Automatic Nervous System of the Horse
Anatomy and Biomechanics,  Ground Work,  Horses

Horse Nervous System: Understanding Their Body Language

Understanding the relationship between your horse’s body position and its Automatic Nervous System is so important. It will go a long way to helping you and your horse to be less stressed and more successful in your time together. It’s not actually that complicated. Their design is pretty simple.

Horse Automatic Nervous System

The horse’s Automatic Nervous System is ruled by two distinctly different parts.

  1. Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) “S” is for “Stress”
  2. Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) “P” is for “Peaceful”

The Sympathetic Nervous System

If the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) had a slogan it would be, “Sorry but I’ve got to run!” The SNS activates specific physiological responses in the horse. For instance, taking blood from the stomach and putting it into the muscles to prepare them for the Fight or Flight response. And of course, we all have experienced this one: body tense, head up high, eyes wide, and ears on tight. All correlate to the Freeze response which allows the horse to scan for danger and either run or go back to whatever they were doing.

This place of stress can be the precursor of many unwanted behaviors in our horses. It’s really important to remember that in this physiological state, the horse is not meant to think first. As a built-in safety mechanism, they’re designed to react first. They may be big and strong but they are still prey animals and are designed as such. With that in mind, it makes sense that we would want to cultivate tools that help to keep our horses out of their SNS as much as possible. So how can we develop a surefire pathway to a Parasympathetic response? By training a body position that affects the nervous system in our favor.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System

When a horse is in the horizontal grazing position it is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) that is running things. The horse’s brain tells their body that they are relaxed and calm; their blood is in their stomach and the digestive system is functioning normally.

Similar to the positive effect that smiling has on people, the head down body position triggers a reaction that equates to a feeling of relaxation and is the switch to literally turn off stress.

How Position Affects the Horse’s Body

The horse’s body has many ingenious design features.  In particular, the Nuchal Ligament is a rope-like apparatus that runs from the horse’s poll to the tail. When the horse’s head is completely down, this mechanism lifts the horse’s back. This lifting action is a result of stretching (i.e. traction) rather than tightening (i.e. muscle contraction). Training this position allows us to simultaneously work the horse’s body while maintaining a state of relaxation.  Ballet has “first position” as the place from which all dancers are built, we have “head down.” From there we can build a horse that is biomechanically correct in their movements and therefore prone to soundness and success.

How Position Affects the Horse’s Mind

Along with the muscular and skeletal benefits of the Head Down body position, there is another huge benefit to it. Remember, this is the grazing position. When in this position, the horse’s brain is designed to activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (Rest & Digest).  This position literally tells the horse to relax.

A relaxed state of mind is crucial to the learning process.  Training our horses to go to the Head Down position enables us to put them in an instant state of relaxation. Increasing our access to the part of their brain that can think rather than just react. Anytime we are in need of our horse to “relax” we can use the cue we have trained and ask for it.

I use this every time I ride my husband’s horse, Junior. Junior is a firecracker! He’s the hottest horse I’ve ever met. From the ground, I’ve taught him to put his head down with the point of my finger. From the saddle, I’ve taught him to put his head down when I tap on his left wither. Every time he gets “out of his mind” during a ride I simply tap on his wither until he drops his head. I can do this in halt, at a walk, at trot, and even the canter. This triggers his body to go back into its parasympathetic state and we can continue our ride.

Being able to reestablish positive mental engagement after a disengaging situation pops up is so valuable. It’s great for the horse but it’s also great for the rider. It gives us something constructive to to do. An action to take. Rather than feeling helpless while we wait for our horse to come back to earth.

Body Position and the horses nervous system
Junior and me working on head down training.

Understand the Horse’s Body Position – Where to Begin

Now that you have a better understanding of your horse’s nervous system and how it’s affected by body position I’m hoping you’ll be excited to train the head down position to your horse. But how do we do that? I once heard it said, “Teach them the answer before you ask the question.” This is what we do with Target Training. We teach the answer by using the target. The target will become our pointing finger and then eventually any cue that you like. As I mentioned earlier in the case of Junior. A tap on the withers while riding means put your head down.

Isn’t the ability to place our horse in a state of relaxation and positive mental engagement worth a little bit of prerequisite training? Of course, it is! If you’re open to giving it a try read my post Target Training and get started with your horse today.

If you’re interested in more on applied anatomy and biomechanics I highly recommend visiting Horses Inside Out. Gillian Higgins provides a wealth of information about how your horse’s body actually works. Presenting the information in a way that’s relatively easy to understand and incredibly useful to riders of every discipline.

Providing Helpful Horsemanship skills to horse-people of all disciplines. Curated by Robin Martinez, a lifelong horsewoman with a passion for learning and teaching. Together with her husband Dionicio, they own Blackjack Farm in San Diego, CA where they train and compete their own jumping and dressage horses.