Asleep on His Feet

Equids (horses, asses, and zebras) are the only animals that sleep standing up.
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Asleep on His Feet
Equids (horses, asses, and zebras) are the only animals that sleep standing up. | Photo:

After a long day at a horse show, I’m ready for a nice cool drink, a hot bath, and a good night’s sleep in my comfortable bed. It’s hard to accept that my horse, for all his hard work at the show, gets nothing more than a layer of shavings to bed down in. And while he might stretch out and snooze a bit after our long day, most of the time he’s perfectly happy spending his sleep time standing up.

Equids (horses, asses, and zebras) are the only animals that sleep standing up. According to the Department of Natural Sciences at the Florida Museum of Natural History, the ability to sleep on the hoof evolved as a way to remain ever alert for predators. Being prey animals, equids could flee faster if they napped on their feet rather than on the ground–it took much longer to wake up, get up, and run rather than to just wake up and run. That head start meant the difference between staying alive and becoming a tasty meal. There are two other theories as well: The longer an animal could stand, the more grass he could eat, and lying down to snooze was too difficult for his ever-increasing body size.

“Horses can and do lie down,” says Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRCVS, McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University’s McPhail Equine Performance Center. “But because of their weight, they usually sleep upright on their chests. Sometimes horses do sleep flat out on their sides, but usually for about 15 or 20 minutes. Young foals will sleep on their sides longer, but this is because they don’t have the same body weight problem

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Written by:

Sharon Biggs Waller is a freelance writer for equine ­science and human interest publications. Her work has appeared in several publications and on several websites, and she is a classical dressage instructor.

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