Whether we show jump, run barrels, school dressage, or train endurance, our horses depend on muscular development and coordination to stay sound and athletic. A horse’s ‘topline’ describes the substance and definition over his neck, back, loin, and croup. Working over a developed topline increases a horse’s performance ability and promotes long term soundness.
Think about it, as the developed horse works, 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 the rider’s weight. With the tack resting out of the way of his joints and bone, the horse moves with more straightness, suspension, and bio-mechanical freedom.
So then begs the question… how to build a horse’s topline? Muscle development in horses can be a tricking game—particularly for older horses, those with long backs, and breeds with less genetic muscle density. In efforts to put muscle on a horse, I have found a few guidelines that help me to be effective and fair.
Feeding a Horse to Build Muscle
Step 1 for equine muscle development starts with what fuels the horse. Meeting a horse’s nutritional needs for energy, protein, vitamins, minerals, and water will give him the fuel to function and give muscle cells means to grow. To promote muscle development, it’s imperative that the horse not only meets his protein requirements, but that his protein intake is derived from a balanced, bio-available amino acid blend.
Nutritionally dense forage, such as cool season pasture and good quality legume hay, offers the quality protein horses need. In cases where pasture is not abundantly available to the horse, a quality, well balanced concentrate formula can provide the supplemental nutrition.
In order to choose a feed blend for muscle development, don’t get stuck on the crude protein value. 10-16% protein is typically sufficient and fortified in a formula at 6+ lbs a day (with sufficient forage). Instead, we need to look at what makes up the protein content. Soy and alfalfa are bio-available protein sources, and feeds that offer supplemental amino acids—lysine, methionine, cystine, and threonine help horses to make the most of the protein they digest.
*For more information on protein quality and feeding recommendations, check out blog post*- The Lowdown on Protein
2) Prioritizing Bio-mechanical Correctness
As an umbrella for all other physical exercises, to develop a horse’s topline we must prioritize bio-mechanical correctness. This means 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 well as he can.
In improving a horse’s movement step by step, it’s helpful to remember that each horse has unique potential for muscular development. Have you ever noticed that a quarter horse bulks up from work that does little to add muscle to a Hanoverian? These horses are built differently. A Hanoverian has bone and musculature that allows him longer gaits with more suspension. With this, the Hanoverian can look gangly and narrow until he really starts pushing his bio-mechanics.
Moral of the story- shoot for the most correct, straight, and reaching movement that a horse can give with each step.
3) Stretch the Gaits
This exercise involves pushing a horse forward into a steady hand and allowing him to chew the reins down and out. He should move 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
Transitions between and within gaits help to keep a horse’s back up as he prepares for the change in balance. Transitions within gaits are helpful to be used subtly throughout other exercises to maintain balance and engagement.
Keeping a horse working through changes of bend has a similar effect. As the horse stretches the outside of his back, he flexes the muscles on his inside. In both transitions and bending, the horse loads and unloads power in his hind end, almost like 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 bio-mechanical correctness. Reason being, the only way to build muscle is to use, stretch, and push the intended muscles.
As a horse starts hill work, it’s important to keep it at a low intensity. A good starting point might be to stretch-walk up and down hills with big circles and figure-eights. Once it becomes easy for the horse, 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 connected frame and transitions up & down the hills will help improve coordination and muscle memory.