How To Build a Topline: To bring out the best in your horse, both performance-wise and when it comes to physical health, a strong topline is important. A horse with a well built topline will move and jump to the best of his ability, and be less susceptible to injuries.
But the question of how to build a topline can leave a lot of horse owners scratching their heads. Is it all about the diet? Does it involve hour after hour of hacking? Or is it simply about putting in the right groundwork?
Well, the good news is that building a good topline can be done in a variety of ways, and what works best for one horse might not suit another so well. Here’s our top tips for building a topline on your horse.
First Things First
The first step is to get your horse an MOT! Have them checked over by a physio, ensure their tack (especially the saddle) fits correctly and if you have any worries, get them checked out by a vet. A physio should be able to tell you whether there’s any reason your horse has struggled to develop a topline, and they’ll also show you the best stretches to do with your horse on the ground which we will look at later in this post.
While online tips and advice can be hugely helpful, every horse is an individual and each will respond differently to various exercise and management.
Diet and Supplements
Diet is a very important component when it comes to building muscle, although this shouldn’t be a substitute for proper work. First up, ensure your horse is getting enough calories. You won’t be able to build muscle if they are underfed, and if you find an increase in calories makes them fizzy, opt for low sugar feed. Their food should be high in protein and amino acids.
While supplements aren’t a substitute for good exercise, they can be very helpful. These can be added to your horses feed and add that extra big of protein or lysine that they won’t get from forage such as grass and hay.
Your own riding ability will determine the ridden exercises you do, but there’s a huge number of exercises you can do to build muscle along the neck, back and hind end. The first is hillwork. Riding up and down hills will encourage your horse to push from the back and hillwork can be done in any gait. So find a big hill and give your horse a walk, trot or canter up it a couple of times a week – you’ll blow away some cobwebs at the same time!
Long and low work is also extremely effective when it comes to building strength and topline. To work long and low, ensure your horse is thoroughly warm and relaxed. Once he is working forward from his backend (which you can achieve by transitions and polework), allow the reins to slip through your fingers to encourage him to stretch his head down. Think forward, not fast – he should be stretching while keeping his backend engaged. This will build core strength and balance, but it’s not appropriate for spooky or fresh horses!
Trot poles and canter poles are great tools for getting your horse using their muscles correctly. Raised trot poles will build their core strength, but ensure your horse trots them with a rounded back, as opposed to hollow. Play around with distances to encourage your horse to shorten or lengthen their stride.
Whether you’re out the saddle due to injury or your horse needs time off from ridden work, you can still keep your horse’s muscles strong using ground exercises. Engage his abdominals by cupping your hand and running them from the girth towards the back of his body. Use your fingertips and press hard (although start off gently!). You should feel him lift through the loins – like an inverted sit up! Hold for a few seconds then release.
Carrot stretches can also build a topline. Do these before and after you work your horse, encouraging your horse to stretch to his girth area, hips, hind fetlocks and between his front legs. Hold each stretch for around 5-10 seconds and repeat each stretch 5 times on both sides. Start off gently, encouraging your horse to stretch further as his muscles warm up. These stretches will improve balance, flexibility and core strength – and it won’t be long before you can see and feel a difference in his topline.