It’s 2 AM: Do You Know What Your Horse Is Doing?

At 2 AM, May Ann Johnstone’s horses were sleeping — or so she believed. Then her night security cameras revealed that everything she thought she knew was wrong.

Recently we installed security cameras at our barn. These cameras are motion activated and use infrared technology to shoot pictures and video in the dark. We assumed these cameras would help us keep a watchful eye on our beloved horses while we, and the horses, slept. However, after viewing the results, I am both shocked and enlightened. And, I also have over 30 years of horse ownership guilt to contend with.

Let me back up a bit. At all the barns I have been to in the past 30 years, the horses were fed their last meal of the day in the late afternoon. Many were then blanketed and tucked into their warm 12′ x 12′ stalls to sleep the night away. Or so everyone thought.

Many people still keep horses this way: out during the day, in at night. Or always stalled and let out for a short period of time to be ridden or turned out.

Many educated horse owners now know horses sleep in short bursts around the clock. And happily, many have switched to slow­feeders that supply hay 24 hours a day, mimicking mother nature to best support horse’s digestion and gastric health.

Thankfully we have been feeding this way at our barn for a long time using multiple Porta­Grazers. And each horse has a box stall always open to their own 60′ x 60′ corral. In the morning we open the gate to the big turnout arena for them to use if they want to. This is a hoof in the right direction, but the extent of what we have seen on these cameras has changed our whole way of horse­keeping.

What we thought they did at night:

  • Stay inside where it’s nice and warm
  • Sleep curled up in their fresh, expensive bedding most of the night
  • Occasionally eat and drink

What they actually do at night:

  • Stay outside 95% of the time
  • Eat, walk, drink all night long.
  • Sleep once or twice for a very brief time, usually in the dirt.

Do you think horses sleep most of the night? This time­lapse surveillance camera footage reveals something else entirely. Images are from two consecutive windy nights with the camera turned on from 8 PM to 8 AM.


It turns out that horses are far more active at night than they are during the day. No matter if we’re talking about our two-­year­-old fillies, ten-­year­-old geldings, or 30­-year­-old mares. It’s the same. During the night they all eat, roam, and drink water constantly!

One night, one of the surveillance cameras snapped over 1000 motion activated pictures proving this constant activity to us. Only once did they lay down for a short period of time, usually during the coldest hours, between 2 AM­ and 5 AM. Otherwise, it’s move, move, move, all night long.

During the daytime hours, the horses eat a bit and sleep a lot which makes sense. As a prey animal, it feels far safer to sleep during daylight when predators are less likely to catch them by surprise.

We, humans, tend to be anthropocentric — defined as regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to animals. Most of us out of convenience or ignorance have been keeping our horses on a human schedule for far too long. Three meals a day, bedtime at 10 PM.

Looking back on all of my oblivious years, blanketing my beloved gelding, kissing him goodnight, and wishing him a peaceful sleep, I am sure he was laughing his head off, but unfortunately, he was probably extremely bored and very, very hungry. Sorry, Bucky.

Viewing our nighttime footage reminded me of the moonlight rides I have done in the past, and also my first riding lessons held in a lighted arena at 8 PM. The horses always seemed so energetic and happy to be out riding in the evenings. And horses have excellent night vision which points again to the fact that they are highly adapted to activities after the sun goes down.

I am sure most of us dream of having hundreds of rolling green acres for our horses to call home but we do the best we can with what we have. So tonight and every night from now on, the gate to the big turnout will stay open, and the horses can go roaming if they want to, eating, drinking, and walking around together under the stars.

Mary Ann Johnstone is a Grammy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, writer, Master Coach and Master Mucker. Mary Ann recently wanted a quarter horse again, so she drove to Montana and somehow ended up with three, plus two goats. Most of her time is happily spent at the barn with her husband, Eric, feeding, cleaning and playing with their animals. She has been published in Elephant Journal and Huffington Post.

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