The nervous system is complex, and it's through this system that the horse is able to experience and respond to sensations. The nervous system coordinates the activities and responses that are effectively responsible for the make up of a horses behavior, which is learnt and shaped throughout a lifetime in response to their experiences.
So how exactly is this complex system made up?
Structure of the Nervous System
The Central Nervous System (CNS – the brain and the spinal cord)
The Peripheral Nervous System (PNS - the sensory nerve receptors throughout the body, limbs and organs which connect to the Central Nervous System). This is then broken down into:
The Somatic Nervous System, which handles voluntary control of body movements, and connects with the skeletal muscles and skin.
The Autonomic Nervous Systems, that handles involuntary control (not under conscious control) and connects to organs and glands.
The Autonomic Nervous System breaks down even further and is composed of sympathetic nerves that excite the body – tapping into the fear, flight, fight response of a horse - and parasympathetic nerves that act as a dampener, helping your horse become calm and relaxed.
A Quick Summary on How the Nervous System Works
The Nervous System is constantly in work and acts as a form of fast communication within the horses’ body, where the signals that are sent and received are done so incredibly quickly, it enables the horse to swiftly make adjustments to many situations.
The sensory part of the nervous system (the Peripheral Nervous System) detects change from within the body (about muscle position, temperature and pain) or from outside of the body (through sight, sound, smell, touch) and sends signals of information to the Central Nervous System to be processed. The CNS then responds to those messages by sending ‘instructions’ back out to the PNS.
The nervous system also coordinates most of the horse’s other internal functions including digestion, respiration, heart contraction, and the release (indirectly through the endocrine system) of hormones that regulate metabolism and growth.
How Massage Communicates with the Nervous System
When an EMT practitioner touches the horse, they are sending messages to the horses’ nervous system via the skin. Each technique used will have a different physiological effect and can either promote calmness and trust in a nervous horse or provide stimulation for a despondent / tired horse.
Massage generally taps into the parasympathetic nervous system to promote relaxation, improve mood and reduce pain through both the release of endorphins* (which are natural pain and stress fighters) and by interrupting the pain cycle from spasms when pressure is applied. The relaxation response is always obvious in a horse, and he will show his approval through common reactions such as licking, chewing and yawning. Furthermore, relaxation of the horse will contribute towards improved breathing, heart rate, circulation, digestion and mood.
There are times you may want a massage to tap into the sympathetic nervous system to energise a horse. A good example of of when you would want to tap into either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system lies with pre and post event massage. If your horse is a little dull pre event (and this isn’t related back to any other factor needing veterinary attention), your EMT practitioner will use techniques that tap into the horses sympathetic nervous system to help stimulate and ‘motivate’ him. Post event, your EMT practitioner will then use techniques that tap into the parasympathetic nervous system to assist in reducing his heart rate, respiratory rate and to promote general calmness.
Equine massage stimulates a wide range of sensory receptors, and will disrupt and correct any central nervous system signals that are causing problems, to then re-establishing a state of homeostasis within the horse. By tapping into the parasympathetic Nervous System, massage will also be contributing towards an improved immune response.
* Endorphins are natural pain and stress fighters that are released during massage. Serotonin and Dopamine are two types of endorphins that are released during massage. Dopamine relates back to sleep cycles, regulates blood pressure and the heart rate, and also has an indirect affect on the pituitary gland, which important in controlling growth and development. Serotonin regulates mood, appetite, sleep, memory and muscle contraction.