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Is bed thickness affecting horses’ sleep?

by Maria Filimonenko
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Horses sleep better and longer when they can settle on lush bedding. Research shows that bedding depth can have a significant influence on sleep behaviour and quality.

Restful sleep is important for well-being, health and performance. This is true not only for humans, but also for horses. However, numerous research findings in recent years have shown that many horses get far less sleep than they need.

The reasons for sleep deprivation in horses are diverse. They range from pain in the musculoskeletal system to an unfavourable herd setup, lack of space, as well as unsuitable bedding. The latter should not only be clean and dry, but the bedding depth can also have a significant influence on sleep behaviour and sleep quality, as a study from Wales (GBR) shows.

In a five-week experiment, ten adult riding school horses were tested for six days on two types of bedding: a straw bed with a depth of 15 cm and with a depth of only 5 cm.

Less bedding, shorter resting time

The researchers found that sleep behaviour was significantly influenced by the depth of bedding. In particular, dream sleep (REM sleep) in a lying flat position on the side was significantly lower in poorly bedded stalls compared to horses that had an opportunity to rest on a thick layer of straw. Non-REM sleep in the belly position with legs bent also occurred more frequently in the 15-cm-thick bed of straw. On a harder surface, the horses slept more often in a standing position.

Why sleeping in a lying position is crucial

Due to certain anatomical characteristics, horses hardly need any muscle tension to sleep in a standing position. Because of the so-called stay apparatus, consisting of muscles, tendons and ligaments on the legs, it is possible for them to even reach deep sleep in this posture. However, many regeneration processes in the horse’s body take place exclusively in dream sleep (REM sleep). And to achieve this, the horse must lie down. Either lying flat on its side, or in the position with its legs folded underneath it and its nose resting on the ground.

At least 30 minutes of REM sleep are necessary every day for the horse to achieve a complete and sustainably restful sleep cycle. If the horse is deprived from this, negative effects will not be long in coming. Horses with REM sleep deficiency lack energy and/or are particularly nervous and limited in their performance. Because the body demands REM sleep, it occurs in affected horses when they sleep standing up. Due to the sudden onset of complete muscle relaxation, the horses bend and fall.

Who would like to make a restful sleep possible for its horse, should not save too much on the bedding. As the study has clearly shown, horses also prefer to dream on cosy soft bedding.

Source: Pferde Revue

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