Develop Your Horse’s Topline
By Dr. Tania Cubitt
Topline is the term used to describe the muscle coverage over the top of the horse’s neck, withers, back, loin, and croup. Because topline is muscle, a horse with a good topline will be stronger and more athletic, and will present a more pleasing appearance.
What should we feed to develop the perfect topline? First we must understand that the shape of the back can vary greatly from one individual to another, and so the topline will vary in length and in curvature, with some relationship between the two. Horses with toplines that are sunken in over their withers, concave along the back and loin, or dished in around their hip bones and hindquarters will have diminished strength in those areas.
Several factors contribute to a poor topline including age, workload, pregnancy or lactation, lack of or incorrect exercise, poor saddle fit, and diet.
It has been a common practice for many years to feed additional calories from fat supplements or grains to try and improve a horse’s topline condition. This is not very successful as these calories are either used for energy and exercise or they are stored as fat. Typical fat storage areas in horses are behind the shoulders, over the ribs and neck, and around the tailhead, but not necessarily over the topline. A horse would have to be fed quite a lot of additional calories for fat to be laid down over the back. If we think of humans for example, you wouldn’t eat multiple doughnuts with the end goal of developing muscles over your back and shoulders. One of the biggest misconceptions regarding a horse’s topline is that the topline is made up of fat – it is actually made mostly of muscle. Since the muscles along the withers, back, loin, and croup make up the horse’s topline, losses in this area are actually atrophy of these muscles.
As the horse’s topline is primarily muscle, and muscle is made up of over 70 percent protein, a poor topline can be improved by feeding a diet consisting of superior protein sources containing high levels of essential amino acids, along with implementing an appropriate exercise program. Photo: ©Canstockphoto/Njnightsky
Along with proper diet, correct exercise will help develop the horse’s topline. The horse should be ridden in a soft, balanced frame, and carrying himself comfortably. Other excellent ways to build muscle include lunging with side reins, working over cavalletti both on the lunge line and under saddle, and walking or trotting up hills at a level appropriate to the horse’s condition.
Understanding that the horse’s topline is primarily muscle, the question becomes: What can we feed to develop more muscle? Since muscle is made up of over 70 percent protein, building and maintaining muscle in the body requires the correct amount of dietary protein. Unfortunately, protein is mistakenly seen in a negative light nutritionally and often avoided. When a horse has a poor topline it is due to diminished muscle mass and potentially due to insufficient good quality protein in the diet. Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids, and are an essential part of a horse’s diet. Some of these amino acids include lysine, methionine, tryptophan, and threonine. These and other essential amino acids are linked together in the body to form muscle. However, not all protein is created equal, and simply feeding a higher crude protein feed or hay may have limited results. The quality of that crude protein or the amount of essential amino acids is what determines the effectiveness of that protein. Diets containing adequate levels of all the essential amino acids can drastically improve an imperfect topline.
Photo: Flickr/Derrick Coetzee
The horse’s feed should contain high quality protein sources such as legumes which, along with additional individual amino acids, will promote muscle tone and a strong topline. These high quality proteins provide essential amino acids in reasonable feeding levels to allow for proper muscle development.
Exercise is also important when developing or improving a horse’s topline. Exercise will condition and train existing muscles, and help build a topline, but only if the nutritional building blocks of muscle are available in the diet. Quite often, horses in low to moderate work who are also easy keepers (i.e., lower level dressage horses or horses in semi-retirement) are fed a diet that is protein/amino acid deficient. These horses have plenty of rib cover, and may even be overweight, but they have a poorly developed topline, especially over the loin, due to protein deficiency.
Feed that utilizes superior protein sources containing high levels of essential amino acids, coupled with an appropriate exercise regime, will help your horse build that perfect topline.
Reprinted with permission from Otter Co-Op.
This article was originally published in the October 2015 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.