“Whether you are a casual rider or a performance rider, having your horse support its own weight and yours correctly is imperative.” A properly developed topline does just that — it helps your horse carry you on trails, around barrels and over jumps. Here are tips for helping you build your horse’s topline.
As an equine body worker, one of the most common issues I come across when working on sore horses is an underdeveloped topline. This can be due to poor riding, poor nutrition, poor saddle fit or poor conformation. No matter what the cause, one of the first pieces of advice I offer these clients is to work on building up their horses’ toplines in order to make the horses not only healthier, but also more comfortable.
Building your horse’s topline is integral to having a fit, well-muscled, properly moving horse. Without a well-developed topline, body soreness can manifest itself in myriad ways, mainly because your horse is not carrying itself correctly and this results in improper muscle development. It’s a similar concept to proper posture in humans: if we slouch, use our bodies poorly, and resist engaging our core, we tend to experience more back pain, neck pain and other ailments than those who don’t.
To understand how to build your horse’s topline, you first must understand what it is. A simple definition of topline is that it’s the muscles that run along and support the horse’s spine. The topline of a horse stretches along the vertebral column (spine) from the end of the neck at the wither area, down the back and loin and over the top of the hip into the croup region.
Why is topline so important? The muscle groups in the topline (the trapezius muscles, latissimus dorsi and longissimus dorsi) along with the abdominal muscles are responsible for supporting weight, moving the horse forward and collection — especially when under saddle. Whether you are a casual rider or a performance rider, having your horse support its own weight and yours correctly is imperative. Doing so will make your horse more comfortable and more able to carry you around in the long run. If your horse has an underdeveloped topline, not only might he be uncomfortable, but also this discomfort can lead to undesirable behaviors that are a direct result of pain.
Building topline requires a multifaceted approach. A combination of proper nutrition, well fitting tack and correctly executed exercise must be used. Here are our recommendations to help with topline:
1. Examine your horse’s nutrition. First and foremost, quality forage is a must. Horses are grazers and they are made to absorb nutrients through grass and hay. Having this available to them at all times is necessary. It helps with overall nutrition and also prevents ulcers. Further, horses need to consume quality proteins and have an adequate intake of essential amino acids. In general, the full list of amino acids is not included on feed bags. To make sure your horse is getting the nutrients it needs, choosing a high quality feed that shows information on amino acid inclusion is a solid step. If you’re unsure of whether or not your horse is getting what it needs, most feed companies have a nutritionist you can consult for advice.
2. Check your horse’s tack. Saddle fit can come into play when working to develop topline. If a saddle is pinching or inhibiting movement, proper muscle development while under saddle is impossible. Unevenly distributed weight and pressure points will stop blood flow to the affected areas, resulting in muscle atrophy and an underdeveloped topline. If you aren’t sure about saddle fit, take a look at our articles on understanding saddle fit, parts I, II, III and IV and talk to a saddle fitter.
3. Make sure your horse is getting the right type of exercise. The good news about building topline is that there are number of exercises that can help. From stretching to hill work to cavaletti (ground poles), if done properly, focused exercises can help your horse develop proper muscling and, as an added bonus, improve your riding. Basic work that can improve your horse’s topline are:
- Stretching – There are specific stretches that riders can do with their horse to help a horse engage its core. Some are as simple as “carrot stretches”, where riders can encourage their horses to twist and lift their back by using a treat to guide the horse’s head and neck. Having the horse reach its nose to the ground and stretch its hips is a great way to warm up the back.
- Backing up – This works especially well from the ground. When backing up, the horse’s hind end will come underneath him and engage his core. This exercise will build the horse’s hind end and has the added benefit of establishing personal space and respect on the ground. Encouraging your horse to keep its head low and level is important to proper muscle development. Allowing your horse to hold its head high and arch its back will not help with topline, even if the horse is backing. Start slowly with two or three steps at a time, building up to 20 consecutive back steps.
- Cavaletti or poles – Pole or cavaletti work on the lunge line or under saddle are great ways to encourage a horse to lift its back and drop its head and neck. The bonus here is that the horse learns where its feet are. Start with one or two poles that are the right distance from one another (for walk, set poles 2 to 2.5 feet apart; for trot, space poles 3.5 to 4 feet apart; for canter, space poles 9 to 11 feet apart — you want poles spaced so that a horse takes a single stride between each set of poles.). Add more poles as the horse progresses to quiet, balanced gaits over the poles. Start by walking and trotting before progressing to a canter. The correctness of each gait is the most important part of this exercise. For an additional challenge, you can raise the cavaletti in place of ground poles.
- Hill work – Working a horse up and down hills is a great way to activate the core muscles and build up the hind end and back. This can be done under saddle or in hand. Again, it’s important that the horse’s gaits are balanced, so doing so on a loose rein or lead is best.
For examples of some of these exercises and stretches, here is a great video from Evention TV:
Remember, keeping your horse fit and balanced is part of good horsemanship. As always, if you have concerns about your horse’s health and ability maintain weight and muscle, be sure to consult your veterinarian.