Does your horse need to build and develop more topline? The following four exercises from ACPAT veterinary physiotherapist Gillian Tabor will help.
By covering a variety of ridden, lungeing and in-hand exercises, you will work the required muscles in your horse as well as prevent you both from becoming bored.
1 Spiral in and out on the lunge
A key exercise that I suggest on the lunge is spiralling in and out of a circle. The special features about this is that because you have lateral bend, you have a slightly different action to the muscles on the inside as the muscles on the outside. To be straight on the circle, the outside hindleg and foreleg have to take a slightly bigger stride and you are not just challenging the muscles that flex, extend and move the limb on a straight line, you are also working the muscles that work on abduction and adduction. That is asking for more effort than going on a straight line.
- In trot, start on a 20m circle and then reduce the size by bringing your horse onto a 10m circle.
- To bring him in, shorten the lunge line so that your horse turns his nose off the line of the 20m circle. Then he will wind in towards you.
- To ask him to go back out onto the bigger circle, walk a larger circle yourself so he stays the same distance from you. You want a little drift to the outside, so his weight is taken to the outside.
- You want him bent in the direction you want to go, so his ribs are flexed to the outside but the inside hindleg steps up and underneath to lift him up. Once you’re in this carrying position, if you can maintain it, you are then working those muscles.
- It will take two or three circles to get back onto the bigger circle. It’s hard work, so two or three circuits of each size before changing the rein is plenty.
2 Step under with the hindleg
Groundwork is a key part of your training and can be used for warming up and before lungeing. It’s about relaxation, coordination of the body and posture. This exercise can be done before a ridden or lunge session and while tacked up.
- Begin by leading your horse on a small circle in walk, replicating the same posture as on the lunge, so a forward and down head carriage with your horse bent around you and stepping underneath with his inside hindleg.
- As he turns, you want him to step his hindleg forward and underneath his body, which will then encourage him to lift up through the core into the carrying posture in the back.
- You can progress this into a shoulder-in along a wall by asking for a gentle sideways movement.
3 Do regular carrot stretches
Stretches are great for recruiting the muscles that lie deeper around the spine and help to stabilise it.
- Do carrot stretches to each side and between your horse’s front legs. The lower the end position of his head, the better the lift through the thoracolumbar (main back) region. These are best done after exercise when your horse is warm, or after he’s been in the field. Do them daily if possible.
- If your horse is on box rest or not warmed up, start with a smaller range of motion, doing between three and five of each stretch.
- Get someone to show you how to avoid your horse ‘cheating’ and how to achieve a good quality of movement.
- Take care of the surface he’s standing on. It should be non-slip.
- Consider positioning. You can put your horse in the corner of the stable or arena to help keep his body still.
4 Work on a hill
Hill work is an excellent way to build topline under saddle. Riding up and down hills increases the activity of the muscles in the hindquarters, the back and the abdominal muscles. A slow trot or walk is going to be most beneficial in the early stages.
Again, you want the right posture and head carriage with your horse lifting and stepping under so he is pushing up the hill rather than pulling on the forehand.
With regards to the rider’s position, your upper body is perpendicular to the horizontal, so the steeper the hill, the more forward a position you should take — but, ultimately, you want to stay balanced and light in the saddle.
If it’s a long, steep hill, walk up it just once or twice. Walking downhill is just as good because your horse needs to control his descent and flex the hindlegs to step under his body and shift the weight backwards.
You want a nice slow descent, allowing your horse to balance himself. Allow freedom of his head as long as it isn’t too high or hollow.
5 Remember — nutrition counts too!
Building topline isn’t just about exercise, it also requires the correct nutrition.
“In order to build muscle your horse needs to be in a positive energy balance, which means he is receiving slightly more energy than he needs for the work he is doing,” explains scientist Dr David Marlin.
“The second requirement is to have sufficient quality of protein and we judge that by the amount of lysine.
“Lysine is considered to be the number one limiting amino acid, so if you don’t have sufficient lysine in terms of grams per day for the work your horse is doing, he won’t develop muscle.
‘In the same breath, feeding too much won’t have any effect. Once you’ve reached the minimum requirement, feeding a big excess is a waste,” continues David.
“For a 500kg horse in light work you’d typically need 800g of protein a day, whereas a horse in hard work would need 1,300g of protein a day, so that equates to 9g of lysine, which isn’t much.”
Leucine (HMB) has also been shown to have beneficial effects on both muscle development and soreness, but only if fed in large amounts and shortly after exercise.
Speak to your vet and nutritionist to discuss your horse’s feeding plan.