The question is asked every day: How do I improve my horse’s topline?
The answer is both simple and complex: Everything you do with your horse either promotes improved condition – and thus improved topline – or it doesn’t.
If you are seeing incremental monthly improvements, then you’re doing it right. If your horse’s topline is stagnant (assuming it hasn’t reached its full condition potential already, which encompasses the vast majority of horses – even those at a high performance level) or is losing conditioning (thinning, becoming more angular, tighter, stiffer etc…) then you’re doing it wrong.
Once you recognize that your horse’s topline needs improvement, you’re likely to ask: What exercises can I do to improve it? The answer is again both simple and complex: ANY of them. ALL of them. There is no one exercise, no 12-step program. It is not the exercise but the execution of the exercise, whether walking down the long side, transitions within the trot, cantering a 10m circle, jumping a gridline, or hacking out. The key is not what you do, but how you do. Anything that encourages correct movement from the horse will improve the horse’s topline. That’s it. That’s all.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record (I still own some vinyl!), correct movement is that which promotes health, soundness and longevity. Correct movement protects the body by reducing the stress and strain associated with carrying a rider, for which the horse’s body is not well designed. Correct movement is the horse using its ring of muscles, taking deeper, more center body steps with the hind legs, swinging easily through the hips, loin and back, contracting the core, and lifting the back, the withers, and base of neck.
If your horse is forced/held into a ‘frame’, its topline will be negatively affected. If your horse is breaking at C3 and behind the vertical, its topline will be negatively affected. A dropped base of neck, wither or back will negatively affect the horse’s topline. If your horse is stiff, blocked, braced, tense or crooked, its topline will be negatively affected. Itty bit steps, uneven gaits, trailing hocks, or forehand heaviness will negatively affect the horse’s topline.
A healthy topline is full and rounded with a double back. Think of the visual plumpness of botoxed lips – a well done job. The feel of the muscle is an equal balance of firmness and giving, similar to the feel of a high quality, firm memory foam. Pliable. There should be no hollows, lumps, bumps or dips, but rather all the body parts from poll to dock should flow seamlessly into the next.
Conformation can play a significant role in the ease or difficulty of improving and maintaining the topline. Indeed, horses that are physically challenged in this regard will often never reach desired results and can quickly revert to poor condition and posture if not consistently worked, and those with solid riding conformation will often display a good topline even under less than ideal training and riding, as they can’t help but move correctly. This is one of the biggest reasons why most people should try very hard to get the best horse conformed for riding as they can manage. The amount of time, knowledge and resources it takes to bring along a conformationally poor animal are not typically in the realm of possibilities for the average owner.
Stretching and massage can help improve the topline, particularly as part of the process of breaking a bad cycle. Of course any sort of injury, disease, or discomfort anywhere in the body can negatively affect the topline. Yes, this means even slightly ouchy feet, an upset tummy from poor food stuffs, minor arthritic changes, or achy muscles from pulling the horse out of the field once a month for a trail ride can negatively affect the topline. Poorly fitting tack will have an adverse affect.
Not at all the answer you wanted to hear, was it? I make no apologizes for telling it straight. Improving the health of your horse’s topline is time consuming hard work, especially if you’ve decided to purchase a horse not ideally suited to riding, or haven’t had the good fortunate to have learned excellent riding/training skills from a knowledgeable mentor. Don’t feel disheartened, you aren’t alone. More importantly, it’s (probably) within your ability to learn, get better, and do better.
Below are 49 pictures (numbered for convenience) of different breeds of horses being ridden in various disciplines, in different gaits, by random people. (I have done a bit of grouping to help you more easily compare.) Can you identify which riders are helping to improve their horse’s toplines, which ones are not? Can you identify what rider changes would help the horse be able to move more correctly? Can you identify which horses are fighting significant conformation challenges? Which ones are likely suffering injuries? Which ones are just suffering bad riding? What else pops out at you when looking at the pictures and comparing them to each other? Yes, this is a test, but the answers already exist on this blog. Feel free to cheat by rereading past articles. I’ll be posting a number of summary articles over the next couple months, as there is much to talk about and refresh in our minds.
And a few groundwork pictures: