Rolling behavior – what is that? And why does it matter? Most of the time horses roll for pleasure when they are relaxed and feel it is safe to do so. Similar to when we yawn, rolling is evidently contagious. So you will often see more than one horse roll in sequence. But sometimes it can be a way to show pain. Let us try and find out how to tell if your horse has a healthy rolling behavior.
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USUALLY, IT IS A GOOD SIGN
It is basically a good sign when a horse is rolling. This means that it – more than likely – does not have any back pain. A horse with severe pain somewhere in the spine will find it extremely uncomfortable to have to lie down, roll over and get up again. Because it puts a strain on the spine. Such a horse will usually also be problematic to ride. But it can also happen that you do not notice it at all. Therefore, the horse’s (lack of) rolling behavior can be a good indicator in terms of finding out if it has a healthy back – most of the time.
PART OF THE COMFORT BEHAVIOR
When the horse rolls in the field or in its stall, it is often a means to an end. A way to scratch its back so that it can get rid of dead skin cells and shedding fur. Because the horse does this in an attempt to increase the feeling of well-being, the rolling behavior belongs to what is technically called comfort behavior. Therefore, it is extremely deliberate when a horse rolls in the largest puddle of mud it can find. When the mud dries, it will fall off in flakes and thus tear loose fur and dead skin cells with it. It is simply the horse’s natural way of caring for itself. Even if its rider has just groomed and washed it.
SAND IS THE BEST
A horse would rather roll in a comfortable place – a soft place. It can be in water, sand, snow or mud, for example. However, the best is the sand. And if there is no sand, then the horse tries to roll in a place where the ground is as “dirty” as possible.
Rolling is a strong instinct in a horse, and it is good to be aware of the fact that dangerous situations can arise when the horse tries to follow this instinct. In an attempt to find a sand-like spot in the field, it may find itself rolling right up the fence, where the grass is often worn down. If it is unlucky, it can get its legs into the fence and get injured. Similarly, a horse that stands a lot in a stall can have a great urge to roll, even if the space is tight. Here it can risk getting stuck, either in the bars, in a suspension or by sitting in buckles. Therefore, it may make sense to make a natural rolling spot for the horses in the middle of the field.
HOW TO SPOT A HEALTHY ROLLING BEHAVIOR
You can quite easily spot if the horse is rolling with a healthy goal in mind. When the horse is about to roll over because it wants to rub on its back, it will first lower its head to examine the ground. Once it has settled down, it will often also rub its neck against the ground to be able to scratch itself there. Then it gets up, perhaps shakes, and walks casually and effortlessly over to the other horses. Maybe it just stands still and starts to graze. All of these are healthy signs that you as the owner should only be happy to see.
HOW TO SPOT A DANGEROUS ROLLING BEHAVIOR
Unfortunately, the fact that the horse rolls can also be because it does not feel comfortable at all. That it has severe pain. Most people know that when a horse has colic, the worst thing it can do is roll over. Simply because it could cause intestinal perforation. However, there are a few signs that show up before it gets there, and it can make a big difference if you spot them. If it has a stomachache, then it may first look at its belly and scrape the ground before lying down. Maybe it sweats too, especially in the groin and around the neck.
Be aware, however, that a horse may also scratch the ground to examine the ground, as mentioned above. In general, the horse’s rolling behavior will be more violent when it is caused by colic, and it tosses around rather than rolls. So often there is no doubt at all.
Could have something to do with the weight
It is more difficult when you have less to go on as far as spotting potential pain in the horse’s back. A horse that just has a little back pain may well find itself lying down and rubbing a little on one side. But will rarely roll all the way around. However, it can also be due to the fact that it is overweight – or that it has a particularly high withers.
The latter you should not immediately worry about, even if it prevents the horse from scratching properly. Maybe you can help it instead by rubbing it thoroughly on your back every day. If, on the other hand, the problem is due to the horse being overweight, you should start the process of helping your horse lose weight. Being overweight will affect its sense of well-being on several points – even when it comes to its ability to care for itself.
The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration: Guidelines for good animal welfare practice.
Animal protection Denmark: How to care for horses.