Eight simple ways to develope your horse’s topline

Equestrians are always talking about the horse’s topline, but what is it, and how is it achieved?

The topline is made up of muscle groups that run over the top of the neck, withers, spine and hindquarters and which work in unison when the horse is moving correctly and in balance. A strong topline influence both the horse’s athleticism and soundness allowing him to carry a rider and perform the movements required. The overall picture is pleasing to the eye.

However, by forcing a horse into an unnatural frame, they develop muscles in the wrong places resulting in a weak back. 

You may notice the following:

Hollow neck

Sunken withers

Spine higher than the surrounding muscle

Pointy hip bones

These horses are usually ridden with an improper contact and will either travel with a high head carriage and shortened neck or over flexed at the poll. They are unable to track up from behind, lacking in impulsion and straightness so cannot move or jump correctly.

Certain elements affect the horse’s topline, which includes:

  • Age
  • Confirmation
  • Diet
  • Lack of or incorrect exercise
  • Gastric ulcers
  • Disease
  • Pain
  • Poor riding
  • Sore back
  • Poor saddle fit
  • Lameness
  • Pregnancy or lactation

Building your horse’s topline is far from easy and requires time, patience and understanding if you are to do it correctly and create a solid foundation to build on. This fact is especially true with young or green horses or those that have had time off through injury, are changing disciplines or have been incorrectly ridden.

Before you begin, though, here are few factors to consider which will assist the muscle development in your horse:

  • Turning your horse out into the field for a few hours each day loosens the muscles and gets the blood circulating, helping his muscles work more efficiently.
  • If possible, always feed food and hay from the ground avoiding hay nets and hayracks as it puts a strain on their backs eating at eye level.
  • Ensure your saddle fits properly as one that is ill-fitting can cause massive problems and is a major contributing factor to a weak topline.
  • Check your riding, making sure you sit in a balanced way as otherwise, your horse cannot use his back correctly.
  • Keep your horse’s feet in good condition as it allows him to move accurately and freely. Foot pain may cause loss of muscle tone in the back.
  • Ensure your horse is fit enough to start working in the correct outline as otherwise, they risk injury and fatigue.
  • Start slowly, keeping sessions short, building up gradually as your horse improves.
  • Feed a diet that consists of good quality protein and essential amino acids, which are vital for building muscle in horses. Many feed companies provide an equine nutrition service and can devise the correct diet for your horse and the type of work he is doing.

Here we look at eight ways to build your horse’s topline.

1. Working Long and Low

Riding your horse long and low encourages him to work through his back and seek the contact, which will make him more supple and loose while strengthening the core muscles. The horse should be moving forwards but not fast; otherwise, he will fall onto his forehand. 

Ride your horse in the walk on a loose rein for five or ten minutes before asking him to work long and low. Ride circles to establish balance before moving into a trot. If your horse has never worked in this way before, it may take a bit of practice before he understands, so don’t ask too much too soon.

The energy comes from the hind leg with the horse seeking a connection into the rein while maintaining his rhythm, balance and straightness. When your horse stretches, follow the movement by giving with your elbows and moving your hands slightly forward. Maintain an upright position, so you don’t throw your horse off balance. If he raises his head, widen your hands, closing them once he lowers it again.

2. Hacking Out and Hill Work

When hacking out, walk your horse on a long rein making sure he is going forward with a loose and relaxed stride, stretching his head and neck down. In walk, the horse’s spine is much more mobile than in the other paces. You can then start riding up and down hills, which is excellent for developing the muscles in your horse’s front and hind legs as well as building muscle over the neck and back. 

 A horse should ascend a hill by pushing with his hind legs and lowering his head and neck, preparing him for increased engagement and more challenging work. Be careful not to go downhill too much as it puts pressure on the joints. Build this work into your programme over time; otherwise, your horse will become sore. Introduce gradual slopes over a short distance before attempting bigger ones or riding in trot or canter. Incorporating rein-back and leg yield up and down small hills are also great strengthening exercises. 

If your horse is young or lacking in muscle tone, you can always lead your horse as well as lunging in the walk on a gentle circle over small hills. Allow your horse to navigate various slopes for better balance.

3. Transitions

One of the easiest ways to develop your horse’s topline is by riding plenty of transitions. Horses naturally carry 60% of their weight on their forehand and 40% on their hind legs, so they use their head and neck for balance. By riding transitions, the horse must push from behind and engage the hindlegs, so he lightens his front end shifting more weight onto the hindquarters.

However, transitions can only be effective if ridden correctly. When your horse is relaxed and responsive to the aids, they can help build the correct muscles, but if tense and hollow in the outline, then the wrong muscles are worked. 

Start by going from one pace to another such as walk to trot, trot to canter and down again. As your horse progresses, move onto direct transitions like walk to canter. Riding transitions on a circle will help your horse to stay balanced and supple as well as giving you more control. 

Add variety such as riding a few strides of leg yield in trot into a canter transition or stop and rein back then go forwards to trot or canter. As your horse becomes stronger, introduce lengthening and shortening in all three paces. Make sure though, he takes a longer stride and isn’t just going faster and falling onto the forehand.

4. Lunging

Lunging is an ideal way to build your horse’s muscle and to improve their balance while on a circle. It is also a safe way for a horse to unleash any excess energy as well as teaching obedience to the voice commands and build up fitness. Make sure your horse has a bridle and lunge cavesson correctly fitted as well as a saddle or lunging roller and pad and leg protection.

Lunge in a safe, enclosed area and warm up your horse on both reins in walk and trot without fitting any auxiliary reins at first. Using side reins encourages the horse to work into a soft contact improving suppleness through the back and build the topline muscles. Have the reins quite loose to begin with, gradually shortening them up but not too short or the horse is forced into an incorrect outline with a tight neck and back.

Work mainly in the trot doing lots of transitions as well as decreasing the size of the circle then asking the horse to move back out onto a large circle.

5. Long Reining

When carried out correctly, long reining has numerous benefits for horses of all ages and can vastly improve their way of going. For young horses, it is an excellent way to teach them the basic commands as well as being extremely useful when re-schooling a horse or working one that cannot be ridden either through injury or old age.

Long reining encourages greater use of the hind legs, which improves balance and rhythm, allowing the horse to work over the back into a contact. As a result, the horse’s topline muscles develop.

Working in a safe and enclosed arena, you can ask your horse to make simple transitions like walk to halt and halt to walk along with changes of rein and basic figures such as serpentines, figures of eight and loops. Add variety by going over ground poles, weaving in and out of cones, leg yielding and asking the horse to back up. You can also lunge the horse on a circle with two reins which allows greater control.

6. Lateral work

Riding lateral work encourages a horse to step under more with their hind legs and engage the back muscles as well as freeing the shoulders and lightening the forehand.

Riding shoulder-in, a horse bends to the inside while moving on three tracks, usually performed along a wall or on a circle. When executing this movement, the abdominal muscles shorten so is highly effective in strengthening and rehabilitating the back. The muscles develop as the horse uses them to stay in balance, so don’t ask too much at first, aiming for quality rather than quantity. 

Shoulder fore requires less bend and is a useful introduction in terms of the horse’s education before moving on to shoulder in. A helpful exercise is riding shoulder-in on a circle in trot then riding transitions to canter and back to trot while maintaining the shoulder in position.

As the shoulder in becomes established, further lateral work such as leg yielding, haunches in and half pass can be ridden to develop the muscles.

7. Poles

Lunging or riding over poles are excellent for building topline. Horses must use their backs correctly and push more from their hindquarters instead of pulling themselves along on the forehand. However, they must work in the correct outline for it to be of benefit. 

Introduce poles in the walk, so your horse becomes used to them. The advantage of walking over poles is that the horse must work his muscles more than in the other paces as there is not the momentum to carry them over. Once your horse is happy in the walk, start trotting over the poles, keeping an even rhythm. As your horse progresses, introduce canter poles.

Use just one pole or have several poles set out either in a straight line or as a fan on a circle. Add variety by riding transitions and various school figures as well. You can also vary the distances so your horse lengthens and shortens the stride as well as using raised poles and Cavaletti, which will increase his core strength. Always build up slowly with pole work, so your horse’s muscles don’t become sore.

8. Grid Work

Grids are a succession of jumps close together which improves the horse’s coordination and flexibility as well as making his jump have more punch from the ground. It is an excellent exercise for working the chest and abdominal muscles. Preferably, work with an instructor or someone experienced on the ground to help you and adjust the distances accordingly.

Again, start slowly, keeping it simple. Have trotting poles to a small cross jump and gradually add two or three low fences in a line slowly increasing the difficulty. 

Bounce jumps are particularly useful as the abdominal muscles must flex and extend in quick succession, thus building strength and athleticism. The horse must be moving with impulsion, so he pushes from his hocks and rounds his back. As the horse lands over the first jump, he must take off immediately over the second, therefore teaching him to snap up his forelegs and use his hindquarters effectively. 

Always keep in mind that gridwork requires strength and concentration from your horse and is quite tiring so ensure he has plenty of rests in between and don’t overdo it in a single session. Working a horse through a grid when he is tired can result in making mistakes or injury. 

Conclusion

Remember that all these exercises are mentally and physically tiring for a horse, so it is vital your training sessions are short and easy. As your horse progresses, you can increase the difficulty. Ensure your horse is warmed up correctly beforehand, to prevent injury. Vary the work and finish on a positive note, so your horse remains happy.

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