As we approach the end of the year, I’m writing a series of posts highlighting the importance of taking some time to relax and prevent ourselves and those around us from suffering burnout. Getting adequate sleep is a big part of this – but it’s not easy. As always, I’ve turned to horses for some inspiration and learning.


In my blog last week, I discussed the importance of taking a break after this year in order to switch off mentally and physically. We looked at how self-confident leaders give themselves (and by extension, their teams) permission to rest. This week, I’m going to explore some of my thoughts on the physical aspects getting enough rest and in particular sleep.

To make it a bit fun, I thought we’d look at it in the context of how horses sleep. As always, though, there is genuinely a lot to be learnt from horses. They live in the moment, are much better at looking after their physical needs and they still have strong survival and herd instincts from the wild.

1. Snatch a snooze

When horses sleep, they don’t always sleep all night the way we do. They often nap, standing up, at various points throughout the day depending on their schedule. They’ll occasionally lie down to get a deep, REM sleep.

For humans, naps can be good too, particularly when we’re behind on our sleep.

For many of us, the concept of napping can seem indulgent, or a waste of time, but lots of people believe in its benefits. This study of around 2000 people found napping increases cognitive function, while other experts say that naps help us catch up on sleep, regulate emotions, improve learning and aid memory. The ideal nap length is less than 30 minutes – before the body starts going into a deep sleep cycle which can leave you feeling groggy.

Fancy a little snooze this afternoon?

2. Be conscious of your over-tired behaviour

When horses are over-tired, it starts to impact upon their behaviour. As someone who works with a lot of horses, the signs are always there; from them being less co-operative, to be slower and less co-ordinated or even cranky and standoffish.

We all know humans are exactly the same when we don’t have enough sleep. An over-tired child is likely to become more disagreeable and while adults are better at disguising it, we know that our behaviour is impacted too. When we feel exhausted we can get emotional, snappy, unfocused and so on. This can in turn be difficult for those around us.

For me, this is an important reminder of being aware of the impact you have upon others – something we teach over and over again in our training. If you don’t recognise that you’re over-tired, then you might not realise how your behaviour is impacting others in your team.

So recognise the impact your tiredness is having on others – not just yourself.

3. Quality as well as quantity

While horses sleep a lot throughout the day, they also need REM sleep (deep sleep). However, they only need about 30 – 40 minutes of this deep sleep (compared to a few hours a day of sleep overall).

For me, this speaks to the importance of sleep quality as well as quantity. There’s no point in making sure you’re in bed by 10pm if you’re going to lie awake, restless, thinking about things.

Of course, relaxing and sleeping peacefully is easier said than done. But with restless sleep often caused by stress and anxiety, trying to manage these in ways we’ve discussed in previous blogs can help. Experts also recommendgood ‘sleep hygiene’ such as avoiding caffeine late in the day, switching off screens before bed and trying to keep to a sleep schedule.

4. Look at your broader health

We all know horses can sleep standing up, but what you might not know is that this is done through the ‘stay apparatus’, a system of tendons and ligaments which ‘lock’ and keep the animal standing up.

For humans, this is a reminder that our sleep is impacted by our physical health.

As I have written before, an accident earlier this year was a wake-up call that I need to look after myself including exercise and diet. Experts say diet affects your sleep, as does exercise.

With this in mind, it’s worth thinking about sleep as part of your overall health.

5. Look after others

I mentioned last week that horses often sleep in herds, taking turns to sleep and to look out.

I think it’s worth discussing again, because looking after ourselves and those around us can take a team effort.

Perhaps your partner or family can help you out so you get a sleep-in. Or, you can think about ways to encourage your team to get enough sleep – discouraging emails at night, for example, or being flexible on start and finish times so people find it easier to build adequate sleep into their schedule.

Working together to look after each other is so important for ensuring one of our most basic needs – sleep.

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