Tension and anxiety go hand in hand. When the horse is nervous or anxious, his nervous system is in the sympathetic state to prepare the body for “fight or flight”. When the body is in a constant state of alert, it can be quite draining as muscles are constantly contracted and functions not critical to immediate survival receive less resources and can start to slow down (like digestion, leaving the horse more prone to colic and other digestive upsets).
Massage can help bring the horse into a parasympathetic (or “rest and digest”) state through the release of endorphins, like serotonin and dopamine, which help regulate heart rate, affect the pituitary gland which helps control growth and development, regulates mood, appetite, sleep, muscle contraction, and memory.
Signs of your horse relaxing and shifting into the parasympathetic state include licking and chewing, yawning, increased gut sounds, passing gas, deeper breathing, snorting or sighing.