Question: My 15-year-old Thoroughbred has recently started to drop and roll every time I work with him. The veterinarian told me he is very healthy and that I just need to longe him for now. There is no lameness. I can’t find a trainer willing to help, either. Is there anything I can do?
Answer: This is a dangerous problem, and I don’t think ignoring it is a solution. And while I do have a few suggestions, you’ll still need to find someone, either a veterinarian or trainer, who can work with you one-on-one.
I assume from your description that this happens only when your horse is being ridden. If this is the case, first suspect your tack. Did the veterinarian’s examination include seeing the horse tacked up and ridden? If not, ask your veterinarian to re-examine your horse to rule out improper tack fit or some problem with the way the tack feels to the horse. Be sure to check the girth, breastplate, padding of the saddle and pads. Certain saddle pad materials, or even detergents used to wash pads or blankets, can cause skin irritation in some horses. If such a skin sensitivity develops, the horse wants to roll to scratch his back. I find pure wool pads seem to produce the fewest reactions as opposed to synthetics, foams and others.
Does the hair under the tack stand up when the tack is removed? Are there any dry spots? Both of these indicate pressure areas that could be painful enough to make your horse roll. Call in another veterinarian or a specialist if that’s what it takes to get an extensive physical exam to rule out all possibilities.
Given that your horse recently developed this behavior and has no other “roguish” tendencies, I strongly suspect it is physical in nature. However, if no physical reason for the rolling is found, you may be dealing with a training problem. How soon after mounting does this behavior occur? Is there one particular request or aid that makes him roll? Does it happen at the same time every ride? Does he roll only in certain footing, particularly sand? Do you let him roll while he is on a lead line? Allow him to roll only “on his own time.”
If none of these is the answer, work your horse under tack in a round pen or on a longe line with the ground person doing the directing while the rider (who is wearing a helmet, of course) is simply a passenger. If he doesn’t mind that, the cues from the rider may be the problem. If he does try to roll, lift the bit up in one side of his mouth and kick him to keep him moving until you can safely dismount. Then try to figure out what prompted him to go down. If the rolling is a behavioral problem, and you want to keep your horse, you’ll have to find a trainer willing to take him on.