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Sleep On This!
by Kim F Miller
There’s a downside to the newly installed ComfortStall flooring at the California training facility owned by well-known dressage professional, Anne Howard. “The horses are filthy,” she reports. Why? “Because they’re laying down all the time. They are fully horizontal, flat-out sleeping, snoring and laying down in a way I haven’t seen horses do before.”
Anne decided on ComfortStall for its soft, cushioned surface when planning a stabling addition at her 18-horse property near Monterey, American Sport Horses. She spoke with several people who had great reports about the sealed, three-layer flooring system that features patented orthopaedic foam.
A few horses with hoof problems needed to live in a covered space to keep their feet dry, so she went with 12’ by 24’ covered paddocks. She installed ComfortStall in five of those, thinking the cushion would be nice for one horse who had foundered in the past and another who had myriad hoof problems. The overall benefits of a soft, yet firm surface made sense to the lifelong horsewoman.
Anne wasn’t expecting the changes in her charge’s sleeping habits. She’s an FEI rider, trainer, coach, judge and Physical Therapist, but she didn’t know much about how more sleep affects horses. In that regard, she’s not alone.
“We’ve only just started to understand how much poor sleep impacts on our mental and physical health,” explains equine behaviour expert Sharon Smith, MSc. “Does it affect horses in the same way? Early research is suggesting ‘yes,’ and competition results, or even rider safety, could suffer as a result.”
Unlike people, horses don’t sleep in one long daily stretch and they can sleep standing up. “The phases of sleep have now been observed in the horse using brain-waves, similar to that used in a human sleep-lab,” Sharon explains. “In the horse, Slow Wave Sleep occurs while standing, laying down on the chest-bone (sternum), and laying completely flat. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which is considered ‘deep sleep,’ occurs during Slow Wave Sleep.”
REM sleep can only happen in the horse when it’s lying flat, because the muscles will relax completely,” Sharon continues.
“REM sleep can only happen in the horse when it’s lying flat, because the muscles will relax completely,” Sharon continues. “This should promote glycogen uptake in fatigued muscles – a process known to take twice as long in horses as it does in humans. Also, REM sleep allows memory processing, and, hence, the ability to learn.”
A related study revealed that show jumpers performed worse when they spent less time in Slow Wave Sleep the night before their rounds. The study was done with low-level competition, and researcher hypothesise that the effect of less slow wave sleep time would be even greater at higher level of competition.
There is still much to be learned about sleep’s impact on horses, but early science and common sense point toward it having as much impact on horses as it does on people. That’s why Anne and her staff are happy about this unexpected ComfortStall benefit. “They are clearly napping often and more deeply,” Anne reports.
Happy Horses & Clients
The trainer has turned over the five new ComfortStall stalls to clients, four of whom are very happy to have it for their horses. The fifth, she explains, owns a horse, Bogie, who has Wobblers Disease, a neurological deficit caused by compression of the cervical spinal cord. Bogie seemed bothered by a ComfortStall characteristic that most consider a benefit: its cushioned surface requires the horse to make constant, tiny muscle movements for balance. The tiny movements boost blood circulation that helps muscle recovery and repair. But Boogie seemed nervous on it and was moved to another stall.
More typical of the other horses’ experience with ComfortStall is 19-year-old Frederick. “I think he is doing great with it,” says his owner, amateur rider Susan Allen. “He had a little issue around his SI joint after a pasture incident, and he seemed to heal really quickly. He naps a lot and he seems very comfortable and at ease while we’re riding. If I had my own barn, I would use ComfortStall. I know my vets are happy that he has it.”
Anne is happy about it, too. Installed last fall, it fits her mission as a multi-faceted horsewoman and stable owner: doing the best for all the horses in her program -- even when that entails a little extra “dirty work” grooming the sleep-sated steeds.