Equine behaviour explained: Rolling

You can regularly see horses rolling extensively in the sand, grass or even snow. Some might be more athletic than others, but they all do it. Horses do this for a reason, rolling has a real function for them. In this article, we’ll discuss rolling and why horses like to do it. 


Rolling is one of the horse’s natural needs. Prior to rolling, a horse will show a behaviour pattern, a certain behaviour before the horse starts rolling. You may have seen it before, but a horse can be very picky about where they want to roll. They will usually look for a dry, sandy place. The horse will keep their head low, ears forward and the tail lifted. When they see a potential spot, they will spin in small circles, snort, swish their tail and paw the ground with their forelegs. The horse does this to test whether the soil is suitable. Pawing also helps loosen up the sand and check for the depth of the subsoil (mud, snow or water). Once the spot is approved, the horse will buckle through their forelegs and lower to a fully flat position, lying flat with their head and neck on the ground. Then the legs are swung up and the horse will rub their body on the ground. They may roll over their withers to their other side, but not all horses always manage to roll over. In that case you will see the horse get up again and they will often immediately lie down on the other side. In some cases you will see the horse sit down to turn to the other side. When they’re done rolling, they will shake vigorously. 


One of the primary functions of rolling is skin and coat care. It ensures that hair that is wet, for example due to rain or sweat, stands upright and dries due to the dust and sand. A layer of caked mud also forms a protective barrier against external parasites such as ticks and horseflies, horses prefer to roll extensively in the mud until their entire body is covered. Loose hairs are removed by rubbing off the dried layer. This is especially beneficial when the horse is shedding its winter coat. Have you just groomed your horse extensively, only for them to immediately roll in the paddock? This is because horses prefer to have their hair upright, which is done by shaking them out. 


Rolling is a social event, often when one horse starts rolling several others will follow. They then roll at the same time or one after the other in the same place. Stallions generally roll more often, with the lead stallion rolling over the spot last. For stallions, rolling can be a sign of dominance and marking a territory. Rolling can also be a characteristic pain behaviour for horses, for example in a horse with colic or a mare that is in labour. They will have a different facial expression and will show multiple symptoms. A horse with colic will lie down and roll, but often do not shake themselves out. So this could be a sign that something is wrong with them. 


A horse can also roll in their stable. It may happen that the horse rolls in an awkward spot and gets cast. Have you ridden your horse and are they damp or sweaty? First let them roll in the arena or paddock. This reduces the chance that they will roll in their stable and get cast. 

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