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Sleep Deprivation in Horses

After I girth my horse, he acts like he falls asleep, then his knees will buckle, and he sort of wakes himself up. OK I know it sounds funny, but the lady I bought him from said he is narcoleptic, not sure of spelling, it’s just one of many issues he has. Can horses really have that disorder, or does he just have some type of nerve there that when pressure is applied, he zones out?

I have 12 yo TB mare. I have had her for two years now. She happens to fall asleep standing in her stall during the day, and then she almost falls on her knees. It looks really funny, when she dozes and her head starts to lower down, than her front leg becomes “soft”, another leg “softens” as well, and she wakes up, when her nose touches the ground… I am finding her every day with new scratches. Besides her stall I didn’t see her do it anywhere else. What could be the problem with her?

I have a 26 year old Appaloosa gelding that is in good health and weight. He’s on 24/7 turnout with a 3 sided shelter to use at his will. He sleeps alot or should I say tries to sleep. He doesn’t lay down much. He can get down to roll and get back up fine. When he’s drifting off to sleep his eyes will close and his head drops lower and lower. When it’s about at the lowest point he starts to sway backwards almost to the point of his legs giving out then he startles himself awake. This happens alot. In your opinion do you think this is normal or something more to it or should I have my local vet check into? Thanks in advance for any help.

I usually only pick one of many questions on a topic to “kick off” an entry, but these three questions on horses falling asleep were all so interesting and described the same problem so differently that I wanted to share them all.

It’s always a good idea to have your veterinarian examine your horse when you notice anything abnormal. While I hope to offer a simple solution to the owners of these horses, it is possible something serious is going on. Conditions such as true narcolepsy, cataplexy (weakness or collapse), HYPP, heart disease, epilepsy, EPM, and others could cause similar signs. An accurate diagnosis is the first step towards appropriate treatment.

Hopefully, these horses have nothing more than simple sleep deprivation. Yes, you read it right, sleep deprivation. But (you say), don’t horses sleep standing up? How could they become sleep-deprived?

I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Joe Bertone, Professor of Equine Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences, who is working on this theory of sleep deprivation. He has found that horses need between 30 and 60 minutes of REM sleep each day. After 7 to 14 days of being deprived of this sleep, horses will begin to have “sleep attacks” as described in the questions above. What separates these sleep attacks from the sleep attacks of true narcolepsy is that sleep-deprived horses go through the first two stages of sleep—deep restfulness phase and slow wave sleep—before entering REM sleep and partially collapsing. Narcoleptic horses go from full wakefulness to full sleep (and back and forth) immediately, with no drowsiness or other sleep phases in between.

Why do horses become sleep-deprived? REM sleep can only be achieved when lying down, not standing, so sleep-deprived horses either can’t or won’t lie down. There are both physical and mental reasons for not lying down. If you never see your horse roll, or never see mud or shavings on him, he may not be physically able to get down and get back up. This would be another reason to have your veterinarian examine your horse, to see if there are any musculoskeletal or other reasons for pain. Once the pain is controlled, the horse may be able to lie down again and get REM sleep.

There are several mental reasons why horses won’t lie down. One is the absence of what’s called a “sentinel” or guard horse. Dr. Bertone shared stories of horses that suddenly found themselves alone or that lost the dominant horse in a herd and became sleep-deprived because they did not feel they could safely lie down and sleep soundly. Adding a companion, whether a watch mare or even a goat, usually resolves these situations.

Sometimes the environment is just not conducive to deep sleep. He related a story of a horse that was taken to the county fair for a show and started collapsing in the cross ties. By doing a little detective work, he was able to discover that, in addition to all of the (ab) normal sounds of a county fair, there was a fireworks display every night! This poor horse hadn’t sleep in over a week! When they took him home, he slept straight through one whole day and never collapsed again.

I encourage you to read the February 2007 issue of Equus magazine for more ideas on resolving sleep-deprivation in horses, and to visit their website to watch actual video of sleep-deprived horses:

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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21 comments on “Sleep Deprivation in Horses
  1. Carolyn says:

    Are there any specific supplements that you would recommend to aid in helping a horse with sleep deprivation? My horse is also struggling with sleep deprivation.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Carolyn – Thank you for your question. We are sorry to say there are no supplements for sleep deprivation. You have to be a detective and figure out why your horse is not sleeping, then try to correct the problem. We definitely recommend involving your veterinarian in the diagnosis both of sleep deprivation AND its cause. Best of luck!

  2. Ashley says:

    Thank you for putting this information out there! I hear so many people say that they think their horse has narcolepsy when 99% of the time this issue is sleep deprivation.

    My mare went through this prior to her hock arthritis being diagnosed and treated with injections. Immediately following the injections she almost never did it. A few months down the road, we diagnosed her with ulcers as well. Even though she was laying down, we are assuming the constant state of discomfort was enough to prevent her from really getting that REM sleep. Once her ulcers were healed up no more falling asleep!

  3. Nancy Parks says:

    Wow this is fun to read. I have a gelding that has done this for years. He is on You Tube doing it. For sure tightening a saddle would set him to sleep almost collapsing. But asking him to take a step forward would wake him up. We use to have to bridle him as he took steps forward. He would do it sometimes out in pasture. No I never see him laying down resting. Only rolling. He is retired now. Then my mare severely hurt her knee. She use to love laying down, I would bring her in off pasture daily 2 hours before lessons started so she could have her nap and sore! Then after hurting her knee she didn’t want to lay down and I saw her doing the dosing thing. UG What are the odds that I would have 2 out of 8 horses doing this? Now she will lay down to rest and everything is OK. She no longer takes her long naps. 🙁

  4. Louise Perry says:

    Hello, I lost my 30 year old gelding, Boo, four years ago. He and my mare, Synnie, had been together for 20 years. Synnie is now 30 years old and we have not seen her lay down since Boo left us. For the past 4 years she has had sleep issues. We would hear her thumping around in her stall at night so we set up a video camera to see what was happening. She would slowly drop her nose to the floor, put her front two hooves together and then knuckle over at the ankles and would sway until she almost tipped over. She does this every night. Our barn is connected to the back of our house so when I hear the thumping I run out and wake her up which is no small feat! Calling out her name or hitting the iron rails of the stall usually do no good. I actually have to slide the door open and sometimes push on her to wake her up. She is not a tremendously friendly horse so we decided not to add another horse, goat, etc. to the mix. She is otherwise very happy and healthy!!

  5. Liz Ludington says:

    I was so happy to see this topic! My 19yr. old mare seems to have sleep deprivation. I have only had her for two years but I have noticed her nearly falling over in the field when napping. I thought maybe she was unable to “lock” her stifles in order to fully sleep (or Nap) easily. Now that I have heard other similar stories I intend to get her checked out by my vet. I rarely see her lay down to sleep. I assumed she did at night.
    Thank you all!

  6. Taft says:

    This blog has helped me as well, thank you for sharing these comments. We have a mare that will fall asleep standing up when she is at shows. She only does this at a show so now I know, she’s probably too nervous in the new environment to get good sleep. We do see her lay in the stall so she does try to get rest but apparently it’s too noisy. I’ve also not liked how most show barns keep the lights on 24/7. That is probably a factor as well.

  7. Sharmen Scafani says:

    We have a 14 year old gelding that was a competitive reigning horse. His previous owner passed away and we purchased him. We had him approx. 6 months and started noticing him collapsing when he tried to stand to sleep. We have had blood work, chiropractic, kinesiology work,etc. to help him and nothing has worked. I’m sure he started it from being moved to a different environment and we have tried to mimic his previous environment in hopes that he would lay down and sleep. It has affected his performance and he is a lot more lethargic acting. I’m also afraid he will hurt himself when he nearly collapses. Is there some sort of supplement that can help him rest, enhance his performance, or help his condition? Do you have any suggestions I have not tried?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Sharmen, we’re sorry to hear about your horse’s condition. It sounds like you’re still in the process of determining a diagnosis, and we would encourage you to continue down that path with your veterinarian as this behavior could be indicative of something serious. It might also be worth taking a close look at your horse’s daily routine to determine if there may be something that is interrupting his sleeping pattern, especially if you rarely see your horse comfortable enough to lay day down or roll. – SmartPaker Casey

  8. Holly says:

    I noticed for the last few years that my OTTB had bed sores on the front of her fetlocks. I initially thought she was just laying in a position that rubbed her fetlocks, so I purchased bed sore boots for her. Today, I watched her start to become extremely drowsy while standing, and nearly collapse. She has three episodes of this within a 10-15 minute period. She would always wake up as she started to collapse. I noticed that one of the factors contributing to sleep deprivation is the absence of a dominant mare. My mare IS the dominant mare. Could this be the reason for her sleep deprivation? Is she always on guard for the rest of the herd (she’s out with three other horses)? I’m wondering if anyone has looked at that as a possible issue: that perhaps the dominant horses are exhausted from being on alert all the time. Furthermore, I’m wondering if anyone out there has noticed if their sleep deprived horses appear to be more “hot” or agitated when under saddle? My mare can be extremely hot under saddle while being the total opposite on the ground. Could this hotness be a result of a “fight or flight” reaction? Is she so concerned about being on alert that she’s over-reacting to certain stimuli–in this case, being worked? Just some thoughts….

    • lizzie says:

      My mare is the same no one else stands guard and I am not able to introduce a new animal, should i try moving yards?

    • Lauren says:

      Hi there,
      My dominant mare has the same exact issue. Sores on her fetlocks, collapsing when falling asleep, and being hot. Just wanted to know if you found a way to help her.

  9. michelle says:

    My mare is 35 yrs old and in the past 6/8 mnths she has not layed down to rest or sleep i often see her nodding off and nearly collapsing to the ground ,to day she did it 6 times in about 5 mins and nearly actually layed down with front legs and head down to the ground , she so much wants to sleep , what can i do ???
    just prier to her not laying down anymore i had to actually help her and push to help get her back up on her feet , so im thinking she knows she has trouble getting back up , any ideas please

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Thanks for your question and sorry to hear that your mare is not sleeping well. Unfortunately, difficulty rising can be one reason for reluctance to lie all the way down on the ground, a requirement for true REM sleep. Talk to your veterinarian about ways to make your mare more comfortable, if possible, so she can get down and back up off the ground more easily. Dr. Lydia Gray

  10. Liz Blackburn says:

    My 30 yr. old gelding never gets his “turn” to lie down and get his REM deep sleep, as he always is the one who has to stand sentry while my other two younger horses lie down. He is otherwise able to roll every day when turned out, and get up without much difficulty. He has all the symptoms of sleep deprivation mentioned above, but is otherwise healthy; just aging. His pasture mates never stand sentry for him, and I have noticed this with other aging horses in a herd. The low man in the pecking order never seems to get his turn to be guarded and go into REM sleep. What can I do to change things??

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Liz, thanks for your question. The first place I would start is by looping your veterinarian in on the conversation. In terms of helping out your senior catch some zzz’s, you’ll need to start exploring options for helping him feel comfortable and safe enough to lie down. Some horses might feel safer in certain parts of the property, or even possibly in a large stall or run-in shed. You might also consider introducing a new critter, like a goat or a miniature horse, to your herd if that’s at all a possibility. Keep trying new things until you find something that works for him. – Dr. Lydia Gray

  11. Patti Memsic says:

    My 13 yo gelding is and has always been a very sound sleeper. At age 6, he would sometimes fail to awaken for the morning feed. And he loves food. Now he is still difficult to awaken, but when he gets up off the ground, from sleeping, he is very unstable. His back legs are spread wide, he looks like he is going to fall, and he takes a few minutes to stabilize. He does not do this when he is rolling in the pasture for fun. He comes right to his feet, no problem. I just had blood drawn for selenium deficiency (South Carolina has the lowest levels of selenium in the soil) and Cushings. He has no symptoms of Cushings, or family history, but the vet. insisted. Dr. Ridgeway, the Chiropractor arrives in 3 weeks. Any ideas?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Patti,

      Thank you for your question. It sounds like you are doing just the right thing by working closely with your veterinarian! The most important thing for you to do will be to get an accurate diagnosis so that you and your vet can come up with a plan. Best of luck with your gelding!

      – Dr. Lydia Gray

  12. Stormy Steakley says:

    I just rescued a six-year-old paint gelding from a kill pen. He seems to be suffering from the same issue and I’m wondering it is because he was mistreated and moved around so often. He has just been here three weeks so may need to settle in. I have yet to see him lie down and relax. This poor horse!

  13. Darcy styles says:

    Good afternoon,

    I have a horse I’m concerned about, I brought her two months ago she’s a 16.2 warm blood mare she only weighed 442kg when I brought her, I’ve seen her roll in the field but am aware she hasn’t laid down in the stable since I’ve brought her. She buckles at the knee when I tack her up. As well as in the stable but never goes all the way down.

    I’m now experiencing her becoming more aggressive I think part of the reason being how sleep deprived she is. I think part of the reason is she doesn’t feel safe and is always feeling threatened as she was previously abused. I’m at my wits end as I can’t get her to lay down and sleep.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Thank you for your question, Darcy. The first place I would start is by looping your veterinarian in on the conversation. They’ll be the best resource to help confirm your mare’s difficulty sleeping, and the underlying cause of her aggression. In terms of helping your mare catch some zzz’s, you’ll need to start exploring options for helping her feel comfortable and safe enough to lie down. It might be worth taking a close look at your horse’s daily routine to determine if there may be something that is interrupting her sleeping pattern. If you’ve noticed her sleeping in turnout, it may also be time to consider 24/7 turnout for her, if that is available. Some horses might feel more comfortable in certain parts of the property, or even possibly in a large stall or run-in shed. Making sure that she has a herd that she feels both safe with, and a part of may also be an important factor. Keep trying new things with the guidance of your vet until you find something that works for her.

      – Dr. Lydia Gray

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