When talking about the topline on a horse, it means the muscles from the atlas vertebrae all the way to the horse's tail. In fact, the topline consists of all the muscles along the neck, topline in horse's withers, back, loin, and hindquarters of the horse (gluteal, dorsal and cervical extensor muscles). Ideally, the topline is rounded and strong.
When you add a rider's weight on the horse's back, his back muscles and abdominal muscles are responsible for supporting the added weight. A weak topline can cause the back to sink, and it can result in more problems on the long run.
Focusing on developing a strong topline on young horses is extremely important in order to ensure the horse's correct overall development. Also, horses that have been out of work, or need corrective riding, should always be started with exercises that help build a stronger topline.
What does a weak back look like?
When a horse has a weak back, he will most likely not track up as much as they should. Ideally, the hind foot will step at least into the footprint left by the front foot. A stiff or weak back will cause the hind leg to drag behind.
Also, when looking at the horse from behind, a horse with a weak back will often walk with his left and right hooves close together. The horse might also pace like a camel: the horse's left front and hind legs move first, followed by the right side. In other words, the horse's walk (in this case) would be in 1-2 beat, instead of the rhythmic 1-2-3-4 beat.
In addition, the horse will lack impulsion and straightness.
Visually, you may notice some of the following:
the neck is hollow
both sides of the withers are sunken
vertebrae are higher than the surrounding muscle
the hip bones are pointy and the muscle surrounding them sunken
the width of the stifles is much narrower than the width of the hips
Should you see any of the above signs, the first step is to call a vet and rule out any possible medical problems that could be causing a weak back. When it has been ruled out, you can start improving your horse's topline with correct exercises and good diet.
First things first
Before starting the exercises, make sure that your horse's lifestyle supports your goal. For instance, make sure that:
Your horse gets turned out every day: a horse that's standing in the stall has an idle topline.
Your horse eats from the ground, not from a haynet: this ensures that your horse can stretch his topline.
You are strong and balanced as a rider: this makes the horse's job much easier.
Your horse has a saddle that fits correctly: an improperly fitted saddle can cause back pain and halt the progress of muscle development.
Diet is important
Muscles are made from protein. That being said, when you want your horse to build muscle (for instance, improve the topline), you need to provide him with enough protein. An average horse need about 630 to 900 grams of protein each day.
In addition to the amount of protein, you will also need to think about the quality of the protein provided.
While it is the best to consult an equine nutritionist when it comes to creating a good nutritional plan for your horse, pay special attention to supplements and foods that provide amino acids and vitamins, such as B12.
Exercise program - a 4-week start
For the purposes of the following program, we assume that the horse has been in light work and is healthy and ready to start building his topline. This is to be used only as an example and as a guide - please consult your trainer and veterinarian before starting a new exercise program on your horse.
Start off with walking on long rein for about an hour each day. Encourage your horse to stretch his neck. Walk up and down hills if it is possible. The goal is to have your horse completely relaxed, mentally and physically.
Introduce trotting with long rein in your routine. Encourage the horse to stretch as much as possible. Utilize hills.
Introduce canter work with the same loose and long rein. Note that using hills and/or safe water areas (such as oceans and lakes), or even deep snow, is excellent for building the topline.
In week 4, you can introduce schooling and flat work. Start warming up with long rein. Introduce big circles and loops, and even lateral work, such as leg yields. Do a lot of transitions between walk, trot, and canter. The aim is to keep your horse relaxed and with long neck throughout the exercises. If your horse tenses up and lifts his head, return to an exercise that will allow him to relax and stretch.
Remember proper recovery
Especially in the beginning, your horse may get sore. To ease and prevent this, you can utilize an equine massage therapist, or PEMF treatments.