Everything You Need to Know About Stress, Horses and the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) can help your horse during competition by preparing its body for physical activity and performance. When your horse experiences stress or excitement, such as during a competitive event, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, leading to a “fight or flight” response. This response can provide a number of benefits to your horse during competition, including:

  1. Increased heart rate: The sympathetic nervous system can increase heart rate, which can improve blood flow and oxygen delivery to the muscles. This can help to improve performance and endurance.
  2. Increased respiratory rate: The sympathetic nervous system can increase respiratory rate, which can help to deliver more oxygen to the muscles and remove carbon dioxide and other waste products. This can help to improve performance and endurance.
  3. Increased blood flow to the muscles: The sympathetic nervous system can increase blood flow to the muscles, providing them with the nutrients and oxygen they need to perform at their best.
  4. Increased mental alertness: The sympathetic nervous system can increase mental alertness, which can help the horse to focus and react quickly to changes in its environment.
  5. Increased adrenaline: The sympathetic nervous system can increase the release of adrenaline, which can improve reaction time and provide a burst of energy for short-term bursts of intense activity.

Short term, these responses can help your horse to perform at its best during competition. However, long term activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to a variety of serious negative physical and mental health effects, including:

  1. Immune system: Prolonged activation of the sympathetic nervous system can suppress the horse’s immune system, making them more susceptible to infections and illnesses.
  2. Digestive system: The sympathetic nervous system can cause the horse’s digestive system to slow down, reducing the blood flow to the gut and decreasing the secretion of digestive enzymes. This can lead to colic, ulcers, decreased appetite, weight loss, and other digestive issues.
  3. Muscle tension and pain: The SNS is responsible for increasing muscle tension and heart rate. Over time, this can lead to muscle tension and pain, which can make it more difficult for the horse to move comfortably and perform well.
  4. Increased risk of injury: When the SNS is constantly activated, the horse may be more prone to injury due to the increased muscle tension and the fact that their body is constantly in a state of “alert.”
  5. Behavioral issues: Horses that are under chronic stress may exhibit a variety of behavioral issues, including aggression, nervousness, and difficulty focusing or learning.
  6. Cardiovascular stress: Long-term activation of the SNS can increase the horse’s heart rate and blood pressure, putting extra strain on their cardiovascular system.
  7. Adrenal fatigue: The adrenal glands are responsible for producing hormones that regulate the SNS response. Over time, constant activation of the SNS can lead to adrenal fatigue, which can have a variety of negative effects on the horse’s health.

Adrenal fatigue, also known as hypoadrenocorticism, occurs when the adrenal glands, which produce hormones that regulate various bodily functions, are not functioning properly.

Negative effects of adrenal fatigue in horses include:

  1. Weight Loss: Adrenal fatigue can cause a decrease in appetite, leading to weight loss.
  2. Lethargy and Weakness: Horses with adrenal fatigue may appear lethargic, weak, and have reduced exercise tolerance.
  3. Dehydration: Horses with adrenal fatigue may also experience dehydration due to increased water loss through urine and decreased water intake.
  4. Electrolyte Imbalances: The adrenal glands are responsible for regulating electrolyte balance in the body, so adrenal fatigue can lead to imbalances in electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and chloride.
  5. Gastrointestinal Problems: Horses with adrenal fatigue may experience diarrhea or colic due to changes in gastrointestinal motility.
  6. Immune System Suppression: Adrenal hormones play a vital role in regulating the immune system, so adrenal fatigue can result in a weakened immune response and increased susceptibility to infections.
  7. Skin and Coat Problems: Horses with adrenal fatigue may have a dull, patchy coat or experience hair loss, and their skin may become dry and flaky.
  8. Behavioral Changes: Horses with adrenal fatigue may exhibit changes in behavior, such as increased anxiety, aggression, or irritability.

*If you suspect your horse may suffer adrenal fatigue, contact your Veterinarian ASAP to correct these negative effects and ensure your horse’s health and well-being.

As you can see, stress can be both positive and negative, depending on the circumstances and length of time it’s experienced. But what exactly is stress?

Stress can be defined as a general term which describes the combination of psychological and biological responses of an animal to novel or threatening circumstances. Physical stressors are things such as injury, change in the environment and exertion. Psychological stressors typically include situations that make the animal anxious or fearful. Uncertainty and fear of the unknown can be categorized as two of the major psychological stressors.

Horses can experience stress in a variety of situations, including but not limited to:

  1. Transport: Transporting horses in a is physically and mentally stressful, especially if they are not accustomed to it, if the journey is long or uncomfortable, if they are worried about where they are going and what will happen there.
  2. Changes in environment: Moving to a new location, being housed in unfamiliar surroundings, or changes in their daily routine can cause stress for horses. Horses are also sensitive to their long-term environment and may have trouble adjusting to a barn that just doesn’t work for them.
  3. Social: Horses are social animals and can become stressed if they are isolated from other horses for prolonged periods of time. It can also be very stressful for a horse to be grouped with unfriendly or excessively dominant horses and for new horses to be introduced to the group.
  4. Training: Horses can experience stress during training sessions if they are pushed beyond their physical or mental limits, if they are punished excessively and if they dislike their activities or training environment or don’t mesh well with their humans.
  5. Health issues: Illness, injury, or pain, chronic and acute can cause significant stress in horses.
  6. Weather: Extreme temperatures, such as very hot or very cold weather, can cause stress in horses.
  7. Loud noises: Loud noises, such as fireworks or thunderstorms, can startle horses and cause them to become anxious.
  8. Crowding: Overcrowding in a pasture or stable can cause stress in horses, especially if they feel like they don’t have enough space to move freely, could be trapped by other potentially aggressive horses or have trouble accessing water, food or shelter.
  9. Lack of exercise: Horses need regular exercise and can become stressed if they are kept confined for long periods of time without the opportunity to move around and stretch their legs.

It’s important to manage your horses stress levels and actively seek to reduce stressors and promote relaxation in your horse during and after competition and in their daily life to support your horse’s overall health and well-being as well as their performance.

Here are some tips to help reduce stress in your horse’s life:

  1. Provide a comfortable and safe environment: Horses need access to clean water, good quality forage, and a safe and comfortable place to rest.
  2. Establish a routine: Horses thrive on routine and predictability. This can be hard to do at a show but establishing a show routine or habits or keeping as close to home schedule can help your horse feel more secure and comfortable.
  3. Social interaction: Horses are social animals and benefit from the company of other horses. If possible, provide opportunities for your horse to interact with other horses, whether through turnout, hand grazing together or riding with a companion.
  4. Exercise: Your horse needs enough exercise to stay relaxed and reduce muscle stiffness, whether through daily turnout, riding, or other forms of activity.
  5. Reduce environmental stressors: Loud noises, bright lights, and other environmental stressors can contribute to your horse’s stress. Try to reduce exposure to these stressors when possible.
  6. Regular veterinary care: Regular veterinary care can help ensure that your horse is healthy and free from pain or discomfort, which can contribute to stress.
  7. Massage: Massage can be a very effective way to reduce stress in horses.

There are several ways in which massage can help to achieve this:

  1. Increases circulation: Massage helps to increase blood flow throughout the horse’s body. This increased circulation can help to bring more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, which can help to reduce tension and soreness.
  2. Releases tension: Massage can help to release tension in the muscles and connective tissues of the horse’s body. This can help to reduce stiffness and soreness, and can also help to improve flexibility and range of motion.
  3. Stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system: Massage can help to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” response. This can help to reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “fight or flight” response, and can help to promote relaxation.
  4. Increases endorphins: Massage can also help to increase the release of endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers. Endorphins can help to reduce pain and promote a feeling of well-being.

All of these factors can contribute to reducing stress in horses. By helping to reduce tension, stiffness, and soreness, and by promoting relaxation and a sense of well-being, massage can help to create a positive and calming environment for your horse.

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