Back to Basics: Project Top Line, Baseline Edition

Follow the journey of a “somewhat ordinary” horse and rider pair as they strive for greatness. Today Biz takes a look at Helix’s “baseline” starting point in the quest to develop a top line.

Want to catch up on Biz’s past columns? Click the #BACK TO BASICS hashtag above.

Welcome to Project Top Line!, a reality TV show where riders turn unfit, under-muscled horses into beautifully sculpted performance machines overnight! Wait … nope. That’s not how it works. Whether it be a cooking show where chefs must create gourmet meals in minutes, or a design show where contestants must create couture looks from garbage in a matter of hours, our society seems obsessed with producing results as quickly as possible. That approach just doesn’t work in the horse world, so if you are one that constantly craves instant gratification, please, move along.

A solid top line is built over the course of months and years, not over the course of days. Now, I know it can be difficult to stick to a training program when results aren’t immediately evident. Even when your horse’s body does begin to change, the differences will be slow and subtle. If you see your horse on a daily basis, you may not notice any change at all! Now I’m typically not the dogmatic type, but listen to me when I say you must have faith in the system … the training system. You need to believe in the power of slow, thoughtful training system even if results aren’t immediately visible.

So here I am with a four-year-old horse with whom I’ve spent minimal time developing his top line. Why not take this opportunity to give a visual representation of the top line development process starting from scratch in real time? So here is our baseline. I encourage you all to take baseline pictures of your horses as well. It’s a great way to track your progress, and it can be very encouraging to look back and see how far you’ve come on days you’re feeling frustrated about how far you have to go. So go ahead. Snap a picture and share it in the comments.


Baby Helix: the baseline.

Baby Helix: the baseline.

So, before we go making changes to baby Helix’s top line, let’s define what we’re trying to do. When developing the top line of a young  horse,  I have one major goal: a round back that comfortably supports the weight of the rider at the walk, trot and canter, as well as during transitions within and between gaits.

Here Helix and his "brother" Kalvin pursue their favorite definition of "roundness."

Here Helix and his “brother” Kalvin pursue their favorite definition of “roundness.”

The reason why a round back is so important is that it allows the horse to distribute the weight of the rider over the entirety of the back, resulting in a relatively small amount of pressure per square inch. When the horse’s back is hollow, the rider’s weight is concentrated directly under the saddle which leads to a substantial amount of pressure per square inch (just in a small area).

A round back supporting the rider.

A round back supporting the rider.

A hollow back straining under the rider's weight.

A hollow back straining under the rider’s weight.

Do not confuse roundness with collection. While roundness is a prerequisite for collection, it is not collection.

It’s important to note that at four years old, Helix still has some growing to do and his back will change shape as that happens; regardless of his growth there are a couple of things that we need to do in order to achieve that round top line. We need to encourage relaxation over the muscle groups that run over the top of the back and the neck, and get the abdominal muscles strong enough to remain engaged. As these things happen, the back will lift and we will begin to see a top line that more closely resembles that ideal, round shape represented by the dotted green in the image below. The change in his top line will be most evident while he is in motion, but as he begins to correctly develop his muscles, he’ll look rounder just standing there.


Next week we’ll take about some exercises to encourage relaxation over the top line and why they work.

Go riding!

Biz Stamm is a part-time seed scientist and full time trainer/riding instructor specializing in starting young horses for sport horse disciplines. She brings the analytical mind she developed while working in a lab to her riding and teaching, emphasizing a thorough understanding of how the horse’s body works. She currently owns two horses. The Kalvin Cycle (Kalvin), a 9 year old half-Arabian gelding, and DB’s Alpha Helix (Helix) a 4 year old Kiger mustang gelding. While she is currently pursuing competitive goals, her main goal is to enjoy her horses, and for her horses to enjoy her.

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