A strong topline is one of the most important indicators of a well-conditioned horse. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing and supporting performance, a good topline can protect your working horse from strain and injury.

Horses with strong topline muscles generate more power from their hind end, are less likely to develop back pain, and are at lower risk of hock arthritis. [1]

Building and maintaining a strong topline depends on a combination of genetics, proper nutrition, appropriate training and well-fitted tack. Feed a well-balanced diet that meets your horse’s protein and amino acid requirements.

Simple exercises and stretches can stimulate muscle development, improve your horse’s topline, and support improved mobility through old age.

Conditions such as lameness, polysaccharide store myopathy (PSSM) and pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) can cause poor topline. If your horse is losing muscle or has trouble building topline, consult with your veterinarian and equine nutritionist.

What is the Horse’s Topline?

The horse’s topline is the area that runs from the withers along the back and loins, and down to the croup. The topline supports the suspended structure of the spine and sacroiliac area.

Think of your horse’s spine like a suspension bridge: their legs attach to either end of the bridge and your horse’s topline is the cable that strengthens the suspended roadbed, keeping it from sagging.

An unsupported spine is more susceptible to potentially painful and permanent damage. A strong topline keeps the spine protected and supported. [2]

Topline Muscles

The major muscles of the topline include:

  • Longissimus dorsi: The largest muscle in the equine back, it originates from the spinous processes (projections of the vertebrae) in the sacrum, lumbar and thoracic regions as well as the hip. The Longissimus dorsi stabilizes the spine and enables proper movement. This muscle supports the saddle and rider.
  • Latissimus dorsi: This muscle extends from the connective tissue between the thoracic vertebrae and croup, and attaches to the humerus (upper bone of the front leg). It functions to bring the leg backwards and to propel the horse forwards.
  • Trapezius: A flat, thin muscle in the wither region that extends from the neck to the shoulder blade, and from the shoulder to the thoracic vertebrae. It functions to move the shoulder blade (scapula) forwards and backwards.

Exercises to build topline will primarily target the longissimus dorsi but also involve the latissimus dorsi, trapezius and other smaller muscles such as the spinalis dorsi.

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Assessing Topline

The state of your horse’s topline can be evaluated visually and through palpation. The muscle should feel smooth and flat, and the horse’s body should appear well-rounded.

Excessive fat accumulation can make it difficult to assess the topline. Accurate body condition scoring should be combined with topline evaluation to get a more complete picture of the state of your horse’s body composition.

Horses that are losing fat mass may appear to be losing topline muscle. It is important to distinguish between fat and muscle when making training and nutrition decisions.

Body condition scoring (BCS) is conducted using the 1 – 9 point Henneke Scoring System, which that assesses fat deposition on the neck, withers, shoulder, ribs, rump and trailhead.

A score of 5 is considered ideal and appears as a smooth, level back with rounded withers and ribs that can be easily felt under slight fat covering.

Topline Evaluation Score

A Topline Evaluation Score (TES) can be used to assess topline status and to track changes over time: [11]

Grade Description Visual Cues
A Ideal
  • Muscles beside the withers and along the spine are full; vertebrae cannot be seen
  • Hip is full and stifle bones are defined
  • Horse is able to perform work that requires topline muscles
B Sunken beside the withers and spine
  • Adequately muscled, but sunken beside the withers and along the spine
  • Soreness from ill-fitting saddle may be common
  • Effects on attitude and performance apparent
C Sunken from withers through to the loins
  • Sunken appearance from withers through the loins
  • Boney back and loin areas
  • Vertebrae higher than muscles beside them
  • Adequate muscling on hips and hindquarters
  • Soreness is common and exercise using the back is difficult
D Entire topline and hip are poor
  • Entire back and hip are affected
  • Boney back, loin areas and hip
  • Croup appears flat and stifle area may also be narrowed
  • Poor strength and stamina for exercise

 

Exercises to Improve Topline

Topline exercises can be done in-hand, under saddle or while lunging. The following exercises can be tailored to your horse’s fitness level to help build topline:

  • Long and low work
  • Transitions
  • Pole work
  • Rein back
  • Lateral work
  • Hill work

Long and Low Work

‘Long and low’ involves your horse stretching their nose forward and down during exercise, with their body relaxed and their hind end engaged. The horse should be “seeking the bit” in loose contact and will look like they are trying to sniff something close to the ground.

Working your horse long and low will stretch the muscles of the topline, specifically the longissimus and spinalis dorsi. It will encourage your horse to contract their abdomen, which will support the spine from below.

When the horse is stretched long and low, the bony outcroppings on the top of the vertebrae (spinous processes) flare out like a fan, increasing the space between them. This can help prevent kissing spine, which is characterized by reduced space between the spinous processes.

Encourage your horse to travel long and low while simultaneously engaging the hind end to help them properly support their rider.

It is not sufficient to simply lower your horse’s head. Proper balance and use of seat by the rider under saddle are important to allow the horse to carry themselves with suppleness, straightness and balance.

Demonstration

A tight, hollow back cannot effectively carry weight and will inevitably cause pain. You can demonstrate this for yourself with the following exercise:

  1. Get down on your hands and knees on the floor.
  2. With your head up and looking straight ahead, engage your abdominals.
  3. Have someone sit on your back. Pay attention to how weak you feel carrying the load.
  4. While still on all fours, bring your head and neck down and engage your abdomen. It should feel much easier to carry the load on your back.

Training Aids

Long and low exercises can be done under saddle or while lunging. Inexperienced horses may initially have difficulty properly stretching long and low. Training aids such as lunging systems, German martingales or side reins can be used to help them learn on the ground.

Once your horse knows what is being asked of them, remove the aids and let them stretch independently.

Common Mistakes

There are two common mistakes often seen with low and long work:

Improperly fitted lunging aids: If they are too tight, your horse will brace against the aids rather than relaxing into the stretch. Lunging aids are meant to encourage your horse, not force them.

If the training aids are too loose, an inexperienced horse will not properly engage their muscles. Seek help from an experienced coach or trainer when using these tools for the first time.

Not encouraging the horse to work from behind: Horses can passively keep their head down without engaging their topline muscles. This is possible because of their nuchal ligament, which is a band of fibrous tissue that supports the head and neck.

To properly stimulate the abdominal and topline muscles, the horse’s hind end must be properly engaged. Encourage impulsion and consider using transitions and poles, as outlined below. A lunging system with a breeching strap that sits behind the horse’s hindquarters may also help. [3]

Transitions

High-quality transitions in hand, under saddle, or on the lunge line will encourage your horse to sit and push from behind while finding balance and strength along their back.

Working up transitions helps raise their withers and encourages your horse to soften and engage through their back. Working through down transitions encourages your horse to tuck their bum underneath them and engage their back as they reduce their momentum. The use of half halts under saddle is also beneficial.

Work on transitions properly and with intention. Transitions should be on the aid and snappy, meaning your horse doesn’t leave their hind end behind as they move through the gaits.

Pay attention to how your horse’s hind end feels. Are they loading their hind end like a spring or are they tensing their back to create a jarring feeling? Encouraging softness and push in the transitions is an excellent way to build topline. [4]

Pole Work

Pole work can also be done in hand, under saddle, or on the lunge. Raised or flat poles are a great way to encourage horses to lift their back, engage their abdomen, and round their topline.

A major component of pole work is proprioception. Proprioception involves your horse knowing where to place their feet throughout their movements. If your horse has never done pole work before, they may struggle with correctly moving over the poles. To keep your horse safe and avoid tripping, introduce one pole at a walk.

Once they are familiar with stepping over a pole, add another at a distance of 4 feet from the first one. Encourage your horse to take long steps over each pole. Once they are confident with walking over poles, you can introduce poles at a trot and increase the number of poles presented to your horse.

At the trot, there should be one footfall between each pole. Horses can have different trot strides so you may need to modify the distances between poles.

Once your horse confidently strides over the poles while pushing from behind, you can raise the poles on one side. The poles can be raised to between 2 – 4 inches.

This will encourage your horse to lift their legs higher to better engage the abdomen and topline. [4]

Rein Back

Rein back, or backing up, will encourage your horse to tuck their hind end and engage their abdomen and topline. Rein back can be performed in hand or under saddle, but most horses are more comfortable with rein back in hand.

Asking your horse to back up several steps will shift weight towards their hind end, which will coil like a spring. This will engage muscles in their hips, sacroiliac area, and low back.

Start by asking your horse to back up several steps in hand. While backing up, encourage them to keep their heads low by applying slight but consistent downward pressure to their halter.

Keeping their head low will prevent them from bracing and locking their back through the movement. Remember, suppleness is key!

A tense muscle indicates pain, so check to see that your horse backs up softly with rhythm and confidence. Your horse should be backing up in alternate pairs. This means that the right front leg and left hind leg moves backwards together, and vice versa.

Once your horse is confident backing up on flat ground, you can ask your horse to back up on a hill or over a pole. This will encourage your horse to lift with their back and help improve proprioception. [5]

Lateral Work

Working your horse laterally can be done in hand or under saddle. To encourage suppleness, start by working your horse in hand.

The most common lateral exercises for building topline are:

  • Turn on the forehand
  • Turn on the haunches
  • Leg yielding

Turn on the forehand

To ask your horse for a turn on the forehand, start by asking for a confirmed, relaxed halt. Ask your horse to take one step away from you with only their hind end.

Do this by holding their head with one hand and gently pushing their hip end away with the other. Once they move their hip away, reward them with pats or a small snack.

You can also use a dressage whip if you cannot reach their hip. Use the whip as an extension of your hand, and keep your movements controlled and calm.

Start this exercise with your horse taking one step away from you with their hind end, from each side. Make sure they take minimal steps with their front end, only enough to rotate their body without twisting their shoulders.

Keep the exercise soft and tension-free, encouraging your horse to take bigger and bigger steps.  As they start to understand the exercise, you can ask for more steps with the hip away from you.

Turn on the haunches

Introduce the turn on the haunches to your horse similarly to the turn on the forehand. Start with your horse in a relaxed halt. With one hand on their halter and the other on their shoulder, ask them to move just their shoulder away from you. You may have to use your hand on their halter to guide their head away from you.

Most horses find this exercise more difficult than the turn on the forehand, so start by rewarding any attempt to move the shoulder over. Once your horse is consistently performing one step in each direction, you can ask for more and more steps.

If you find your horse backing up when you initially start asking for the turn on the haunches, you can block backwards movement by putting your horse’s hind end against the arena wall.

Leg Yielding

Ask your horse to leg yield in hand or under saddle. As your horse walks forward, ask them to move their ribs to the side without turning their whole body in the direction of travel.

Start by asking your horse to leg yield towards the wall because most horses are inclined to stay close to the arena limits.

When the leg yields towards the wall, the inside leg will apply pressure to ask the horse to yield sideways and the inside rein will ask for slight flexion. The outside leg and rein will help maintain forward movement, tempo and straightness.

Working your horse through lateral movements not only strengthens their adductors and abductors (the muscles that move the legs towards and away from the body), but they also encourage your horse to activate their topline and abdominals while keeping the muscles loose and relaxed. [6]

Hill Work

Asking your horse to walk up and down hills improves their proprioception and strengthens their hind end by encouraging them to contract their abdominal muscles and raise their topline. This can be done under saddle or in hand.

As your horse walks up the hill, they will need to push and reach with their hind legs. Benefits from hill work are seen mostly at walk and trot, as your horse needs to use their muscles rather than their momentum to carry them up the hill. [7]

Best Topline Stretches

Maintaining a soft and supple topline is also important for strengthening these muscles. If your horse has a tight topline, they will struggle to engage their muscles and will have difficulty relaxing into the exercises.

For horses with a tight back, start with stretches to loosen their muscles so they are flexible and soft during exercises.

Tummy lifts, bum tucks, carrot stretches and tail pulls help to stretch and strengthen your horse’s topline.

Tummy Lifts and Bum Tucks

Tummy lifts and bum tucks help engage your horse’s core, hind end, and topline while simultaneously opening the spinous processes of the vertebrae.

To ask your horse to lift their tummy, place both hands on the lowest point of your horse’s abdomen and press up with your fingers. Apply enough pressure to have your horse lift their back while bringing their head down, but not enough pressure to make them uncomfortable.

To ask your horse to tuck their bum, place two fingers on the point of your horse’s buttocks on either side of their tail. While applying consistent pressure, bring your hands down your horse’s bum.

You are applying pressure directly to their semimembranosus muscle. Your horse will engage their abdominal and topline muscles while crunching their hindquarters underneath them.

Look for the following signs of discomfort and reduce pressure if needed: [8]

  • Tail swishing
  • Ear pinning
  • Raising a leg as if to kick
  • Reaching back to bite

Carrot Stretches

Carrot stretches use carrots or other treats to encourage your horse to stretch and move their bodies within a comfortable range of motion.

With your horse untied but on a lead rope, stand at your horse’s shoulder while facing away from them. With one hand, place the treat under your horse’s nose and slowly guide the nose towards the girth in one smooth motion.

Let them nibble the treat, holding the stretch for 10-15 seconds. Repeat this exercise three times.

Next, stand at your horse’s ribs and guide their nose towards their hind end as before, asking them to bring their nose towards their stifle. Let them nibble the treat for 10-15 seconds Repeat three times.

Finally, stand just behind your horse’s ribs and present them with a treat to encourage your horse to move their nose towards their hock. Ask them to hold this stretch for 10-15 seconds and repeat three times.

Perform these stretches on both sides, ensuring your horse moves smoothly through the stretches.

Next, ask your horse to stretch down. With your horse untied but on a lead rope, take the chosen treat and use it to guide your horse’s nose to their chest. Let them nibble the treat for 10-15 seconds.

Then ask your horse to bring their nose to their knees and then to their front fetlock. Ask them to hold the stretch for 10-15 seconds each time. Perform each stretch three times from both sides to ensure even stretching.

Never force your horse into a stretching position, which could cause muscle tears and tension. Start slow and only encourage your horse to stretch as far as they are comfortable.

Ask your horse to perform these stretches regularly and they will be able to move more to complete the movement. [9]

Tail Pulls

Tail pulls help stretch your horse along their entire topline while encouraging your horse to contract their abdominal muscles to brace against you.

Have your horse stand in a comfortable position on even, dry ground. While standing behind your horse, grasp your horse’s tail with both hands approximately 6 inches below their tailbone.

Gradually pull your horse’s tail until you feel them brace against you. Do not pull hard enough to pull them backwards. Hold this position for 10-15 seconds.

Next, while pulling the tail slowly move your body to one side at approximately 45 degrees, applying tension until you see your horse’s abdominal muscles contract

Make sure you are not pulling your horse off balance. Hold this position for 10-15 seconds. Finally, move to the other side and while applying the same amount of tension, hold for 10-15 seconds. [10]

Always be cautious and only perform tail pulls if your horse is comfortable with you standing behind them. Remember that horses are prey animals with a powerful kick and can be unpredictable.

Additional Ways to Support Topline

These exercises and stretches are a great way to keep your horse’s back strong and supple. However, if your horse has trouble with these exercises and their topline is not improving, you may need to consult with your veterinarian.

Horses experiencing pain in their neck, back and/or hocks may have trouble properly carrying themselves and building topline.

Metabolic disorders such as pars pituitary intermedia dysfunction (PPID) can also lead to topline loss that may be difficult to regain with exercise alone.

While training your horse, ensure that they are eating a balanced diet that meets their amino acid, vitamin and mineral requirements. The most important nutrients to consider for building topline are:

  • Amino acids: The building blocks of protein in the body. There are 10 essential amino acids that must be provided in the horse’s diet. Of these, lysine, methionine and threonine are most likely to be low in equine diets and could limit topline muscle development.
  • B-vitamins: The B-complex vitamins are a group of water-soluble vitamins that support a wide range of metabolic processes by acting as co-factors for enzymes. They are produced by microbes in the gut and should also be provided in the diet.
  • Antioxidants: Some examples of antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, zinc and copper. These nutrients help neutralize free radicals that could otherwise damage cells and impair exercise recovery.

An equine nutritionist can help you design a customized feeding program that best supports your horse’s needs during training. You can submit your horse’s information online for a free diet evaluation from our team of nutritionists.

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References

  1. Moore, J. General Biomechanics: The Horse As a Biological Machine. J Equine Vet Sci. 2010.
  2. Kristjansson, T. et al. Association of conformation and riding ability in Icelandic horses. Livestock Sci. 2016.
  3. Clayton, H. HORSE SPECIES SYMPOSIUM: Biomechanics of the exercising horse . J Anim Sci. 2016.
  4. Hawson, L. Riders’ application of rein tension for walk-to-halt transitions on a model horse. J Vet Behav. 2014.
  5. Hodgson, D. et al. Practical Exercise Physiology. The Athletic Horse: Principles and Practice of Equine Sports Medicine. 2014.
  6. Castejon-Riber, C. et al. Objectives, Principles, and Methods of Strength Training for Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2017.
  7. Chateau, H. et al. Kinetics of the Forelimb in Horses Trotting an Uphill and Downhill Slope. Equine Vet J. 2014.
  8. Clayton, H. Conditioning Sport Horses. Sport Horse Sci. 1993.
  9. Paul, J. Not Just a Carrot Stretch . Equine Health. 2013.
  10. Bromilley, M. Kissing Spine Rehabilitation . Equine Injury, Therapy and Rehabilitation. 2013.
  11. Smith, T.E. Protein And Exercise Effects On The Musculature of the Back in Horses. Missouri State University. 2016.