There are a number of different ways to assess and evaluate a horse’s conformation. One of these ways is by their topline. If you are new to the equestrian world, you may be wondering exactly what a topline is?
A Horse’s Topline
A horse’s topline is the group of muscles which run along a horse’s back. They stretch from the top of the neck to the top of the hip (just before the horse’s tail). The topline consists of three main muscle groups which surround the spine and impact how a horse looks, moves and balances.
Depending on how prominent a horse’s topline is, it also affects how a horse collects (shortens) and extends their neck, how they lift their shoulders as they move and how they are able to engage their hind end.
How do I build my horses topline?
Many people consider certain exercises as the main way to build and correct a horse’s topline. Before considering exercises, first consider any underlying issues which may be affecting your horse’s ability to build muscle.
A good first step is to have your horse checked over by a veterinarian to consider and possibly diagnose any health issues which may be impacting your horse. If your horse is experiencing any kind of pain, topline focused exercises will only make it worse.
It is also important to recognize that if your horse is slightly older, their diet will be crucial in their ability to build muscle and develop their topline. Older horses may need a higher protein content compared to younger horses.
Checking the fit of your saddle on your horses back is also a crucial step in eliminating any possible obstacles in developing muscle. Make sure to get your saddle checked out or newly fitted by a professional.
How do you get a horse to have a good topline?
“There is no one full-proof way to build a horse’s topline but there are some exercises that are good for building a foundation of muscle, especially when working with a green horse”
Once you have considered any impact your horses health, diet and saddle fitting, these are the best 5 exercises to build your horses topline:
- Stretching: standing on the ground next to your horses, use carrots or their favorite treat to get them to stand square will all four feet and fetch their neck to either side and between their legs.
- Backing up: this exercise is also done from the ground and involves getting your horse to take steps backwards. When a horse backs up, their hind end moves underneath them and it encourages them to engage their core.
It’s important for the horse to keep their head low and level to correctly engage their topline muscles
- Trotting poles: User 5 or 6 poles on the ground spaced out at 5 foot lengths. Trotting over these with your horse encourages them to trot slowly, so he really has to use himself over each pole. You can widen these poles over time to get your horse to stretch and engage their muscles even further.
- Shorten and lengthen strides: varying the length between strides, whether shortening or lengthening, works different muscles which make up the topline. The canter is a natural conditioner for a horse’s topline muscles as it encourages stretching the horses hind muscles to engage underneath them.
- Hill Work: Getting a horse to walk over different gradients over hills is a great way to engage the topline muscles. Walking, trotting and catering evenly up and down a hill build muscle retention and stamina. Hill work often works important topline muscles which are difficult to engage over flatter surfaces.
What should a horse’s topline look like?
A well-developed topline should be rounded and strong across the horse’s wither, spine and along to their croup. It should not be sunken in any way and should not have a ‘sharp’ appearance. A horse with a well-developed topline will have a ‘full’ and more rounded looking back and spine.
When they move, a horse with a well-developed top line will move with a relaxed gait and have the ability to coil their muscles and round their back. Being able to do this gives them a more powerful and flowing movement.
One way to assess the muscle composition and condition of a horse and how it affects their movement is to look at how they ‘track up’. This means looking at the movement of their back feet in relation to their front feet as they move forward. A horse with a good top line’s back hoof print will fall in the same place as the front hoof as they extend their legs forward.
Saddles and a horse’s topline
An ill-fitting saddle can destroy a horse’s topline. When a saddle does not fit correctly, it usually means that the horse is in pain or experiencing some level of discomfort. When this happens, the horse will continuously be readjusting their posture and how they move to find relief. If this continues over time, the horse may develop chronic back pain and eventually lose muscle mass along their top line.
It is important that horses have their saddles professionally fitted from the beginning of their riding career. This is to ensure no damage is done from the start and to give young horses the best opportunity to develop muscle optimally.
As horse’s grow, their muscles and body shape change which is why it is important to ensure saddle fitting at regular intervals. A horse’s saddle may fit them perfectly when they are 4 years old but cause them pain and muscle loss a year later.
Building topline in older horses
Building or rebuilding a horse’s topline may sometimes require additional effort and consideration in older horses. A horse’s natural anatomy and physiology will impact their ability to develop a topline. As a horse reaches their upper age limits, this ability is further impacted.
Some horses can live out in a field with little exercise and have a well-developed topline with others may be fed additional supplements and additional feed and still not develop a full topline.
One way to increase an older horse’s ability to build and maintain a topline is to increase their protein intake. While a horse will get protein from hay and natural pasture, additional protein will enhance their performance and muscle building ability.
Additional protein in a horse’s diet can reverse and prevent sarcopenia of aging. Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass and function as it relates to natural aging. When it comes to older horses, balancing the correct amount of protein in their diet with exercise is key to building and maintaining their topline.
What causes a horse to lose topline?
As horses age, they are prone to muscle loss and losing muscle mass, specifically along their topline. When this happens, their back can start to look bony and rigid. The spine, pelvis and the withers of the horse also become more prominent.
However, it is not only older horses who experience this loss of condition along their topline. These include:
- The incorrect kind of exercise: all performance horses need a balance of the exercises they do including trotting poles, cavalettis, moving up and down hills and gait transitions. Focusing on only one or two of these exercises can neglect working and building the topline muscles.
- Poor nutrition: as the topline is composed of muscle, nutrition which either comprises or lacks quality protein, will have an impact on its condition. A horse who regularly exercises needs more than 2 lbs per day to build and maintain these muscles.
- Degenerative muscle conditions: there are a number of muscle conditions which affect a horse’s ability to build muscle. Some of these conditions include muscle atrophy, muscle strain, weakness and exercise intolerance, abnormal muscle contraction and nerve conduction.
- Chronic systemic disease: Cushings Disease is a common contributor when it comes to diseases which may impact a horse’s topline and muscle appearance. Lameness of any kind, intestinal dysfunction, chronic inflammation or cancer are less common conditions which also impact a horse’s ability to build and maintain muscle on their topline.
Horse Topline Supplements
Exercise and good health alone is often not enough to build a horse’s topline. Neither is feeding a horse a few pounds of regular feed each day. This is because regular feed does not contain a sufficient amount of amino acids to build muscle and a good topline.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and include essential and non-essential amino acids. Non-essential amino acids are produced by a horse’s body and so are not part of a diet consideration. Essential amino acids are not naturally produced and so much be added to the diet.
Lysine is the most crucial amino acid needed in a horse’s diet to build and maintain a healthy weight and topline. Horse’s with insufficient lysine may experience limited growth or stunted development.
One way to ensure your horse is getting the adequate amount of amino acids is to add a balancer pellet to their diet. Balancer pellets contain vitamins, proteins and amino acids which are key for muscle building.
If you replace 1 pound of regular horse feed with 1 pound of balancer pellets, you will start to see an improvement in your horse’s topline in a month or two.
Aside from amino acids, vitamin E and a mineral known as Selenium are also important additions to a horse’s feeding regime. Both are antioxidants and are natural protectors of a horse’s muscles to aid in quick recovery.
Why is a good topline important?
A horse’s topline affects and impacts a horse’s frame, movement and the strength with which they move and carry themselves. A topline supports the vertebral column, the weights of a saddle and its rider and enhances the power with which a horse can move.
Unfortunately, the topline is a confirmation element in horses which is often overlooked as many performance horses have a poorly developed topline. A poorly developed topline can impact:
- A horse’s soundness
- Their balance
- The strength of hind limbs and forelimbs
- Their ability to extend and fully reach forward
- Kissing spine lesions
What is Topline Syndrome?
Topline syndrome refers to any situation in which a horse’s topline is being impacted. This may be due to chronic illness, poor diet, a degenerative health condition or anything else which may impact a topline.
While these are the main reasons for topline syndrome, a horse’s ability to build muscle and to build muscle in the correct places, may be impacted by a number of smaller issues.
The following situations can collectively impact a horse’s ability to build muscle and a topline:
- Being ridden incorrectly from a young age
- Being ridden ‘hollow’ for an extended period of time
- Tension experienced in the neck, shoulders and withers
- Core muscles dropped due to uneven muscle building
The condition of a horse’s topline should never be overlooked as an indicator of a horse’s overall wellbeing and is not only determined by factors such as breeding. As we have seen, there are a number of different factors which can impact these muscles from diet and health to saddle sit and exercise. The most important thing to keep in mind is the balance and consideration of all these factors when working on your horse’s topline.
We know that a horse’s topline can be a tricky group of muscles to build on your horse. Should your horse lose a good topline condition, the good news is that this is possible to rebuild in most cases. Paying attention to your horse’s diet and ensuring they have enough protein along with the right exercise are two steps which will yield results within approximately six weeks.