Whenever an animal as large as a horse drops to the ground it captures most everyone’s attention.
Fortunately the most common reason a horse does drop to the ground is to roll, and rolling is a perfectly natural behaviour for horses. It is both beneficial to their health and an indicator of their health. Horses that roll relieve themselves of accumulated physical and mental tensions.
While we are not certain what stimulates rolling and what it means in all circumstances, it likely serves several purposes.
Typically horses about to roll go through a “ritual”: snorting, blowing and pawing at the ground, circling, and then slightly bending at the knees coming to rest on the ground with a satisfied grunt. Leaning over to one side they then begin to roll, often vigorously back and forth, writhing and wriggling. It’s a full body experience with many horses getting enough momentum to roll all the way from one side to the other, although it may take several attempts.
Horses tend to be rather particular about the site they choose to roll with the ritual serving as a “check” for creature comfort. The rolling spot will be assessed for debris and adequate substrate such as dirt or sand. Sometimes even water seems to be acceptable.
In pasture situations horses often develop and share the same spot for rolling, returning to the same spot for rolling day after day. Over time these rolling sites develop into shallow dust bowls. In a herd situation rolling of horses seems to almost be contagious like yawning in people with a number of horses lining up to roll at the preferred rolling site. The lineup often reflects dominance amongst the animals.
Although there’s much speculation about the reasons horses roll, it would seem the common denominator driving the behaviour is simply the horse’s inherent desire to feel better. Many aspects of the body receive benefit from the roll. The horse’s hair coat is certainly changed when a horse rolls. This is most obvious in the springtime when the horse uses rolling to relieve itself of the winter coat and aid shedding. The amount of winter coat left on the ground following rolling is a testament to the effectiveness of this practice. Horses rolling in dust derive the benefit of dust-bathing to maintain a healthy hair coat. Horses may also roll in mud to protect and soothe their skin during insect season.
Horses that typically seek to roll after being bathed and groomed are likely attempting to restore “things” back to “their” normal — the horses having less of an attachment to being “all clean and shiny.” Rolling re-establishes the loft of the hair coat and restores its thermoregulating effect after becoming wet. Grooming and bathing can change how a horse’s skin feels and rolling is the horse’s way of getting things back to what they feel to be “their” normal.
Rolling also plays an important role in the health of a horse’s spine and musculoskeletal system easing stiffness and maintaining its flexibility and alignment. When the horse rolls it has the ability to favourably affect and change the muscles of its body and spine in a manner unique and unavailable to it in a standing position.
As much as a horse rolls for health, it may also be an indicator of health. A healthy horse with a good, strong back will vigorously roll from one side to the other without standing up first. A horse with a weak or unhealthy back may roll on one side very briefly then get up and walk away without immediately laying down to roll on the other side. Some horses with back soreness or other problems will refuse to roll at all. A less common, but occasional problem concerns horses that attempt to roll under saddle. This behaviour can be related to discomfort from the tack or muscle soreness. It can also become a learned behaviour to unseat the rider and is occasionally seen with the witty and charming pony.
Although rolling is a perfectly natural behaviour in horses, most of the time, there are situations when rolling is a red flag and indicates a serious health problem which will require medical attention. Horses with colic pain will drop to the ground and roll, sometimes dramatically so. The quality of the roll will be noticeably different from that of a healthy horse. A horse with colic pain will have multiple episodes of frantic rolling with no invigorating shake afterward and in between rolling episodes, it may repeatedly look to its flank, pace and paw or stand listlessly or lie down. Healthy horses rarely roll in their stall and horses that have been rolling in their stall will appear to be dishevelled, sweaty and are usually covered in manure and shavings. Nearly all horses that are pain free shake after rolling.
A healthy horse is one that rolls, shakes and repeats. Providing horses with the opportunity to roll brings both known and unknown benefits to their health and mental well-being.