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Study: What do horses do at night?

April 10, 2018

Do you have any idea what your horse is up to at night time? German horse owner Dr. Tanja Romanazzi documented the nightly habits of her horses on camera. Apparently, horses do some interesting things at night.

“This was not a scientific study by any means”, Tanja stipulates when she talks about her study regarding sleep patterns of her horses at her stables Gut Heinrichshof. Tanja wanted to show that horses are very active at night and used cameras to prove her point. Scientific or not, the results are definitely interesting and surprising too.

“I was looking for answers to questions such as: Are the resting areas in stables big enough and do the horses use the rubber mats? We also studied horses kept outside and what they did at night. “Unfortunately, the camera we put up in the walk -in stable and paddock kept showing empty images, with the horses crossing the screen only briefly”, Tanja describes. “That’s when I decided to stay in the field myself at night time, together with a camera. It was an amazing experience! If I’m honest, I can be a bit scared at night and in the dark but being close to the herd I felt good. As if the protecting nature of being in a herd impacted me as well as it does horses.”

Tanja is often surprised by the unrealistic views horse owners have regarding the sleeping habits of their horses, especially when talking about stabling and systems. “The horse needs to have plenty of room to sleep well all night, they say. Assuming horses will, just like their owners, lay down at night and don’t get up until morning.” Nothing is further from the truth. “With the exception of a short sleeping period, horses will do at night the same as they do during the day: Walk around, eat, play and nap.” All the studied horses both stabled and kept outside had a main sleeping period between midnight and 4 am. Most horses would lie down and sleep for one or two hours. “Interestingly, horses prefer to sleep together. They walk around and graze but when sleep time comes they come together and sleep close to one another. Usually the herd leader would keep watch, together with a few other horses, over the group of sleeping, lying down horses. In one herd it was so extreme that out of 9 horses, 3 of the horses would keep watch while the other 6 slept in a close circle”

Lying down flat would only occur if horses felt extremely safe. Getting up and running would take up a lot of time and is not practical if a predator is lurking nearby. “That is why horses don’t lay down for hours at a time and not too often.” According to research the need for sleep in horses is around 4 hours a day, young horses sleep more than older horses. “I saw most horses sleep only one or two hours at a time, followed by a few more standing up naps throughout the day.”

Social relations as well as eating and drinking habits were all similar at night time compared to during the day, if perhaps a bit quieter. Of course, stabled horses had to just stand around as there were no other activities available. “Nightly habits of horses don’t differ much from daytime habits. The biggest difference was the length of lay down sleep time.” This depends on a few factors. “Are the stables big enough and fitted with the right floor covering? In our experience horses prefer to sleep on a floor that is dry, soft and natural. Grass, dry sand or wood shavings are popular. Most horses did not like to lay down on hard rubber mats, though most horses would lay down on soft rubber mats. Compost is also a favourite. “


Another important point is the level of comfort a horse is experiencing in the herd. “Is the horse accepted by the other horses and does he have a set position in the pecking order of the herd? The latter can take a few months when introducing new horses”, Tanja knows. A big difference is whether the herd is at ease and had a set leader. A group with only mares at stables Gut Heinrichshof felt, according to Tanja, visibly unsafe. “Just as you can see in the wild, the mares would hardly lay down. It wasn’t until we added a gelding to the group, that the mares visibly relaxed and increasingly laid down to rest.” Young horses would lay down more often and longer, while horses with a decreased health would lay down less.

“Personally, I am a huge fan of keeping horses in a herd. They will have more room, can choose their own friends and apparently they do feel safer”, Tanja relays. One more interesting observation Tanja made: “I noticed on New Years’ Eve when fireworks were cracking, not only the one herd came close together. Surrounding herds tried to join the others, as far as the fencing allowed them. One group of mares broke through the fence last year to be closer to another herd.”

How frequent and how comfortable a horse rests is also dependent on his place in the pecking order. Horse with a higher rank will choose the best spots and lay down. Horse with a lower rank will move out of the way and will stand close by. Some very confident horses with a lower rank will still lay down somewhere else. Especially horses kept in a small group stable did not have a lot of options and would often stay standing all night. Researchers from the Ludwig-Maximilians university in Munich also studied sleeping patterns in horses and concluded that even standing up horses can still fall in a very deep sleep. So even the standing horses will still get a good rest.

Tanja elaborates: “The biggest surprises for me came when monitoring horses kept in a grouped stable. All individual horses seem to have one favourite place to sleep. One would sleep close to the exit, the other preferred the back of the stable. Another remarkable discovery was that horses use some sort of a ‘horse toilet’. In the grouped stable the same area was used as an area to pee, intensively! In a group of 12 horses the same spot was used to pee 21 times in a period of 24 hours.”

At stables Gut Heinrichshof, Tanja extended all sleeping areas based on her research. She also replaced hard rubber mats with soft mats and added parts compost, since her research shows that horses like to sleep in soft areas. Now her horses have two options to lay down for a rest.

Other suggestions for horse owners are quite clear according to Tanja. “Horses need food and room for movement during the night just as during the day. Stables horses would do best in a grouped, open stable with plenty of room to move around and 24 hours access to hay. Make sure you have plenty of feeding areas so horses that are ranked lower in the pecking order can still easily eat. You can spread out water and food to make horses move around. “Large areas with soft flooring are best, horses like to sleep together. Try and provide a mixed bottom to promote a healthy hoof development. Is there an elderly or sick horse in the group? Watch it closely to see if it is still comfortable within the herd. If he can eat and sleep peacefully all is good. If not, it may be time to find another stabling system for him.”

Source: Bit Magazine – The Netherlands. Bit #216


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