As Winter slowly gives way to Spring in my neck of the woods, I get busy. I increase my activity as I spend more time outdoors. I try to catch up on all the things I was not able to do over Winter. I also get tired trying to chase it all down. If you are anything like me, maybe you do too?
Luckily for us equestrians, horses have a way of inspiring balance in our lives. Sleep and relaxation included. I previously published my essay “A Reminder to Rest” on another site. The essay contains some insight gleaned from spending time with my equine friends.
A Reminder To Rest
I keep horses in my backyard on a few acres of rural property. Eighteen years filled with feeding, mucking out, and other types of equine caretaking. That’s 6,570 days of observing and interacting with my horses.
Experiencing the intimacy of their daily care is very fulfilling. As my horses’ only caretaker, I am responsible for all aspects of their health and welfare. Through this daily oversight, I witness the full rhythm of their lives. This includes their sleep patterns which are very different from human ones.
Horses and most grazing animals sleep an average of two and a half hours every 24 hours, if conditions are ideal and the environment is secure. Most of this sleep is amassed by “nickel and diming,” meaning horses can snooze for short periods—about 15 minutes at a time.
–From Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc in “Equine Sleep Patterns from A to Zzzzzzzzz”:
Another interesting fact is that horses mostly sleep standing up. In fact, horses, zebras, mules, and donkeys are some of the few animals known to sleep upright. They are able to do this due to mechanisms in their legs that essentially lock them in place while they rest. As prey animals, equids value their ability to leave the scene quickly in case of a suspected threat. Sleeping standing up buys them valuable time in fleeing predators.
In order to enter REM sleep, though, a horse must lie down. Typically, a horse will spend a total of one hour in REM sleep every 24 hours. If horses do not experience sufficient REM sleep, they can experience sleep deprivation.
Because horses spend most of their time moving, it almost seems unthinkable that they must rest. For this reason, horses laying down in a deep state of rest have long intrigued me.
There is something about the juxtaposition between a standing horse and a recumbent horse that I find fascinating. Equines are dynamic and strong. Their power is in their size and their movement. Yet when they are lying on the ground, they look so comparatively small. So vulnerable. So quiet. It is an odd thought to perceive such a large creature in that light.
Through my experience in backyard horse-keeping, I see that many horses when at rest are not comfortable with people being near them. Often horses will get up when approached. I have thought it a privilege when a horse feels safe enough to lie down in my presence or to stay down if I encounter him or her during a nap.
Out of respect, I usually steer clear of a resting horse and instead watch from afar. But if I get the sense that the horse is accepting of my presence while he or she snoozes, I might crouch down to give a brief wither scratch.
I occasionally find a safe spot sitting out of their reach in order to simply enjoy their quiet company. I listen to the rhythm of their breath. In and out. Their breathing sounds more slow, more deep than when they are standing. Frequently I hear them snore. I observe their nostrils flaring and trembling a bit with each inhale and exhale.
Sometimes a horse stays lying down with his legs tucked up to his chest and belly. His nose gently resting on the ground but with face upright and eyes open. Sometimes a horse lies flat out on her sides with her legs bent or straight. Occasionally, I witness legs and ears twitching as though the horses were traveling somewhere while engulfed in a dream state. It is all glorious to watch.
The atmosphere in these moments is tranquil and meditative. In the horses’ presence, I bask in the sunlight. I feel the ground beneath me and see the sky above me. I pray. I give thanks for this moment of peace in a turbulent world. Perhaps the horses are also doing some of those same things in their own way.
There is a special allure of communing with horses while they are resting. In most daily activities, I want my horses to match my chosen agenda. I ask them to do something for me like cooperate in going for a ride.
My choosing to rest when the horses are sleeping is one way I can turn the tables. I let them set the tone for a change. I choose to align myself with them and their preferences in that moment. The horses remind me to value and appreciate rest.