Anyone who has spent time around horses, will have witnessed a horse take to its favourite muddy patch, dusty arena, or fresh shavings, with its nose to the ground, pawing the dirt, circling, then buckle its knees, drop to the ground and roll from side to side. The horse will go back and forth in ecstasy, then maybe leap to its feet and give a buck, or simply shake itself off and start grazing.
So why do they do it? It turns out that there are many reasons horses roll, sometimes because they feel good, while at other times it’s an indication that a vet is required.
Sarah Clark, an equine behavioural consultant in Essex, who runs her own behavioural consultancy business, explains: “Horses roll for pleasure when they are relaxed and feel it is safe to do so. Similar to when a person yawns, rolling is evidently contagious, and you can often see more than one horse roll in sequence.”
She adds: “As well as for enjoyment, a horse will roll to help with shedding their coat and to maintain their coat and body temperature too. Mud and dust can act as a skin conditioner as well as a natural insect repellent. Any irritation caused by drying sweat can be relieved by rolling as the dust or mud has a cooling and drying effect. This is demonstrated when, to the horror of the horse owner who has just bathed their horse and turned them out, seconds later finds them dirt-coloured again!”
It can also be the horse’s way of communicating that he might be over-rugged. Sarah explains: “Excessive or frantic rolling in the winter can indicate that the horse has become too warm in their rug and they are trying to cool themselves or adjust their thermostat.”
An observant owner can use rolling (among other behaviours) to assess their horse’s social status in the herd and perhaps improve any behaviour problems they might be experiencing. A herd will often have a favourite rolling spot.
Sarah says: “The most socially confident horses in a group usually make their scent marks last. This includes being the last to roll, often in a favourite spot and near access points including gateways in a domestic setting.”
Rolling isn’t always benign or for pleasure or self-grooming though, and vets are often called to cases where the horse is rolling as a response to pain.
Brianna Harris, DVM, a vet in Colorado, says: “The big medical one would be rolling due to a belly ache. If you’ve ever eaten too much of a holiday meal, you can relate. I’ve actually tried rolling myself to ease the pain of a distended stomach from taking seconds way too seriously!”
She counteracts the myth that rolling makes colic worse, explaining: “It’s a mechanical way of trying to move stuff like gas or fluid pockets around to get some relief. For some horses, it likely works to their benefit, and they can work themselves out of a colic situation. We humans often stop them from rolling, because we think it could make the colic situation worse — it likely won’t matter either way.”
There are reasons, however, to prevent the colicky horse from rolling. Brianna points out: “Horses are often kept in areas of confinement in which they could do a lot of damage to the structure as well as themselves. Painful rolling horses can get cast in stalls, break legs and fencing, not to mention the abrasions they get on their faces from rubbing their head against the ground over and over again.
“For a sick horse, rolling can be an indicator of their level of pain and the importance of calling a vet out to evaluate the situation.”
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She advises owners to get to know their horses well and learn the differences between rolling for pleasure and rolling in pain. A sick horse may be sweating, pacing, looking anxiously at its sides, often getting up and down, whereas a happy one will look bright and relaxed and after rolling, is likely to either play or graze.
“My own horse would have been tubed after every ride had I not known how much he loved his self-inflicted post workout message. He lived for the roll out after getting the tack off,” says Brianna.
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