Unsettled Slumber

Q. I believe my horse is having sleeping problems. I haven't seen him lie down. I have seen him roll about once a day, then get right back up, but no resting or sleeping like the other horses. When he goes to lie down the front feet go down fine. With the back, it seems like he gets three-quarters of the way down, then falls the rest of the way. I haven't seen any cuts or bumps on him.

Today I saw him outside, lying flat on his side. And this is going to sound odd, but it looked like he kept jerking, like a human would do with a bee sting (trying to move fast, I guess). He didn't seem to be able to lie still. Then he just got right back up, all in less than about three minutes.

I am starting to get worried. The vet said he was fine, but I disagree. He is about 27 years old. I have had him for one year. When I got him, he was really underweight. He is looking much better, but he still looks tired to me. He is always in the pasture--he has no stall. He has not been ridden in four years. I have seen him almost fall over trying to sleep. Is this normal?

Candie, Georgia

A. There are a few things that might be going on with your senior horse. First of all, many horses that are that old have difficulty getting up and down due to weakness and/or discomfort. Sometimes when they are down for more than a few minutes, they seem to have greater difficulty getting up. Once this starts happening, some then appear to become reluctant to lie down, or to stay down for very long. Horses need to lie down occasionally and go into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to be fully rested. If not, they appear to get so tired that they look like they will collapse, sometimes they look like they are going to fall over, or they might even drop to their knees when in deep standing sleep.

Another condition to rule out is a specific sleep or seizure disorder. These can happen to a horse at any age. There are several versions of equine neurologic disorders, including narcolepsy, seizures, and related conditions.

It's important to examine your horse’s forelimbs because he might be falling to his knees, either because 1) he might be so sleep-deprived that he falls too deeply asleep while standing, or 2) he might have a sleep disorder called narcolepsy, where a horse falls so deeply asleep that he falls to his knees, which startles him awake, causing him to jump back up and instantly go into deep sleep again, so he falls again and again, or 3) he might have minor seizures that make him look "out of it" or very sleepy and drop to his knees.

Horses can make those jerking movements when they are lying flat in association with minor or major seizures, or when they go into normal deep REM sleep.

From your brief description, it could be a seizure. If the horse were here at our clinic we would do a 24-hour videotape to try to see exactly what is happening. Depending upon what it is, there are some medications that can be considered.

I hope this information is a helpful start. These conditions are not really well-understood in horses, so not all veterinarians learn a lot about them in school unless they take a special interest or have a teacher who specializes in equine neurology and sees a lot of cases. In fact, sleep disorders have only fairly recently been studied much in people. So your veterinarian might be able to consult a horse equine neurology specialist. If you can get a video of your horse when you are concerned that he is too tired, or when he is lying flat and jerking, you could send that here to New Bolton Center or to a similar veterinary hospital group to evaluate. That might allow the clinicians to get an idea of what is happening without actually seeing your horse in person. Then they could consult with your veterinarian on further diagnostics.

Don’t worry about not having a stall for your horse. A pasture environment in Georgia weather is probably better for most older horses than stall confinement would be. If he is having trouble getting up and down, usually the footing outside and the larger space is more horse-friendly than the typical stall floors and walls.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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