Understanding Why Horses Roll and What You Should Do About It

horses roll for a variety of resons (1)

The first time I saw my horse roll was both the funniest and scariest moment of my life. There is nothing quite like seeing your horse roll from up close, and it’s quite natural to wonder if your horse is okay or if there is something wrong with them. 

How can such an elegant and normally fast animal suddenly become so weak and clumsy with their flailing legs in the air and belly wobbling to the sun? I worried; “was rolling normal to my horse? When is rolling not normal?” 

Over the decade-plus of owning horses and managing a large stable yard, I have seen some strange horse rolls, as well as a few fatal horse rolls. Every once in a while, a panicked horse owner will come running to me, asking whether it’s okay for their horse to roll. 

Why do horses roll? Horses roll for various reasons, from drying themselves off after a bath to simply enjoying the sensation. They also roll in the mud because it’s fun for them. These are normal rolls, and as long as your horse can get up without aid, you have nothing to worry about. However, there are also instances when your horse’s rolling can indicate there is something wrong with them, such as when they have colic or ulcers. Letting them continue to roll when they are sick can have serious consequences.

 Let’s look at when and why horses normally roll and when their rolling shows that something is wrong.

When Horses Roll In Sand, On Grass, Or In Snow

It is natural for horses to roll. Just watch them in a herd, and you will see them roll in a favorite sandy patch or even on the long grass. Rolling really seems to be a lot of fun for horses who may close their eyes and even lie on the ground for a few moments after they have rolled before they get up.

I always tell people that we should try to see things from the horse’s perspective. They don’t have hands, so how do they scratch their backs or necks? Likewise, they have a huge abdominal space under pressure in the stomach, so lying down can relieve that pressure on the stomach. Plus, horses weigh a lot, so maybe they want to rest and give their legs a break for a bit.

Lying or rolling on the grass, sand, or snow can also help horses manage their coats, shed hair in winter, and treat parasites, such as ticks. A horse rolling in the sand may be self-treating a parasite infection they may have. Sand is excellent at dislodging small parasites, including juvenile ticks, mites, and other skin irritants. Likewise, they can roll in the grass to give themselves a good scratching in the areas they can’t get to. 

Horses will often use the opportunity of rolling and lying down to nibble and groom the places that are normally hard to reach in, such as the inside of the back legs or under their belly. The act of rolling can also help boost circulation in the skin and between the different muscle groups. Rolling is the horse’s very own massage from nature. 

It is so beneficial that most horses will automatically roll when they have been ridden or if they have been lunged for a while. In these cases, horses will roll so they can dry off the sweat on their skins, loosen up any sticky hair, and stimulate the muscles to release lactic acid that may have formed due to strenuous exercise. 

Following a bath, your horse may head straight to the nearest sandy area and have a good roll, much to your chagrin. Reasons for the roll include drying themselves off, introducing air into their coat and helping the rest of their body dry, and warming up their bath-cooled skins. You can think of this as the equivalent of rubbing your hands together on a cold winter’s morning to warm them up. Your horse is “rubbing” their skin so they can also feel warmer.

Why horses roll - is it dangerous (1)

When Horses Want To Roll In Water Or Mud

You may think that your horse is naughty when it’s rolling in the mud, but there’s another reason. Your horse is not silly by splashing into that brown patch of mud. Horses are excellent at self-medicating. They know that mud has incredible healing properties, and at an instinctual level, your horse will be driven to rely on the benefits of mud. 

Mud is mineral-rich, and in small amounts, it helps promote natural hoof and coat growth. It also keeps parasites and pesky insects like flies and mosquitoes away. Like going to the beauty salon or spa for a mud facial, your horse gives their body what it needs by rolling in mud and water. 

It is so interesting to see horses enjoying their muddy roll and splashing into lakes and shallow streams. The enjoyment of a muddy wallowing place can be so thrilling that a horse may decide to drop their rider and instead have a romp in the mud, so be warned when your horse starts pawing at the mud or water crossings. 

When Horses Want To Roll In the Early Morning And Late Afternoon

There are also times of the day when you will most often see horses rolling, and these are in the early morning when the sun has just risen and starts to warm the fields and late afternoon before the temperatures drop and the night gets cooler. 

In the morning, your horse will roll to massage their body and warm up their night-cooled skin and muscles. Mornings are a peaceful time for horses, and many may decide to catch up on a last-minute snooze when they are still lying on the ground. It can be a bit disconcerting when your horse is delighted with having a morning roll and snooze as people may believe they are dead. I certainly got a few phone calls from well-meaning people to tell me that my horse was sick and lying in camp or dead (when she was snoozing after a roll). Eventually, I laughed and told them not to worry as she likes to sleep like that. 

Not all horses roll as often. Remembering that a horse is a flight animal, we must keep in mind that a downed horse is a vulnerable horse. The horse can be attacked by predators when they are lying down, and if they are near aggressive horses, they can be kicked or attacked. So, for a horse to intentionally make themselves vulnerable, they need to be completely relaxed, calm in their herd setting, and physically able to lie down and safely get up. 

Arthritic horses may choose not to lie down as it can be difficult for them to get up again. Likewise, a pregnant mare may choose not to lie down or roll as she struggles to manage her larger belly, and rolling may then be uncomfortable for her. Still, there are always exceptions to the rule, and you may find a terribly arthritic geriatric that chooses to catch a roll and a few Zs in a sunny spot during the day, regardless of whether it is a strain to get up or not. 

In a herd setting, you may also notice that not all the horses will lie down or roll simultaneously. Often they will have a herd mate that stands near them, carefully keeping out an eye for trouble and danger. 

But not all forms of rolling are good for horses. Sometimes, you absolutely have to stop your horse from rolling as their life may depend on them stopping.

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Signs Your Horse Is Rolling For A Bad Reason

A normal roll for a horse is not a violent thrashing around, and it is a quick process that takes less than a minute before they stop rolling, even if they are still lying down. For a horse owner, it is important to know the difference. 

I always recommend that you check whether your horse looks peaceful or seems agitated while rolling. Also, they shouldn’t flip over from one side to the other more than once or twice. A really sweaty horse may decide to roll a bit more often, but generally, some horses won’t even roll over completely, being happy with simply rubbing their neck and shoulders on the ground. 

Of course, the number one bad reason horses do roll is colic. This is when their stomachs cramp, and in an attempt to alleviate the pain, your horse may roll to help their stomach muscles relax. The problem with this and the danger is that your horse’s guts are not designed to be jumbled around forcefully, and they can twist their gut. When this happens, your horse will create a sharp bend in their intestinal tract that can cause a blockage so severe that it will require surgery, of which the prognosis is often not good. A horse that thrashes around on the ground will look very different from a horse peacefully having a roll. 

So, how do you know which kind of roll you are looking at? A colic roll will usually present within a few minutes of your horse eating its concentrated feeds. Although colic can also present during the night, and the day, colic is most common after the horse has eaten a large meal. 

Rolling After Eating A Meal 

After a large meal, your horse will instinctively not roll or lie down unless they feel uncomfortable. This is one of the reasons you shouldn’t feed your horse more concentrated feeds than what is safe in a single meal. Horses are trickle feeders, so they shouldn’t eat a couple of pounds of high concentrate feed in one sitting. The risk of colic is high when overfeeding.

Should your horse decide to lie down and roll and look uncomfortable, you need to take immediate action. Get your horse up and ensure they can’t go down. In the case of severe colic, your horse will probably try to lie down the whole time, but it is important to stop them from rolling as they can twist their gut or rupture a part of their intestines with severe colic.

In the case of colic, you will also notice heave lines along their abdomen from where the back legs join the body, across their side, and towards the girth line. At this point, you should call your vet while you keep your horse up and moving around gently. Colic requires anti-inflammatory drugs, and if severe, they may also require butylscopolammonium bromide medication such as Buscopan. Knowing the difference between a normal roll and rolling because of colic can mean the difference between life or death for your horse. 

Rolling When Being Ridden 

It’s an embarrassment when you are out for a nice ride, only to have your horse suddenly “collapse” under you and start rolling, with you still in the saddle! Your horse rolling when ridden can have a few causes. If your horse suddenly and without warning drops and rolls, the chances are that they are evading work. They may have discovered that rolling is a great way to get rid of a rider. 

Rolling when being ridden can also be a result of ulcers in the horse’s stomach lining. The pain of ulcers can cause a horse to drop down and roll as they may be feeling uncomfortable due to the additional pressure from the girth during riding. The only way to prevent them from lying down is to force them up by whichever means possible.

Please take note of when your horse tries to roll with you mounted on them during riding. Record how often this happens, and consult with your vet to rule out a medical reason. If there is no indication of ulcers, you may have to look at your horse’s training.

Collapsing horse (1)

Dangers Of Rolling On Bad Terrain

A final note on regular rolling and where your horse rolls. Horses will usually be careful about where they roll. They will choose a nice flat piece of ground that is open so they can safely lie down, roll, and get up again. However, sometimes your horse may not choose the best spot. They may end up rolling over a sharp stone and bruising their back, or they could roll into a ditch and struggle to get up. When your horse rolls and can’t get up again, this is known as casting. If they don’t get immediate help, they can potentially twist their gut, break a leg, or suffer a circulation problem that can lead to oxygen deprivation to their legs or muscles. This can have tragic consequences for your horse. 

Horses may also end up rolling over a thornbush or into a fence, which can lead to lacerations, allergic reactions to the thorns, and even tangling with something and struggling to find their feet again. If you know your horse likes to roll after a ride or bath, be sure to place them somewhere that is secure and safe for them to roll. A horse should not be rolling in their stable as they can potentially roll into a wall or corner (casting themselves) and suffer serious injuries or even death. 

A few years ago, we had a small mare in the yard who sadly suffered this fate in her stable. The owners had placed a large metal feed bin in her stable, which restricted her floor space. During the night, she may have laid down or rolled in her stable. She got stuck and cast herself against the wall. By morning she was in complete agony. By lunchtime, the vet made the recommendation to euthanize as the mare had twisted her gut and had already suffered severe circulation problems and oxygen deprivation, resulting in her tongue turning black.

My reason to share such a sad story is that I hope you will always ensure your horse has sufficient space in its stable or box to lie down and get up safely. Ensure you give your horse a safe space outside to have a roll after exercise or a bath.

Helping a Horse Stop Rolling When it’s Dangerous to Roll

If you suspect your horse is rolling because they are ill, be sure to do the following:

  1. Halter them.
  2. Get them up by gently rocking them by pushing at the withers through towards their legs.
  3. Stand clear from them when they get up as they may flail about in panic and pain.
  4. Keep them up by gently walking them while you phone your vet or call someone to fetch the correct medication if you have some on hand.

Conclusion

While it is normal for horses to roll, you need to ensure they are not doing so because they are ill with colic or ulcers

When your horse is rolling while out in the field, the chances are they want to massage their body or scratch an itch they can’t quite reach. They could also be self-medicating with a nice dust or mud bath to manage some parasites. While this might not be your idea of fun, horses love to roll, and as long as they do so in a safe and controlled manner, you should let them have their fun.

Talitha van Niekerk

Hi, I’m Talitha van Niekerk, and I made the leap to farm animal ownership when I decided to fulfil my lifelong passion to own horses. Now, over a decade later, I run a public stable facility on 180 acres of land, caring for over 75 horses of all breeds and sizes. I love to write about my experiences, sharing the knowledge I have gained and helping others achieve their life’s passion to live on the land.

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