Why Horses Roll: Complete Behavior Guide

Complete Behavior Guide to Why Horses Roll

Whether you are a beginner equestrian or an experienced equestrian working with a new horse, horses can exhibit different behaviors that can quickly become concerning. It is important to educate ourselves on what behaviors are normal and healthy, and which behaviors are concerning. There are many behaviors, such as rolling, that can be both a normal behavior but also a sign of concern depending on the circumstances. 

So, why do horses roll? Horses roll for a wide variety of reasons. Most of the reasons horses roll are normal, healthy behaviors. These reasons include communication, relieving irritation or stress, stretching an itch, or simply a sign of happiness. Other times, however, rolling can be a cause of concern in horses such as when it’s a symptom of colic or discomfort.

Because horses roll for such a wide range of reasons, it is important to learn to identify these various triggers. By taking the time to learn the normal habits and behaviors of your horse, you can develop a better intuition of the cause behind their rolling or other odd behaviors. In this post, we will take a closer look at the many reasons why horses roll. We will also answer some of the most commonly asked questions on this topic. 

We hope this information allows you to interact with, train, and care for your horse with greater efficiency. 

Primary Reasons Why Horses Roll

Like many behaviors horses display regularly, rolling is a normal, healthy habit. Many times, horses roll simply out of happiness! Other times, horses roll to relieve stress, tension, or discomfort. Here are a few of the most common reasons why horses roll:

Horses Roll to Communicate With Other Horses

If you have spent any amount of time with horses, you are likely well aware of their unique methods of communication. One of the primary ways that a horse communicates with the horses around them is to leave their scent on their surroundings. Horses can glean an astonishing amount of information from other horses’ scents including their gender, age, and other qualities.

When a horse finds themselves in a new situation or around new horses, you may notice that they are rolling with a higher frequency. This is likely just their way of introducing themselves to their new companions.

Horses Roll to Determine Social Status

Like most other animals, and humans for that matter, horses must determine their social status when they find themselves in a new group. To communicate their dominance, and establish their spot in rank, dominant horses will find a favorite rolling spot and be sure that they are the last to roll in that specific location. 

Because of this, their scent is the strongest in that particular location, establishing their dominance both with the horses that currently surround them as well as the ones who will join in the future. You can think of this reason for a horse’s rolling as them marking their territory in a way.

Horses Roll to Relieve Irritation From Tack

We all know the feeling of taking off our sweaty workout clothes after a hard workout and experiencing a sense of relief. Many times, horses roll following a ride or workout to achieve a similar outcome. Even the most well-fitting tack can cause irritation or excessive amounts of sweat, especially in the summertime. If you notice that your horse is rolling consistently after workouts or rides, this is likely the cause.

Being able to measure your saddle to ensure it fits your horse is important in providing your horse with comfort. To learn how to measure a saddle, visit my article Measuring a Horse Saddle: Everything You Need to Know.

Horses Roll to Relieve Stress or Tension After Exercise

Another reason that horses may roll after an intense ride or workout is to relieve stress or tension. If you believe stress or tension may be the reason that your horse is rolling after a ride, make sure you are taking the time necessary to help them cool down after a workout. 

After a ride or workout, you should continue to walk your horse for the same amount of time that you walked them during the warmup. This allows the lactic acid and tension that has accumulated during exercise to release, relieving any unnecessary muscle soreness.

Horses Roll to Scratch an Itch

It makes sense that if your horse is experiencing an itch, they will attempt to scratch it. Rolling is one of the primary ways that a horse can scratch an itch. Your horse may have itchy skin from insect bites, grooming products, excessive sweat, or even rare skin conditions. If your horse seems uncomfortable, try to alleviate anything that could be causing them to scratch.  

One of the most frustrating times for your horse to roll is after you invest time and energy in their grooming routine. However, it is important to remember that they are not rolling out of spite. Most times, they are simply trying to protect themselves from annoying insects or skin irritations.

Horses Roll Because They See Other Horses Rolling

Much like yawning can be contagious for humans, rolling is often a contagious behavior among horses. If a horse finds a comfortable, relaxing rolling spot, other horses are sure to follow suit. This is the primary reason why many equestrians find nearly bare areas of the field. “Contagious” rolling may also be an active display of social status, with the dominant horses rolling in a favored spot before the less dominant horses in the field.

Horses Roll to Help Shed Thick Winter Coats

As you know, horses grow a thick winter coat during the colder winter months. When springtime arrives, the horse must shed these winter coats. While this process is necessary, it can be incredibly uncomfortable, sweaty, and itchy. Horses roll to relieve this discomfort while they attempt to loosen their thick winter coats. In addition to accelerating the shedding process, rolling will also help to eliminate some of the excess sweat that may accumulate as the temperatures rise.

If your horse seems exceptionally uncomfortable as they attempt to shed their winter coat, you may decide to take matters into your own hands. There are several ways to expedite the shedding process including oil treatments, a full body clipping, or a rigorous daily grooming routine.

Concerning Reasons Why Horses Roll

While there are many normal, healthy reasons why horses roll, there are also a few reasons for concern. It is important to take the time necessary to understand your horse’s regular rolling behaviors so that you can quickly identify when something is not quite right.

As a general rule of thumb, horses that are rolling as a normal behavior will paw the ground a few times, roll, and then resume their activities. Horses that are rolling for abnormal reasons, however, will appear to be in distress, may exhibit other signs of discomfort, and will likely not achieve a sense of relief through their rolling.

Horses May Try to Roll During Riding Due to Discomfort

One of the primary reasons for concern is when your horse is rolling due to discomfort. This can be caused by a wide range of things. Unfortunately, some horses may even attempt to roll while they are carrying a rider due to discomfort. While this is certainly frustrating, and quite dangerous, it is important to take the time necessary to make sure that nothing visible is causing discomfort or pain. 

If you do not notice any warning signs with the tack placement or fitting, you may need to consult an equine veterinarian or chiropractor to look for internal signs of discomfort or pain. This such as lingering muscle soreness, imbalances, illness, or injury may be causing your horse to seek relief through rolling – regardless of the activity in which they are participating.

Horses May Roll As a Symptom of Colic

Colic is a general term that can encompass many types of abdominal pain or gastrointestinal conditions in horses. There are many symptoms of colic including rolling. Horses that are rolling due to colic will drop down suddenly. Many times, their rolling will be quite violent without any appearance of relief. 

Although healthy horses will often shake the dust off following their rolling, horses experiencing colic will likely skip this step. Because of this, they will appear disheveled and will likely be covered in dirt, dust, manure, or shavings. If you suspect that your horse is rolling due to colic, carefully observe their behaviors for other symptoms. 

If there seems to be no relief from their discomfort, it is best to contact your equine veterinarian for additional insight. When left unaddressed, colic can lead to a variety of intense health conditions or prolonged illness. It is your responsibility to make sure your horse gets the care and attention they deserve.

Is Pawing the Ground Before Rolling a Normal Behavior? 

As an equestrian, you realize that pawing the ground can be both a normal behavior or a sign of distress. So, is pawing the ground before rolling a normal behavior or a sign of distress? Most of the time, horses paw at the ground before rolling as a way to check the softness of the ground. Additionally, pawing the ground before rolling allows them to loosen up the dirt in the area the horse is planning to roll. 

Experienced equestrians should be able to easily tell when a horse is pawing the ground as a sign of distress, anger, or discomfort. If you notice this type of behavior in your horse, you must be quick to react and alleviate whatever is causing the discomfort. 

Do Horses Roll More Frequently During Certain Seasons?

Although horses roll throughout the year, you may wonder if they display this behavior more frequently during certain seasons. As a general rule, horses roll much more frequently during the warm summer months than in the cooler months of winter. While your horse’s rolling is likely a year-round behavior, there are unique reasons they exhibit this habit during certain seasons.

Why Do Horses Roll During the Summer?

There are many reasons why horses roll more during the summer. In most areas of the world, flies and other pesky insects are more active during the warm, summer months. This can lead to itchy skin and great discomfort. 

Additionally, horses may roll in muddy areas as a way to cover their skin for protection from the sun and other irritants. Finally, as with humans, horses sweat more during the summer months. Even during light exercise, a horse may sweat a great amount, causing discomfort and irritation. Following a sweat-inducing workout, a horse may roll to dry the sweat off their body or to alleviate any itching that was caused by the sweat. 

Why Do Horses Roll During the Winter?

While there are plenty of reasons that horses roll in the summer months, there are also reasons why horses roll during the cooler months of winter. Once your horse’s thick winter coat comes in, they may roll as a way to cool themselves down. The ground is often much colder than the air and can provide relief on the more temperate days of winter. 

Additionally, winter can lead to dryer skin or more irritants in the air that cause your horse to itch. Rolling during the winter can be a way to achieve relief from itchiness or simply as a way to display their happiness.

Common Horse Body Language

Horses rely heavily on body language to communicate amongst themselves, with humans, and with other animals. Rolling is just one of many types of body language that a horse may use regularly. As you gain experience as an equestrian, you will become more familiar with the many forms of body language that horses display. Gathering this knowledge allows you to not only provide better care for your horses but also interact with and train them more efficiently. 

Some of the ways a horse communicates their thoughts, feelings, and emotions are through the following instruments: 

  • Ears
  • Head
  • Eyes
  • Muzzle
  • Forelegs
  • Hind Legs
  • Tail

 

A few of the most common horse behaviors other than rolling include the following:

  • Neigh
  • Buck
  • Bite
  • Nip
  • Lick
  • Curling Lips
  • Raising Head
  • Lowering Head
  • Snort
  • Roll
  • Kick
  • Pawing
  • Push

 

Each horse displays unique cues and behaviors in response to various triggers. When you are working with a new horse, it can be challenging to understand why they are acting in a certain way. However, by taking the time necessary to learn their unique behaviors and responses, you can develop a nearly seamless style of communication.

Want to know more about how horses communicate? Check out my article How Horses Communicate: Complete Horse Body Language Guide.

In Conclusion

As we have learned, there is a wide range of reasons why horses roll. Most of the time, a horse rolling is normal, healthy behavior. Whether seeking relief from stress or muscle tension, scratching a pesky itch, exerting dominance in a new setting, or simply expressing their happiness, rolling is not a cause for concern.

There are, however, times where rolling is a sign of a much more serious problem. While less frequent, horses may roll as a response to pain or discomfort, specifically while they are being ridden. Additionally, some horses may roll when they are in pain due to colic. If you observe your horse’s behavior and demeanor, you will be able to quickly determine whether your horse’s rolling is cause for concern.

In some rare cases, a horse’s rolling may be causing distraction or disruption while you are exercising, riding, or training. It is important to redirect these distracting behaviors after determining that they are not rolling in response to pain or discomfort.

As an equestrian and horse owner, it is your responsibility to learn the many types of body language that your horse uses to communicate with you and other horses. Although this will require dedicated time and effort, it is the best way to provide your horse with the care, training, and attention that they deserve. This will not only make you a better rider, but also a more well-rounded equestrian.

Related Questions

What happens if a horse tries to roll while you are riding? You must pay attention to the warning signs of rolling. Even if a horse is not in pain, they may try to roll while you are riding as a way to get out of work. As the rider, it is important that you can control your horse at all times to avoid injury to your horse, yourself, or other riders.

What are some common signs that a horse is happy or content? Rolling is just one of many ways that a horse communicates feelings of happiness or content. Other signs that your horse is happy or content include a loose lower jaw, a tail that is swinging freely, and relaxed breathing that is accompanied by a soft snorting sound. You can learn more about how to tell if your horse is happy by reading my article, Is My Horse Happy?

Can rolling injure your horse? Many equestrians are concerned that excessive rolling will injure their horse, especially during bouts of colic. Some experts believe that rolling can create unnatural twists in the gut that can create torsion colic. However, there is not much proof that this happens frequently. However, if you believe your horse is rolling in response to colic, it is important to address the problem to alleviate further injury or illness.

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