Do horses dream or have nightmares?

Anyone with a pet cat or dog will have observed them dreaming – eyes rolling, ears and tails flicking, whiskers and paws twitching. As hunters, we imagine that they are probably confidently dreaming about chasing mice or rabbits. Not so many people have watched a horse dreaming though. As prey animals, they spend a lot of their waking lives in mild terror, and rarely relax completely in our presence. Foals are particularly prone to lying out flat on a sunny day when Mum is around to protect them, but occasionally you can creep up on an adult horse fast asleep. It’s thought that like us, they need REM sleep for good health, and that generally happens lying down when they are more relaxed, presumably mostly at night. They do doze on all fours or tucked up like a tea-cosy too.

This is Chancer – he’s now about 30, but can still lounge about on a sunny morning with the best of them. Before he heard me and arose, his ears, lips and hooves were twitching and eyes were doubtless rolling, but his sensitive hearing alerted him to my approach before I could get close enough to see.

Chancer rising

We can never know what any animal dreams of, but I hope he was gambolling in lush fields rather than being chased by a lion!

As an aside, horses evolved on the open steppes and always get up forefeet first so they can see what’s coming. By contrast, cattle come from forested areas, and get up rear first, so they can still see under the canopy as they half-kneel.