female presence in the herd in order to feel comfortable enough to sleep, explains Bertone. Equine society is very matriarchal. Mares are responsible for the day-to-day well-being of the herd and act as sentinels watching over other horses as they rest."

"Males can fill this role, but in general this is a mare's job. There have been studies showing that horses will look to the nearest mare before laying down. These horses feel safer knowing that a mare is on lookout. They don't seem to trust geldings or even stallions as much. In fact, the practice of separating mares and geldings into different fields may lead to very tired geldings," says Bertone.

He has experienced sleep deprivation causing horses to collapse, which easily can be confused with narcolepsy, only it`s not. Horses can even become disagreeable and unpredictable due to lack of deep sleep, as well start head tossing or show evasive behavior.

How to fix it:

If you suspect your horse is sleep deprived you can try taking the function of a lead mare yourself. Taking the guard while allowing them to rest, is the most valuable thing we can offer a horse, cause it`s what horses do for each other in a herd. Horses are prey and flight animals that spend a lot of time taking the watch for each other, that`s why we often see one horse standing while others lay down to sleep.

Doing ground work that makes you the standing horse and the one taking the guard is the best gift we can give cause it will prevent sleep deprivation and stress on a whole different level than obedience or trick training. It will change the state of the horse in a way that transforms their lives, also on their spare time.

Taking the guard is the first thing I do with any horse, ridden or unridden, pushy or scared, it doesn`t matter. I don`t tie them up for grooming and go riding, or teach them stuff and start riding. I start at the start which is connecting with them and taking the guard, in one way or the other - And ther`s one more thing to it that`s quite crucial: Don`t expect anything!

Meet horses without an agenda, see what`s really going on without disturbing them too much. Because if we go to horses with the agenda of, Oh, I want to say hi to the horse and I want to see if he loves me and come to me and blah, blah, we miss what`s really going on. Just spending half an hour with horses without expectations is the best connection training they can get and the best mindfulness training we can do, to get to know them and become part of their herd.

Although it might appear, I'm doing nothing, I think a whole lot of stuff happened in this video that describes my point and how we can become the lead mare of any herd by being observant:

Thank you so much for watching! If you want to learn more about this topic and suspect your horse is sleep deprived, facilitating a lay down can be of great help. Teaching the lay down was transformative for my mare who didn`t lie down in the stable and probably not in the pasture either. Allowing her to lie down while I took the guard was of big help and probably a huge part of the change from bucking me off to riding without reins. Even to this day she occasionally comes to me for sleep.

Laying a horse down off body language is not a quick fix with pressure or ropes. Although the use of positive reinforcement will speed things up, this is not about getting a horse to lie down that doesn`t want to, it`s about offering it. Before even thinking about lay downs it`s wise to be able to take the guard for our horse.

Learn more about how we can handle horse in a way that makes them more comfortable when around us and how to take the guard here👉

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