Whether we are jumping, running barrels, schooling dressage, or endurance training, our horses depend on topline fitness and coordination to stay sound and athletic. The ‘topline’ is the collective term we use considering the state of the horse’s neck, back, loin, and croup. When we are looking to ‘develop a horse’s topline’, we want to add substance and definition to these areas. So often, our hard working, cardiovascular fit horses lack in this muscle development, particularly over the back and loin. Until the horse is unable to preform an elevated task, or displays an unsoundness, a lack of topline development can go unnoticed, because it’s covered by the saddle.
Working over a developed topline is integral for sustainable physical health and soundness. Think about it, as a horse works with a well developed topline, he lifts his back muscles to swing and engage his hind-end, bringing his legs deep underneath himself. This lift over his back creates a swell for shock absorption and spreads pressure from the saddle and the rider. With the tack resting out of the way of his joints and bone, the horse is moves with more straightness, suspension, and bio-mechanical freedom.
Ergo, with a developed topline-
The horse does not often suffer with a sore back
The horse is more athletic, with better gaits, more scope and power, and more coordinated movement and body control
The horse maintains a higher degree of joint health in the long run, as he moves with activated, swinging gaits.
When starting the process in developing a horse’s topline, I begin more or less with these five steps. While each horse needs an individual development plan, it’s helpful to me as a manager to have a baseline process to start with.
1) Nutrition, Nutrition, Nutrition!
Step one for substance development and definition starts with what fuels the horse. Meeting a horse’s daily nutrient requirements for Energy, Protein, Vitamins, Minerals, and Water will give the horse the fuel to function and give muscle cells means to grow. Since we are focused on muscle development, key aspects of a nutritional program that we will want to hone in on are as follows:
- Meeting daily protein requirements
- Having a sufficient dietary content of essential amino acids
- Having a diet full of quality ingredients that are bio-available
- Maintaining the health of the gastrointestinal tract by offering sufficient forage, feeding smaller meals more often, and not overloading the system with starch.
*For more information on protein quality and feeding recommendations, check out my blog post*- The Lowdown on Protein
2) Prioritizing Bio-mechanical Correctness
As an umbrella for all other physical exercises, when we aim to develop a horse’s topline (or any physical aspect of a horse) we must prioritize bio-mechanical correctness. To break this down, we need to ensure that our main focus throughout our ride is centered on optimizing the horse’s movement. It starts with the walk. Ensure that with every step the horse reaches deeply underneath himself, moves forward, and carries himself in the gait with suppleness. Basically, ensure that with every step, the horse is moving as athletically as he can.
In optimizing a horse’s movement step by step, it’s helpful to remember that each horse has individual physical potential that affects muscular and athletic development. Have you ever noticed that quarter horses bulk up quite a bit more from work that does little to add substance to a Hanoverian? These horses are built differently. A Hanoverian has a balance, skeletal, and connective tissue structure that allows him longer gaits with more suspension. With this, these horses can look gangly and narrow until they really start pushing the limits of their genetic bio-mechanics.
Moral of the story- shoot for the most correct, straight, and reaching movement that a horse can give each step of the way.
3) Stretch it & Reel it In
One of my favorite things to work on under saddle is the stretchy gaits! This exercise involves pushing a horse forward into a steady hand and allowing him to chew the reins down and out so that he moves with a low set, elongated frame. The stretchy gaits work a different set of muscles over the neck, back, and hind end. They encourage the horse to relax into the gait and reach further into each step.
When we send a horse down into a stretchy gait, then push him forward into a more uphill balance, then back down again, we transition between muscles over the horse’s back and hind end. These transitions in balance improve the horse’s coordination, muscle memory, and self carriage.
4) Transitions & the Bend
Whether we are warming up, in the middle of schooling, or cooling out there is always room for transitions and bending! Transitions between and within gaits keep a horse’s back up as he prepares for the change in balance. Transitions within gaits are my favorite because the change in balance can be so subtle and built into other exercises.
Keeping a horse working through changes of bend has similar effects. As the horse stretches the outside of his back he flexes the muscles on his inside. In both transitions and bending through his body, the horse loads and unloads power in his hind end, almost doing push ups from behind.
Hill work is a wonderful way to supplement any exercise program! To make the most of schooling up and down different terrain, we need to focus on the horse’s quality of movement and self carriage (IE- Bio-mechanical Correctness). The reasoning behind this focus is simple- the only way to build muscle is to use, stretch, and push the intended muscles. No matter how intensely we push a horse, unless we use the right muscles, we won’t build them.
For most horses with a muscle deficit, it’s important to keep the intensity of hill work low. Stretch walking up and down hills with big circles and figure-eights is my favorite starting point. Once it becomes easy for the horse, we add in a few trot transitions up the hill. Then move to canter transitions. As the horse gets fitter, the work gets easier. When a horse is quite fit and developed over his topline, a more uphill frame and transitions up & down the hills can help improve coordination and muscle memory.
Hill Work Rules of Thumb
Don’t Over Do It
Remember that horses typically have more cardiovascular fitness than muscle development, so it’s easy to push for more than is healthy for muscles.
Keep in mind- it takes working the right muscles to build the right muscles, no matter the work intesity
Slow & Steady Wins the Race
For muscle deficient horses, longer, less intense schooling will trump short, intense burst of exercise. As the horse develops, more intensity will become relevant.