Composed of muscle, the strength of your horse’s topline has a direct impact on their health, performance and trainability, especially when under saddle. In this article, we explain how to build topline muscle with the correct diet, lifestyle and training.
When a horse moves, the topline muscles of the neck, withers, back, loin and hindquarters — specifically, the gluteal, dorsal and cervical extensor muscles — work together.
However, with the addition of a rider, the pressure on these integral muscles increases.
- In a horse with a weak back, the fragile vertebrae of the spine sag, resulting in poor movement and putting the horse at risk of serious health and behavioural problems.
- In contrast, a horse with a strong back, due to a healthy topline, will appear relaxed, with powerful and even movement, and the ability to work in self-carriage.
If your horse has a clean bill of health and you’d like to improve their topline, muscle development can be promoted with a combination of diet, lifestyle and training. All three of these things are required. Doing one without the others is pointless.
Protein, composed of amino acids, is the building block of muscles. To enhance topline muscle, a 500kg horse requires 630-900g of quality protein per day. While protein can be found in pasture and hay, many performance horses benefit from additional protein in the diet.
In particular, the essential amino acids lysine, methionine and threonine. As their name suggests, these amino acids are imperative to muscle development and cannot be synthesised by the horse’s body. A supplement containing these essential amino acids is recommended.
Regular movement promotes muscle development. In addition to training, your horse should be turned out daily, preferably with paddock mates, to encourage movement. Not only will they benefit from the extra exercise, their health and wellbeing will also be supported.
However, there are several other lifestyle factors which foster a healthy topline, including:
- Feed off the ground: By offering feed and roughage on the ground, with the use of a rubber feeder or mat, your horse will take the correct stance at feed time, rather than elevate their head and neck to reach items above ground level.
- Support hoof health: A horse with healthy and sound hooves is able to move freely and correctly. In contrast any horse with hoof pain may compensate by re-directing bodyweight and, as a result, lose muscle tone over the back.
- Check saddle fit: By regularly checking saddle fit, you’ll protect the lifelong health of your horse. Incorrect saddle fit results in back pain and a number of health problems, as does your riding position if uneven and unbalanced.
Lastly, with training, your horse’s topline muscle will improve dramatically. Be patient with your horse’s progress and allow adequate time to prepare for your next competition.
- Week 1: For a horse in light work, start with one hour hacks in walk per day. Allow your horse to stretch on a long rein and integrate hill work into your routine.
- Week 2: By the second week, add trotting into your daily one hour hacks. Maintain a long rein, so your horse can continue stretching, and continue the hill work.
- Week 3: Next, you can add some canter. Be considerate of your horse’s level of fitness and keep the pace slow. Adding trots through knee deep water is also beneficial.
- Week 4: Now you’re ready to step into the arena. Over the coming weeks, introduce school work with circles, loops, changes in direction and numerous transitions. As your horse’s training continues, shorten the reins and ask for collection.
Remember to warm up and warm down during every training session. You may also like to try some gentle stretching exercises with your horse in-hand.