Why do Horses Roll?

You are driving on a country road and you see horses in a field.  One is on its back, rolling around, and feet kicking in the air.  

Is it a sign that something is wrong or is that just a natural behavior?  

Why do Horses Roll?

This is a natural behavior of horses and there are many reasons why they do this.  Many times, after being ridden, brushed down and turned out into the paddock, the horse will just lie down and start to roll around.  This is one way that they are scrubbing their back and sides.  It may also be done to relieve any irritation from tack or sweat.

1. General Reasons

  • Relives stress or tight muscles
  • Itches because of grooming products, residual shampoo after a bath, or insect bites.
  • Sweating from under the blanket or being out in the sun.
  • It helps to dry their skin after a bath or rain.
  • Sometimes if they have eaten too much, they will roll around trying to ease the pain of a distended stomach.
  • Scent marking

Some seem to think when a horse rolls in the sand or mud they are using it to help protect them from biting insects and sunburn.  To a horse owner, it can be frustrating that after you give your horse a good bath or grooming that they find some patch of sand or dirt to roll it.  It is just the horse’s way of making their skin feel normal to them again.  To a horse, the grooming or bath has changed how their skin feels and they do not like the feel.

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rolling horse in a field e1590497899906

2. Contagious

What this means is that when one horse sees another horse rolling, they will copy that horse’s behavior.  This is much like people do, copying each other.  Rolling is like a massage to a horse so when one horse finishes with the sandy spot, another horse will do it until all the horses have done it.  It is nothing to have a bare circle in the field or pasture that is a horse’s favorite rolling spot.

3. Shedding Hair

When a horse is shedding their heavy winter coat in the spring, rolling will help to loosen the hair.  If the temperature suddenly goes up, the horse may be damp with sweat if they still have all that winter hair.  The rolling will help to not only loosen the hair but will help with that itchy sweating feeling.  

4. Rolling Indicates a Problem

As mentioned, rolling is a natural behavior for horses but there may be a time when it could indicate a problem.  Sometimes when you are riding a horse, they will try to roll.  This could indicate that they are uncomfortable.  It could also be their way of being balky and not wanting to work or be ridden.  

If your horse suddenly tries to roll when you are riding them, you should get off and check the tack.  Make sure that there is nothing pinching or poking the horse.  You should also check to see if there is any type of insect on your horse that could be biting them.  They may also be experiencing muscle soreness from being ridden so you should have them checked out by an equine chiropractor to find out if that is the problem.  

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If they are trying to roll because of balking, the horse can probably do with some re-schooling with a rider who recognizes the signs that they are going to try to roll before they do.

horse rolling in a grass

5. Symptom of Colic

If you watch horses enough you can tell when they are doing a healthy roll and how it acts when it gets back to its feet.  If it is for enjoyment, they may circle a few times, get up, and then roll on the other side.  Once they are back to the feet and finished with the rolling, they will give their body a good shake to get the dust off.  Also, a healthy horse will usually never try to roll in their stall.

If rolling is a symptom of colic, the horse will suddenly drop down, violently roll, and get up, standing listlessly without trying to shake the dust off.  The horse may also try to roll in its stall and even roll multiple times.  If they have been rolling in its stall, it may be covered in shavings and manure, appear sweaty and disheveled.

Some wonder if the rolling can cause a twist in the gut and cause torsion colic.  Others feel that the twist has happened before the horse starts to show the symptoms of colic.  No matter how it happens, the horse has to be prevented from rolling.  The reason is that it expends a lot of energy.  The horse could also hurt people that are handling them or itself as it thrashes violently.

Some feel if a horse has colic that it will not hurt if they roll around because it might work to their benefit.  They may be able to work themselves out of the colic situation.  They are trying to move fluid pockets or stuff like gas to get some relief.

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Conclusion

  • You do not want to let a horse try to roll around in their stall because they could break their leg.
  • When you think a horse is rolling due to colic, then it will be the owner’s decision if they want to prevent them from rolling.
  • If the horse is sick, an indicator of pain can be how they are rolling around and whether you should call a veterinarian or not.
  • As an owner, you will be able to tell if the horses are rolling for pleasure or if they are doing it because they are in pain.
  • Where a horse roll shows where the horse is in the herds’ hierarchy.  The more dominant horse will choose the best places to roll or they may choose to roll last so they can leave their scent over the other horses that were there first.
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