Topline is a term you hear regularly, but do you know what it actually means and where it’s referring to?

Topline plays a vital role in supporting your horse’s body, the weight of his rider and his saddle, as well as facilitating movement.

Below is a breakdown of everything you need to know.

What is it?

The topline is the group of muscles that run along a horse’s spine from the top of the neck to the wither area, down the back and loin, and over the top of the hip into the croup region.

What does it do?

“The purpose of the muscles around the spine are to hold it firm when the horse is generating force through his hindquarters,” explains ACPAT veterinary physiotherapist Gillian Tabor.

“As prey animals, to be successful in running away from a lion, the horse has to be able to transmit force from his hindquarters all the way through his body.

“The way he does that is to contract the muscles around the spine to create a rigid back to then be able to gallop efficiently. If it was weak and wobbly he would lose so much energy that he wouldn’t be able to run fast.”

Where is it?

Three muscle groups are used for topline:

1 Thoracic Trapezius — attaches the neck and mid back vertebrae to the shoulder blade

2 Longissimus Dorsi — this is attached to the pelvis, the thoracic vertebrae and the last four cervical vertebrae

3 Latissimus Dorsi — attaches the upper and mid back vertebrae to the lower lumbar vertebrae

What does it look like?

Sometimes it can be quite hard to distinguish fat from muscle, especially on the horse’s neck.

“If the horse has got a crest on his neck because he is fat, he will have fat pockets in other places too,” says Gillian.

“If you look at a body condition scoring chart, he will have fat over his loins and shoulders, tail head and a large tummy.

“When assessing topline, we are looking for a rounded shape, especially over the quarters, with no prominent bony processes other than the withers. The profile across the back should be slightly rounded, maybe even a little convex.

In a poorly muscled horse, you can see the spinous processes prominently and the pelvis looks very angular. The top of the tail and sacrum appear concave.”

What does it feel like?

Gillian uses her own ‘cheese scale’ to assess muscle.

“Good muscle should feel like just underripe brie and there should be a little bit of rebound to it, with no spasm or response to it being palpated,” she says.

“Poor muscle can feel like an overripe brie where your fingers sink into it and disappear, or a dried-out cheddar which has a solid feel to it.”

Get help body condition scoring your horse here.

What can prevent it developing?

Before starting any muscle-building programme, the first thing is to exclude pain. This should include checking your horse’s saddle fit and foot balance, as well as a physical examination by a vet.

“If a horse is in pain, he won’t work correctly and you won’t build muscle,” says Gillian.

“Once pain has been excluded, you want to work your horse in a posture that is activating the muscles you want to develop. It’s no good reinforcing a movement pattern where the horse’s head is up, his back is in extension and hollowed and his hindlegs aren’t engaged.”

Why might my horse lose topline?

The following four reasons could cause a horse to lose topline:

  1. Pain and change in movement
  2. Nutritional issues
  3. Exercise (lack of/wrong)
  4. Saddle fit/rider issues

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Five easy and effective ways to build and develop topline

What is the correct posture for my horse?

The correct posture is where the head and neck are slightly lowered, and the ears are level with the withers. The neck should be horizontal and the nose slightly in front of the vertical.

“If the head is too far down, and they look like they are sniffing the ground, it means they are putting a lot of weight on the forehand and not switching on the right muscles,” explains Gillian.

“When the horse is in the correct position, we are looking for them to activate their core muscles and lift up through their back.

They should flex their hindlimbs so they bend through their hip, stifle, hock and fetlock as they swing their leg forward.

“We also want them to reach forward underneath their body and tuck their pelvis in with each hind step. This creates hindlimb engagement.”

How long does it take to develop?

Be patient! Muscle doesn’t happen overnight. Visible muscle changes take a good six to eight weeks. You increase the number of muscle fibres that work inside the muscle to start with, which is why you get an apparent increase in strength and function, but the development of muscle is a much slower process.

Three signs you’re overdoing it are stiffness, behavioural changes and lack of progress.

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