Why Do Horses Roll?

We’ve all been there many times, you’ve just turned your horse out after spending ages brushing all of the mud and dirt out of his coat only for him to race over to the nearest muddy patch and roll straight in it. While this can be frustrating for us it’s often the best thing in the world to your horse. They obviously don’t do it to annoy us, but why do horses roll so much and could it be a symptom of something?

There can be a lot of different reasons why a horse might roll on the ground but it doesn’t automatically mean that something is wrong, nor does it always mean that your horse is perfectly okay. Just as with us, we can yawn or sigh for a variety of reasons, some good some bad.

Why does my horse roll as soon as I turn him out?

It’s not uncommon for a horse to start rolling in a patch of dirt or mud the second you turn him out, and while it may seem crazy to us there is a method to his madness. Rolling is part of their natural behavior and can help to determine their status within the herd but it can also be a method of grooming as well as a sign of the horse’s happiness.

Rolling as part of a horse’s natural behaviour

Like a lot of animals, horses like to leave their scent on things as a way of communicating with other horses and rolling is part of this. The scent that’s left by a horse rolling will tell the other horses a lot about the horse, from their age to their gender and to some extent how they’re feeling.

You might be surprised to know that, as part of that communication, horses also use rolling to determine their social status. The more dominant horses will have a favourite rolling spot and will be the last to roll in it. This means that their scent is the strongest and therefore their rank is higher within the herd.

Rolling as a form of grooming

A dry dusty ground can work wonders when it comes to removing dried in sweat as well as dead hairs or flakes of skin and horses know this. It can also work like a massage to loosen up muscles that are feeling a bit tight.

Just as they do with fence posts and trees, rolling can satisfy any itches they have in places that they just can’t reach any other way.

Rolling as a sign of happiness

You know what it’s like, the suns shining, your sitting back relaxing in the yard and just as a sign on contentment and happiness you sigh. Well, this is no different for horses, yes they can sigh for the same reason but they can also express this joy and happiness by rolling. 

If a horse is rolling because he’s happy then he’s also likely to show a lot of excess energy too, this can be evident in his behavior, both before and after rolling. Horses are often in a playful mood when they do this so are more likely to have a ‘bouncy’ stride at the same time, some horse will also give a little buck too. Many owners are bemused by the fact that as soon as the horse has finished he starts grazing the grass like nothing ever happened.

Is roll contagious?

There’s plenty of evidence to show that, just like yawning, rolling can be contagious. You only need to watch horses in a field to see this, one will roll and when he’s finished another will roll in the same spot. Sometimes you can almost see them lining up to roll!

This is a way of them bonding as well as establishing their status within the herd which is probably the main reason why they do it together rather than it actually being contagious.

Why do horses paw the ground before they roll?

While a horse can paw at the ground for a multitude of reasons if they do it before they roll then in most cases they doing it to find a good place to roll. They do this to check the level and softness of the ground as well as to loosen up the dirt. It’s a bit like us straightening the sheets before we get into bed.

If however, your horse is also showing signs of being in distress, especially if he looks like he’s trying to get to his belly, then its an indication that he’s in pain and something is wrong so you should call the veterinarian immediately.

Why do horses roll after a bath?

If you’ve ever turned your horse out straight after you’ve washed him then chances are the first thing he’s gone and done is found a patch of dirt and rolled in it. While this can be exasperating it’s not that your horse doesn’t like being clean, but strangely enough, it can be just the opposite. Being washed isn’t natural for horses and can often change the way their skin feels to them which is why they roll afterwards. Rolling after being washed is their way of removing the strange feeling and making their coat and skin feel normal again, they obviously don’t understand that that was what you were doing too.

Another reason that horses roll after being bathed is to dry themselves which may sound a little strange to us but it does work. If you’ve not completely dried your horse’s coat then he’ll be able to feel this so will use the dirt as a kind of towel. Believe it or not, the dirt will actually get into your horse’s coat and absorb any moisture that’s left. 

Why do horses roll in the summer?

While horses can, and do, roll throughout the year you may notice that your horse is doing so more during the hot summer months. This is normal and has a number of benefits, not least to get rid of some of those pesky flies.

Some horses will deliberately splash water onto the ground to help the loose dirt turn to mud, they’ll then roll in the mud, covering as much of their body as they can. It’s thought that the main reason they do this is for protection from the sun but also as a natural insect repellent against some of the biting flies. While there hasn’t been any proper scientific research into whether or not this actually works it does seem to be true, especially in horses with lighter skin.

Even a horse that has been clipped will sweat more during the summer which can cause the horse’s skin to itch, this is obviously an irritation to them, as it would be to us, so they naturally roll more to alleviate that itching.

Why do horses roll in the winter?

You’d think that during the winter horses don’t need to protect themselves from the sun so wouldn’t roll as much but, while they roll for different reasons, they can often roll just as much and in some cases more during the winter.

Of course, they can still roll to groom themselves, because they’re happy or as part of their natural behavior but they can roll during the winter because they’re too hot. This might sound silly but if your horse’s is finding his rug too hot then he’s likely to roll in an attempt to cool himself down. He does this in part to try and remove the rug but also because the ground is colder and as the mud dries it works to cool him down and therefore reduce his temperature.

How can I stop my horse rolling while I’m riding?

Horses rolling at pasture is one thing but it’s a whole new ballgame when they do it while being ridden and as anybody who’s experienced this knows it can be quite frightening at times too. The most important thing to understand is why your horse is doing this in the first place, it’s possible that he’s in pain and trying to ease this. If this is the case then make sure his tack fits properly and that it’s not pinching anywhere, if that’s okay then it would be advisable to have an equine dentist check his teeth out to make sure they’re not causing the pain.

If your horse isn’t suffering from any pain or discomfort then he could be rolling out of boredom or pure mischievousness (or a habit picked up due to them) but the good news is that, with a bit of time and patience, this can be fixed and you can stop your horse rolling in the middle of a lesson. Of course, you want to get off of your horse as soon as you realize he’s going to roll so that you don’t get hurt but it’s vital that you get straight back on him afterwards. The reason for this is that if your horse learns that by rolling he can get out of any work he doesn’t want to do he’ll be more likely to do it again. This is the biggest factor in stopping this behavior from developing into a habit that’s harder to break. Also try to keep your lessons as interesting as possible for your horse, keeping his brain stimulated will make it more enjoyable for him which means he won’t want to try and get out of the lesson.

Why do horses roll after eating?

Some horses will roll straight after they’ve eaten simply because they can so it’s not necessarily anything to worry about, that said though it’s important to notice any other symptoms your horse may be displaying at the same time. For example, is he also trying to kick his belly, paw at the ground or is he looking distressed then? This could be a symptom of colic and you should seek veterinary advice immediately.

Is it bad for horses to roll?

As we’ve talked about before rolling is a natural part of a horse’s behavior so it absolutely isn’t bad for them, but there are times when rolling could be bad for a horse. If a horse is suffering from severe colic then he may try to roll in an attempt to alleviate the pain but this should be prevented if possible. If he’s in pain then he’s more likely to thrash instead of rolling which is likely to results in him injuring himself on the ground or getting cast if he’s in a stall. 

Can rolling causing the gut to twist?

This is one of those theories that has been around for a long time but is completely false. Yes, it’s true that a horse with a twisted gut can roll to help ease the pain but these horses already have a twisted gut. If you watch a horse, that isn’t in pain, rolling you’ll notice he often twists his body as he rolls yet will stand up after, shake himself down and then carry on as before. This sort of behavior has NEVER resulted in a twister gut. 

Should I let my horse roll if he has colic?

This can be a controversial subject with a lot of people having different opinions on it but the truth lies somewhere between yes and no. Every case of colic is different so it’s important to know your horse and if the colic is severe the no you shouldn’t let your horse roll for the reasons mentioned above.

If, however, the colic isn’t severe then there’s evidence to suggest that rolling can actually help and in some instances resolve it completely. You know what it’s like if you’ve got a stomach cramp you often curl up, stretch and generally fidget until you feel better which is the same as a horse rolling. Doing so can help to move trapped gas or fluid pockets that could cause mild colic. This is why it’s so important to know your horse because you can tell whether he’s trying to ease some discomfort or if he’s in real pain.

Conclusion

In answer to the question in the title of this article there can be a variety of different reasons why a horse is rolling and while it is possible that he’s doing it because he’s in pain rolling is part of a horse’s everyday life. It helps them to establish their place within the herd but can also be a way for a horse to groom himself and remove any dead hairs. Horses can also roll simply as a way of letting off steam and showing they’re happy.

One thing that I still find funny is the fact that a horse rolling is infectious and can often result in the other horses ‘queuing up’ to roll in the same spot.

Further reading

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