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Sleep deprivation in the dominant/hypervigilant horse

One of my three horses has been sleep crashing for well over a year, possibly longer. I’ve witnessed the sleep crashing and have never seen him lying down to sleep, even when the others are. He rolls comfortably, has had numerous soundness check-ups by different vets over the years, and events successfully at Training/Modified. Of course physical discomfort is always possible but I suspect it’s mental/emotional.

He is a very assertive herd boss who is constantly telling the others where they can/can’t go and what they can/can’t do. Although he’s not what I’d call spooky, he can be hypervigilant at times and is especially concerned about things on the horizon. In December of 2021 our a-hole neighbors’ dogs chased him across the field and all of this behavior got more pronounced.

I was recently researching sleep deprivation and came across a website that mentioned “dominance displacement.” It said:

I read that and thought, “Aha, that is so my horse!” Now the question is, is there anything I can do to mitigate that and help him sleep? (Other than acquiring an alpha mare…)

I’ve tried turning him out alone, with just my old retired horse, and with both other horses. They’re out 24/7 except in the summer but when he’s been on stall rest he won’t sleep in the barn either no matter how deeply I bed. If I close the door to his run, he spins in circles and stares out the window in the top half of the Dutch door. I have not tried covering the window. I hate to lock him in a 12’x12’ space when there is a run available, plus he prefers drinking from the auto waterer in the run rather than a bucket. Maybe it’s worth a shot, though the front and side of the stall have bars so he’d probably still find something to stare at.

I’ve never used calming supplements before but the thought has crossed my mind to try that. I’m a bit overwhelmed by the options though. Likewise I’ve considered asking my vet about experimenting with trazadone etc outside of show season.

I’ve been using some of Warwick Schiller’s techniques the past year and he initially took 20+ min to “let down” from even minor stress. Now he’s able to reset much more quickly (usually seconds vs minutes). A few times he’s nodded off on his feet during this work but he hasn’t lay down.

Any ideas? He seems generally happy/healthy but when I see him sleep crashing I feel like I’m failing him somehow. :neutral_face:

The man himself:

I have a hypervigilant gelding too, and I highly recommend the addition of supplemental magnesium to the diet. I’ve used Smart Calm Ultra in the past (which also has tryptophan), but have found that just magnesium is fine for my guy. I’ve used MVP’s Mag 5000 successfully, and recently have started MagRestore (powdered). In fact, right now my gelding gets a scoop of the Mag 5000 in PM feed and MagRestore in AM feed since I have both. He also gets about 4 grams of Mag Oxide in his forage balancer (K.I.S. Trace), so he’s got a heap of magnesium.

I will say that even with this, he’s STILL vigilant, and recently I also took him off of soy and have seen an improvement. He’s also banned from alfalfa because he’s a nutcase on it as well.

So, it’s soaked timothy pellets, forage balancer, extra magnesium, and some flax for him. He eats good quality timothy/orchard hay as well until the pasture comes in. This keeps him healthy and mostly happy. He’s always going to be the “lookout” of the pasture, but instead of worrying himself silly over things he checks it out and then gets over it faster. And he definitely sleeps. The BM says he had to beep the horn at him one day when he drove by the pasture because he’d been laying down for awhile and hadn’t moved. He was fine, just snoozing.

Other than diet changes, I never could figure out a turn-out situation that was better or worse for him. At one barn, he was super vigilant and stressed out all of the time and we tried him with various pasture mates to no avail. Moved to the barn next door and he was totally chill with new pasture buddy and slept fine. Wound up putting him by himself in a pasture at one point and he was fine with that too. Now he’s out with a mare that he adores and he’s the dominant one of the partnership, but mostly there is just harmony between them. He’s a little vigilant (been at this new place for three months), but is getting better and better with the diet change and just acclimating to the farm.

Good luck with your guy. Hopefully something can help him chill.


I owned that horse once. At one point in time I turned him out with 3 broodmares, 2 in foal, one to be bred. That was the only time I saw him sleeping comfortably. In fact he was so comfortable that he was sleeping in the creek with his head on the sand, fully zonked out while 3 mares dozed in the sun around him. :joy::joy:

Other than that he lived out 24/7 alone, which wasn’t great but the best available option


I also had this gelding and turning him out in a mixed herd (2 geldings, 3 mares) run by an older dominant mare fixed 99% of his issues and let him sleep soundly. He became much less buddy sour and also became more playful and relaxed.

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My gelding (16 year old QH) seems to not sleep well at competitions. He is penned next to his travel companion, a pretty Arab mare, for 3-5 days at a time (nice big electric pen for each). I suspect he “keeps watch” over her while she sleeps. Between competition sets (Mounted Archery). He will stand, head down, knees locked, snoring --sound asleep. He’s never fallen over, but sometimes seems to wake up abruptly. At home he is is normal. He lives with another gelding and I think he sleeps better. Asked my vet about it --said not to worry about it unless it became a problem.

Could you try trazodone? Just to see if it will allow him to let his guard down enough to lie down? It was suggested to me to try for my sleep-deprived horse. He still did not lie down but I do think he slept really well because the next day he was feeling Tony-the-Tiger grrrrrrrrrreeeeeeeeeeeaaaaattttttttt :rofl:


Interesting that a couple of you had luck with the mixed turnout solution! It’s not a very easy one to implement since I’m maxed out on horses though… maybe I can borrow one just to see if it works, and go from there.

I have tried him on no soy and he’s the same with no or minimal alfalfa (just what’s in his pelleted supplements) as with several pounds of alfalfa cubes.

I did try magnesium before (forgot about that) with no apparent effect. I won a free bag of Foxden products recently so I decided to cash it in for some Quiessence to try again. That is arriving today!

If that doesn’t work, maybe trazadone. Obviously I couldn’t use it too close to shows and I’m not sure how I feel about taking him on and off, or jumping him while on it. Ataxia seems to be a possible side effect? I’ll have to do more research and talk to my vet.

My friend’s gelding was having major issues sleeping in a gelding-only block of pipe stalls, and our vet suggested rearranging things so a bossy mare was in eyesight. His sleep problems resolved right away.


I also have a horse with this issue however it is a mare. She is the boss mare and likes to keep watch over her herd. Things seem to have gotten trickier for her since the fall when I added a weanling to the herd. She is very watchful over him… often positioning herself over him while he sleeps.

She also rolls easily. I tried previcox and msm thinking physical discomfort but no help. Inside or outside makes no difference. I even rearranged stalls inside to see if it would help- no luck. Deep bedding inside doesn’t make a difference.

I just added another mare to the herd who is also very dominate. I’m hopeful having another horse who could “stand guard” will help. Watching her fall onto her knees while sleeping is awful.

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Isn’t it? I wish I could convince him there are no lions out there, but being chased by the dogs certainly didn’t help that argument. :rage:

You’re close to me and I have no rideable horses at the moment … I’ll lease one to give you space!!!

Haha well I like the way you think, but unfortunately the only one I could reasonably spare has been retired for…6 years I think? He’s a sweetheart, an easy keeper, and a fantastic pasture buddy though!

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I would try ulcer medication. I’ve seen big improvements in using that with spooky horses. I can’t say I have had one that doesn’t lay down to sleep. My horses all love to nap. My youngest was napping today while the pressure washer was going off. He looked up once and went right back to sleep.

I would probably try changing turnout situations. Either with one other buddy horse, or by himself and see if he is so busy worrying about the others that he doesn’t feel comfortable sleeping.

I have tried all of that to no avail, unfortunately!

I dosed mine pretty solidy with Trazodone when I knew I wasn’t going to ride and would be able to keep an eye on him most of the day. If it had worked, I would probably give him 2 “rest” days a week so he could catch up on sleep those days and not plan to ride.

Like you, I think I have already tried everything short of turn-out with a mare. The only other idea I have had but haven’t done yet is to make a sand pile outside. That’s on my to-do list for this summer if I can figure out where to put it.

Growing up, we always had a mixed turn-out group and it really does seem like my mom’s alpha mare ran a tight ship. There was zero drama. Maybe if someone has a mare like that they could rent them out periodically - you know, like the goat rental services that you can hire to clean up weeds? :rofl: :rofl:

I have a gelding who did this and I don’t think he got good sleep for years. What fixed it was moving him to a retirement farm - just getting him out of his normal herd and barn helped. He started laying down to sleep the first week. Since then, he’s moved fields and his herd members have changed but he’s still sleeping. He’s in a group of 4-7 horses depending on time of year, etc.

You could see about trying to move him to a different location with a large turnout, large-ish herd with a few strong leaders, and see if that resets him. Maybe he’d only need a few weeks of this and he’d be able to move back home and be more relaxed.

I had a horse like this. He was hyper vigilant about keeping his barn safe and was severely narcoleptic. I even warned my neighbor if she saw him go crashing to the ground he did not just drop dead. When he was on stall rest he was impossible to manage_ fierce and dominant, so I put him out with my loner gelding and instant friends forever. They hung out together from then on, both would stand dozing in the field, each took turns watching out while the other guy slept….horses

COTH has spoken, @Libby2563. You just have to get another horse. I don’t make the rules :woman_shrugging:

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I finally got a chance to talk to my vet about this and am a little disappointed. He hasn’t prescribed trazadone before and said I could try a calming supplement, ace, or reserpine instead. I don’t think either of those meds are really what I’m looking for because I don’t want to sedate him—just relieve the anxiety a little. Also the one time I tried reserpine for stall rest the horse (not this horse) had a horrible, scary reaction.

The Quiessence doesn’t seem to have had an effect about 10 days in. I worked him up to 12 g of magnesium per day but have had to dial back to 8 g and he’s still leaving some of it because he doesn’t like the flavor.

I am plotting to borrow a mare but not sure if she’s the right kind of mare or if it would cause more problems than it solves. Sigh.

Ugh. Vet hasn’t used trazadone, so won’t???

Maybe try EQ Confidence gel? I have some if you want to come get it. Also not quite sure why I can’t send you a PM, but if you reach out to me I could respond.