Why The Parasympathetic Nervous System Is So Important To Your Horse’s Health

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), often called the “fight-or-flight” response, prepares your horse for intense physical activity. It evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling your horse to react quickly to threatening situations. This response can actually provide a number of benefits to your horse during competition, improving reaction time, mental alertness, focus and endurance.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – it promotes relaxation.

The PNS is responsible for the “rest and digest” response in the body, which is characterized by decreased heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and increased digestive and metabolic activity. This response helps your horse’s body to recover from stress and promotes healing and repair.

Here are some ways that the PNS can promote immune function, tissue building, and exercise recovery:

  1. Immune Function: The PNS has been shown to promote immune function by increasing the production of antibodies and enhancing the activity of immune cells such as natural killer cells and T cells. This can help the body to better fight off infections and other diseases.
  2. Tissue Building: The PNS can promote tissue building by increasing blood flow to the muscles and other tissues. This increased blood flow can help to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, which can promote healing and tissue growth.
  3. Exercise Recovery: After intense exercise, the body can experience inflammation and muscle soreness, but activation of the PNS can help to reduce these symptoms and promote recovery.
  4. The PNS can activate the vagus nerve, a large nerve that connects the brain to various organs in the body, including the gut and immune system. The vagus nerve can stimulate the release of anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and dopamine, which can reduce inflammation.
  5. The PNS can decrease the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which plays a key role in the stress response. When the HPA axis is activated, it can lead to the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, which can increase inflammation. By reducing HPA axis activity, the PNS can help to decrease inflammation.

Chronic stresses can interfere with your horses ability to switch from the SNS (fight or flight) to the PNS (rest and repair)

Managing a horse’s chronic stress levels requires a multi-faceted approach. You can help your horse by providing a comfortable, safe home, a regular routine with plenty of turn out with good friends, positive training experiences, time to recover and recharge from exercise, a healthy consistent diet and stress-reducing activities like grazing and therapeutic massage.

Massage can stimulate the PNS by activating the sensory receptors in the skin, muscles, and joints. This can help to decrease heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure, all indicators of PNS activation. Massage relaxes muscles and reduces tension and soreness. It also decreases release of stress hormones like cortisol and increases the release of endorphins to reduce pain and help your horse achieve a state of relaxed well being.

By activating the PNS, massage can help to reduce inflammation, promote healing and digestion, support immune function and exercise recovery for better health and performance.

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