We all want our horse to be that horse—strong, beautifully muscled, the one who moves with effortless power and exhibits graceful confidence in work. No doubt, that horse has an awesome topline that lifts, bends, and flows as easily on a serpentine as it does on the straightaway.
That horse, of course, is the living, breathing product not only of genetics and conformation but also of dedicated care, training and education, exercise, nutrition, and enrichment. These are things we can all do for our equine partners. Here are a few tips for improving your horse’s topline to get you started.
The Topline of a Horse—Why It’s Important
Look at a standing horse in profile, and your eye will gravitate from the poll to the slope of the neck that flows into the slight rise and fall of the withers. Your brain automatically starts calculating exactly where you’ll place the saddle pad as you take in the angle of the junction with the horse’s back. Then, you keep looking, gauging the arc of loin into croup as you consider how the horse will move.
If you take a visual step back, what you’re “seeing” is the topline—layers of muscle systems that attach to, overlay, or spread along the spine’s vertebrae and link muscles and bones together to make coordinated movement possible.
Strip away the skin layer and the panniculus carnosic—the thin sheet of body muscle that horses use to twitch away flies, for example—and you’ll find the two major layers of muscles—the superficial muscle layer and the deep muscle layer. Within each is the muscles that are responsible for creating a horse’s topline.
- Superficial Muscle Layer—When people talk about the trapezius or the latissimus dorsi, for example, those are muscles that belong to the superficial muscle layer. From poll to tail, you’ll find the splenius, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, thoracolumbar fascia, and gluteal fascia, for example.
- Deep Muscle Layer—A muscle frequently discussed regarding the topline is the longissimus dorsi, for example. The longissimus is a deep muscle system with branches that extend from a horse’s head to its tail. Along with the iliocostalis and transversospinalis systems, the longissimus forms the trio of epaxials—long, strong muscles that are essential for creating bend and stabilizing the trunk against the forces generated by the limbs versus the mass of inertia. Other deep muscles frequently mentioned as part of the topline include the complexus, rhomboideus, and medial and deep gluteals, for example.
Because these muscle systems are so complex and intricate, they’re sometimes referred to simply as extensor muscle chains—the muscles primarily responsible for forward propulsion. They’re often grouped as the rhomboideus, splenius, longissimus dorsi, gluteals, and even hamstrings, and their condition affects everything from how a horse holds its head and neck to how well it can support, flex or bend its spine to the degree of hip extension and power possible.
What’s equally important to recognize is that individual muscles or muscle groups don’t work alone but in pairs. Even as muscle systems, the extensors of the topline need the flexors of the bottom line. A horse needs a strong core of abdominal muscles supporting the rest of the horse and its internals so that the back can lift and retain a relaxed but correct posture throughout a series of movements.
So, for many, a balanced, well-muscled topline is a defining objective because this is a prime indicator that your horse has what it needs for that strong, supple responsiveness and athletic ability that set one horse apart from others.
Improving a horse’s topline is essentially about building balanced muscle and body condition. Like human beings, each horse is different. While some are easy keepers, others may be a challenge in maintaining body condition. Age, breed, levels of work and exercise, reproductive status, overall health, and even weather and season can impact a body’s capability to build and maintain muscle.
Help your horse develop their best topline possible. Here are some key places to start:
Horses need quality protein to build muscle. More specifically, they need the amino acids that good sources of protein contain. Two caveats apply here, however:
Getting the balance right can be tricky. You don’t want to increase the protein so much that you have too many carbohydrates and sugars. Experts advise working with your vet or an equine nutritionist to ensure you’re feeding optimal-quality proteins and maintaining a balanced panel of amino acids in your horse’s diet. They may suggest you add a balancer to ensure your horse is getting all of the vitamins and minerals it needs or recommend a protein supplement after work to give the body more resources when it most needs it.
Be aware, however, that fixating on one particular amino acid—lysine, for example—or giving numerous supplements can lead to imbalances and possibly even unanticipated interactions or reactions. Instead, develop a solid dietary regimen that includes an appropriate balancer, and stick to it. Building muscle takes time.
a. A horse’s body can use only as much protein as it can absorb. Feeding more or overfeeding won’t build more muscle or develop it more rapidly.
b. protein alone doesn’t build muscle. Exercise is vital. Quality proteins give a horse’s body the building blocks that its body needs to create muscle from exercise without stripping nutrients from elsewhere in the body.
2. Saddle and Tack Fit
The saddle sits smack in the middle of the topline, right on the thoracic vertebrae and all of those muscles that are passing over, under, and through one another along the horse’s withers, back, and loin. So, if you’re talking about building and improving your horse’s topline, realize that you’re also talking about almost certainly altering the fit of your horse’s saddle and associated tack.
Why is this so important? A study in the United Kingdom looked at more than 100 sport horses in work, tracking over the course of a year how changes in the dimensions of a horse’s back correlated with saddle fit as well as lameness, rider ability, discipline and season. They looked particularly at fit as a saddle that fits poorly can cause pain and muscle atrophy and even impair the back’s structural development.
They measured the study horses’ backs every two months at specific vertebrae and found that “there were quantifiable changes in back dimensions within a 2 month period and over a year.” The study provided several key takeaways regarding the effects of saddle fit on topline:
In short, if your saddle doesn’t accommodate your horse’s current form and changing musculature, it will prevent your horse from using its body properly and can result in loss of muscle, pain, asymmetry and even lameness. The same goes for tack—including bits, which impact how a horse carries its head and neck. Having regular professional saddle fittings and tack evaluations are key for ensuring your saddle and tack do no harm.
- The saddle needs to fit properly before you start working to improve the topline.
- As your horse’s body changes, you’ll want to periodically re-evaluate saddle fit with a professional saddle fitter.
- “Horses with ill-fitting saddles showed significantly less back muscle development than horses with correctly fitting saddles.”
- “Ill-fitting saddles also correlated with lameness.” More than three-quarters of the horses with ill-fitting saddles were lame. The riders of those horses had saddles that slipped forward, backward or sideways yet were unaware that the saddle was moving.
- Showjumpers were more likely to show significant back asymmetries. Saddles were more likely to be shared among jumpers, with numnahs and pads used to compensate for fit.
3. Movement and Turnout
Turnout offers many benefits that all come together to create something that is greater than its parts. Stall time can seem attractive because we want to keep our horses safe, but horses need turnout to stay healthy, strong and content.
Horses don’t have to be on turnout 24/7. In fact, that may simply not be possible given the circumstances. However, the more turnout that you can offer your horse, the better their mental and physical condition will be—including their topline.
- In the wild, horses on average travel about 10 miles a day and may range up to 17 or 18 miles a day. Even though a good portion of time is spent grazing, horses are moving.
- In fields, domestic horses on various lengths of turnout averaged about 4.5 miles of movement a day in autumn and winter and a little over two miles in summer.One study funded by the American Quarter Horse Foundation looked at how stalling affected bone strength and found that “penned horses suffer a marked decrease in bone mass and strength versus horses at liberty, noticeable after just two weeks of stalling.”
- Horses kept on stall rest lose muscle because they aren’t able to use it. A large part of transitioning a horse from stall rest to exercise and turnout is in gradually increasing movement and rebuilding what’s been lost.
- The position horses take when grazing stretches and even tones the topline muscles evenly. Most horses graze in a slow sweeping motion from side to side as they shift.
- Too much stall time can result in vices like cribbing, weaving, pacing or other negative behaviors that can cause tension, bracing and poor posture. It can also make colic more likely and degrade a horse’s mental state and eagerness to learn and work with you.
4. Stretches and Groundwork for the Topline
Time spent on the ground with your horse can be not only good for your horse’s topline but also beneficial for building the bond of mutual trust and partnership.
- Stretches are focused on lengthening muscles and increasing flexibility. The most important part of the stretch is the form—doing it correctly. For example, one of the most popular stretches is the carrot stretch. The horse is to stand square and bend its neck left, right and downward to reach the carrot reward. However, we as handlers are often so anxious to get the long stretch that we draw the carrot too far back or down, causing the horse to shift its weight, maybe even step the inside front foot toward us, and twist its neck and head at an angle to reach the carrot.Ideally, the horse remains in balance on all four feet. When it bends its neck, its ears remain level, and the stretch goes only as far as the horse can maintain those two objectives. Smaller stretches done with proper form will produce better results because they’re using and training the correct muscles to remain in balance while performing a simple motion—a key to muscle memory.
- Groundwork covers a lot of territory yet also offers considerable variety. You can keep things fresh while choosing among activities you and your horse enjoy doing with both of you on the ground. Something to remember is that walking builds muscle—even when you’re not on the horse. If you include into that movement obstacles or other challenges that require varying levels of coordination and strength that you can build on over time, your horse’s topline will benefit.
- iActivities can range from teaching your horse to match steps with you to doing backing-up exercises, circles, serpentines and figure eights. Think of them as dance steps for your horse that let you practice straightness, bend and shifts between the two while trying to maintain a figure.
- Inclines and hill work can be beneficial but demanding, so for horses who aren’t built up to it, doing this type of work as groundwork can help to build the muscle control they need not only to go up but also to go down before adding your weight to the mix.
- Trot poles and cavaletti exercises done at the walk in-hand get a horse’s attention, focus foot placement, and encourage that lifting of the feet and legs that works both the bottom-line and topline muscles.
5. Riding Exercises To Strengthen the Topline
Many of the exercises we do with our horses on the ground or in-hand are the same ones we do while riding. Adding your weight, balancing abilities, riding skills and aids to your horse’s activities, however, increases the difficulty level of exercises.
Form remains top priority—not only for the horse but also for the rider. A rider’s skill level can significantly impact how effective ridden time is for improving a horse’s topline. Think of a rider’s persistent lean to the left, for example, or hard hands that make a horse hollow its back and go faster and faster to maintain its balance.
That said, get out your best riding form, and you can consider any of the following:
- Trot poles and cavaletti work can be both challenging and addicting. Bringing a horse straight through a series of raised cavalettis silently, without the whisper of a bump, at the trot is an accomplishment. Start at the walk. Work to the trot or jog. As you improve over time, you can add curves and patterns. Just keep sessions short and fun.
- Working long and low involves getting your horse to relax, breathe and stretch out over the topline. The head lowers, the back lifts and the hind rounds to give that push from beneath the horse that you feel in your hand as elastic contact. You can do it at the walk, trot, jog, canter or lope, but the key is that the horse do it voluntarily, in balance and in rhythm.
- Transitions—changing from one gait to another—demands the ability to maintain posture, balance and control despite shifts in speed and direction. Moving from a walk into a canter, for example, requires balance and muscle memory that together build responsiveness. Likewise, slowing smoothly from a canter into a walk without a jolting drop requires complementary strength. Muscles work in pairs, so increases in gait work one dimension of that relationship while decreases develop the counterpart. While we often think of using transitions in ridden work, they can be an important element of lunge work too.
- Backing up requires that a horse engage its core and hind end. While most horses will eventually back up when asked, being able to back up smoothly and readily while maintaining straightness is a skill of strength that must be developed. Try backing while maintaining a certain distance from the rail, or try moving forward four steps, stopping, moving backward two steps and repeating. Backing up is hard, so start with just a step or two, reward often, and build steps over time.
6. Massage and Bodywork
Just as we get sore muscles and aches from a tough workout, horses in work can get them too. Massage and bodywork can be important tools to relieve tension and tightness, relax muscles, increase range of motion, stimulate blood flow, and maybe even calm a horse’s mental and emotional focus. Many techniques pay attention not only to muscles but also fascia—the smooth connective tissue that covers muscles, tendons and bones. Often, pain in one area will affect every aspect of how a horse uses its body.
Learning how to massage your horse can keep you attuned to any reactivity your horse might develop as your program becomes more challenging. Engaging a professional bodyworker will ensure that you’re not missing anything and that your horse has the best possible chances of retaining strong, balanced functionality.
Improving your horse’s topline will take time, and you may need help from nutritionists, saddle fitters, trainers, body workers and your trusted veterinarian. If you find that your horse is not gaining the muscle he or she should be developing, a consult with your vet might be in order. Conditions like polysaccharide storage myopathy, equine Cushing’s disease or other physical issues can present challenges that need more in-depth veterinary management.