Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Is your horse sleep crashing?

Once while I was grazing Harv he suddenly buckled at the knees, bellowed, and nearly fell (he caught himself). I was pretty shaken but he seemed okay. It never happened again.

Has your horse ever nodded off and fallen, or nearly fallen, from a walk or standstill? If your horse regularly buckles at the knee, or if he falls for no reason, there may be a significant problem.  One such problem is sleep crashing.

What is sleep crashing?
Sleep crashing is basically sleep deprivation. Horses only get their REM sleep lying down, and they need 20-40 minutes a day. If they don't get their REM sleep, they may sleep extra deep when standing up. Their legs buckle, and you have your basic nod and crash -- unfortunately, serious injury is possible.

When horses are not comfortable getting up and/or lying down, or when they are uncomfortable lying down due to insecurity (e.g., in a new environment), they stand continuously.  Tying a horse in a standing stall is one obvious cause of sleep deprivation or crashing. Another cause of recumbent sleep deprivation could be the lack of a herdmate. Pastured horses will normally lie down to sleep while another horse stands guard.There are other causes which you can find in the article Sleep deprivation is not narcolepsy.

What is not sleep crashing/deprivation?
Narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a rare neurological problem that happens at any time, not just when the horse is dozing. Vets say that narcoleptic episode normally occur during periods of inactivity or from certain triggers like cold hosing. Owners report that narcoleptic crashes can happen when the horse is excited or moving around normally. Antidepressants have been used successfully to treat narcolepsy.

Girthing. Falling sometimes occurs when girthing, but this is not sleep crashing. Some horses fall when girthing and it's believed that in some horses the girthing process "hits a nerve." The solution is to tighten the girth very slowly.

Monotony. Horses may buckle while being braided or in almost any situation they find -- well, boring.

Back to sleep crashing...

What can be done about sleep crashing?
To help your horse do what you can to help make lying down easier, to remove things that disrupt sleep, and protect against injury in case of a fall:
  • Administer pain-killers such as Bute, Equioxx or feed joint supplements.
  • Use more, deeper bedding to minimize joint flexion when getting up or going down.
  • Find a bigger, matted stall.
  • Review herd interactions and socialization for problems.
  • Rule out the possibility of night noise or other things that could disrupt sleep.
  • Make sure cross ties have breakaway snaps.
  • Some anxious horses may refuse to lie down in new surroundings. Do what you can to make the horse comfortable and part of a herd. In time they usually acclimat.


Sleep deprivation is not narcolepsy from
Equine sleep disorder videos from
Sleep crashing in The Horse
Horse sleep disorders and seizures reviewed for equine vets
from The Horse
Sleep crashing from
Horse fell over: cause? from
Equine narcolepsy from The Bloodhorse
Equine narcolepsy from The Horse
Sleep deprivation and narcolepsy from
Sleep deprivation in horses from the Northwest Horse Source
Sleep patterns in horses from
Sleep and sleep disorders in horses AAEP 2008 from The Horse
Sleep deprivation in the horse from Paton Martin Veterinary Services
Sleep apnea in horses from Dr. Tom Ahern
Is Your Horse Sleep Deprived? By Christine Barakat  - February 2007 issue of EQUUS magazine.


  1. I used to ride an ottb that did this...was really odd and potentially dangerous. I remember once I was tacking up for a lesson and I went back to the tack room to get his fleece girth cover. Came back out and he was LYING on the ground with his head held up by the halter which was still tied to the post. This happened several times: you could just see him falling asleep and he'd start swaying or buckling. Also, it was very hard to wake him out of one of these episodes. For some reason his owners weren't interested in finding out WHY he did this, so I don't know which condition he actually had.

  2. My guys tend to nap lying down just fine. Most of the time one herd guy stands guard but I've seen all three stretched out in the grass more than once. And they definitely lie down in their stalls.

    Never have seen a horse collapse like that, but I've heard of it. I can imagine it could be quite a worry.

  3. very interesting & quite scary...I've never heard of it, so thank you for educating us...I can see my guys lying down (usually both at the same time) out of my window very often... sometimes I go for a cuddle, lie down on top of them scratching their ears until they lie flat out snoring away...

  4. this is a much more common problem than i would have thought. i've know several horses to do this and i have had 2 of my own horses with this problem, so i know how difficult it can be to manage and how hard it is on the horses. not only is it scary and dangerous, but these poor horses walk around all day miserable and exhausted. it breaks my heart.

    lifeguard crashed so much it deformed his knees and i had to keep him in knee boots. we eventually turned him out after he traumatized us by nearly strangling himself on a 1/2 stall door one day. as it turned out, once he lived outside he began to sleep normally and the crashing stopped.

    nate, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be helped by any of the changes we've made to try to help him. we've done deep banked bedding, double stalls, 24 hr turnout with a comfy shed, a whole herd or just his best friend (our alpha mare) to watch over him, etc., and he still won't sleep lying down, though he has no trouble rolling.... he has to wear bed sore boots on his front fetlocks. i have a team of vets coming out next week to give him another look and hopefully come up with some better recommendations. fingers crossed!

  5. The pony I had as a kid would do this. She never fell down but she would nod off to the point where her knees buckled. She was kept alone, I never thought about it until now but it makes sense that maybe she wasn't getting enough REM sleep. Thanks for the great info!

  6. My broodmare went through this in the sleep deprived two weeks prior to delivering because she was too big to lie down comfortably. Poor thing, you could tell how whooped she was. She yawned all the time, and when she would nap in the sun her knees would buckle and she'd take a dive. Of course after the foal was born she didn't get much sleep either!

  7. I used to lease a horse who was extremely high strung and nervous, spooking all the time, liking to take off for little spurts, etc. Funnily enough, he didn't display this behavior at horse shows. There, he was dead quiet and too lazy.

    Shortly before I stopped leasing him (I moved out of town) I happened to see him do exactly what you described at the beginning of your post.
    One of the stable hands told me, that he did that all the time. I had never seen him do that before (I'd been riding him for 2 1/2 years) and was completely surprised, but didn't think more about it.

    A couple of months after I moved, I talked to my trainer and she told me they'd figured out why he was so high strung all the time: he was completely sleep deprived. They'd figured it out when they moved him into a box stall due to an injury (he usually lived in a pipe corral). During that time, he mellowed out completely, so they kept him in there.

    His pipe corral was situated at the beginning of a long row of corrals and also next to a small road that lead up to a different part of the barn. My guess is, he never felt comfortable lying down completely. Needless to say, we felt horrible.

    A few months later, I read an article about sleep deprivation in a horse magazine, and all the symptoms fit him perfectly: nervousness, acting up, and also aggressiveness (he was extremely naughty).

    I always thought the pipe corral was great and much nicer than a box stall (this was in Southern California, so weather wasn't a problem), but apparently, he liked closed off box stalls much better.
    That also explains why he was always quiet at horse shows: we always stabled the horses since the drives were usually pretty long.

  8. That is very interesting. I wonder if horses cycle through short and long wave sleep skipping REM except when the lay down. I have seen patient lesson horses doze between lessons, but I have not seen one fall. That would be unnerving.

    I have caught my horse sleeping in the paddock, with his eyelids and toes twitching. I hope he was dreaming about us having fun together, but that probably translates to me giving him carrots.

  9. My older thoroughbred has come close to sleep crashing in the middle of lessons. If we stop & talk for more than a few minutes, we know we have to wake her up before we continue. One day, we were standing on the edge of the arena waiting for a lesson to start & a youngster approached & asked if she could feed a treat. Of course I said yes, but no one realized my horse was asleep on her feet! She woke with a start & scared all 3 of us, but fortunately no one was injured. She normally is pastured 24/7 but I've been to shows where she's crashed in the middle of the afternoon and everyone is convinced that something is horribly wrong with her.

  10. I had a horse that I recently had to put down. He had pain issues that we couldn't determine after many tests. In the beginning, f he was on a large dose of Bute, he could lay down, but otherwise it hurt him too much. He didn't roll, either.

    We figured out the problem when he hurt his neck--must have fallen into the wall. The vet was the one who told us what was going on.

    Eventually, he learned to balance his nose on the ground, and that way he got a few minutes of REM before his kness would buckle and wake him up.

    When he couldn't even lay down at nearly 4 grams of bute and kept losing weight, we knew it was time. The sleeping wasn't the problem, but it sure did make it tough for my poor guy.


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