Rolling is a normal equine behavior—with a root cause worth noting

You’ve just finished cooling down your horse after a spectacular ride. You spend the next several minutes meticulously grooming him. But as soon as you release your pal in the pasture, he finds a nice, sandy spot to lay down and immediately begins rolling. He thoroughly relishes in the act, leaving no place free of dirt. And just like that, all your hard grooming work vanishes.

Rolling is a very common horse behavior that may be due to either pleasure or pain. But how do you know when it’s normal and when you should be phoning your vet? Read on for key pointers on distinguishing between normal rolling behavior and rolling as a sign of distress.

Equine Behavior: The Basics

Horses communicate through body language. For example, a horse may flare his nostrils when excited, or pin his ears back when angry. Although some behaviors may be easier to interpret than others, rolling is one of the more common behaviors used for various reasons.

Purposes of Rolling

Horses often self-groom by rolling, so you may see more of it in the spring when they are shedding their winter coats. Rolling in mud or dirt is a natural way horses condition their coats and protect themselves from insects.

And similar to a pig rolling in a cool puddle of muck on a hot day, horses can also reduce their body temperature by finding a chilly patch of mud to roll in.

If you notice your blanketed horse rolling in the winter, however, it may be a sign that their blanket is too warm.

Are horses more likely to roll at a certain time or place?

Sometimes a horse will “mark his spot” by rolling. Horses higher in pecking order within a herd can often be seen rolling last or near a gate. Doing so ensures their scent lasts longer.

Herds or even individual horses often find a favorite spot to roll.

Horses sometimes roll as a means of giving themselves a natural massage. This is especially common after riding when they may roll to relax muscles that have just been worked.

Photo Cred: Canva

Why do horses roll after getting a bath?

In nature, horses often roll to dry themselves off, so they’ll often roll immediately after a bath. Dirt also acts as a natural conditioner and insect repellant.

Horses get used to having dirt in their coats, and being clean can feel bizarre.

In most cases, horses try to feel “normal” again by rubbing dirt everywhere—when released back to the pasture after bathing.

How do you keep horses clean a bath?

Several tricks help minimize your horse from getting messy again after bathing, but nothing is totally fool-proof.

  • If you’re showing, try to bathe your horse as close to the event as possible.
  • Some riders prefer to put their horses in a stall overnight to minimize the mess. Others will turn out to a paddock free of mud and colossal poo piles.
  • Allowing time for your horse to dry completely after bathing can reduce the rolling behavior to a certain extent, although their natural instinct to roll after getting wet is relatively strong.
  • Depending on the temperature outside, riders will also use flysheets and wraps to keep their horses clean. And certain grooming sprays can, to a certain extent, repel dirt.

Photo Cred: Canva

The bottom line is that you’ll be wise to leave a little extra time before an event for grooming because horses and dirt are besties.

Colic in Horses

Although a horse often rolls for completely harmless reasons, he may also roll to indicate discomfort. If the rolling appears frantic or your horse is biting at his side, it’s probably more than a simple attempt to cool himself down on a hot day.

Additional signs that your horse is rolling due to pain include sweating, a change in eating habits, and a listless appearance.

Should you let a horse with colic roll?

“Colic” is another term for abdominal pain in horses. There are various reasons why a horse may have abdominal discomfort, some of which may resolve on their own, and others may require surgical intervention.

The question of whether to let a horse with colic roll is a somewhat controversial one.

Some sources say that you should not let a horse with colic roll, while others say it doesn’t influence the outcome. Still, other sources say that rolling can relieve mild cases of colic.

A horse generally rolls to try and relieve the discomfort. But sometimes, the rolling becomes frantic, and the horse becomes dangerous to himself or the humans trying to help.

Although rolling may not influence the outcome, you should be aware of your horse’s surroundings.

If the horse is in close quarters where he could injure himself (or you), you should prevent the horse from rolling. But rolling is not necessarily harmful if the horse is out in the pasture or another open area where he’s not likely to injure himself.

Always consult your veterinarian with specific questions, as not every situation is exactly the same.

Photo Cred: Canva

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is it bad for a horse to roll?

It’s generally not bad for a horse to roll, unless he is in very confined quarters and could injure himself—such as in a stall.

Another time when it’s bad for a horse to roll is while being ridden. If your horse tries to roll with you on top, it may be a sign of discomfort. It’s best to get a professional involved to see whether the saddle fits appropriately or whether there is something else causing the distress.

If pain is ruled out, then it’s time to consult a trainer to sort out a behavioral issue.

When accompanied by other signs such as excessive sweating, decreased manure output, or an elevated heart rate, rolling can indicate colic.

Q: Why do horses paw the ground before they roll?

Generally, a horse will paw to loosen the dirt and create a better rolling experience!

Q: Why do horses roll after eating?

Sometimes a vigorous roll after a delicious meal is simply an expression of joy. At other times, however, it can be a sign of colic. If your horse rolls but then gets right back to grazing, it’s probably simple gratitude for a tasty meal.

But if the rolling is accompanied by the warning signs referred to earlier, it may be time to consult your vet.

Q: Do horses roll when they are happy?

Absolutely! You may notice your horse get back up, then give a happy little buck afterward. And similar to yawning, rolling seems to be contagious, so you’ll often see one horse do it, followed by another and another.

Photo Cred: Canva

Parting Thoughts

Rolling is a common horse behavior that may communicate joy or pain. It’s also done for functional reasons, including reducing heat or protecting from irritating insect bites.

Although rolling is generally done for harmless reasons, it can also be a sign that your horse is in trouble. Spend time watching your horse so you can tell the difference between happy play and distress.

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Sources

Why do horses roll? H&H explains… – Horse & Hound (horseandhound.co.uk)

Basics of Equine Behavior – Extension Horses

The Mystery Behind Horse Rolling (thesprucepets.com)

Colic in your horse | UMN Extension

AskHQ: Pawing before rolling – HQ Magazine

Why Do Horses Roll? – Horse FactBook

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