Improving a Weak Horse

I had a difficult concept to explain to a young client this last few weeks. She’s got a new, young horse who is lacking muscle development and topline. In our first few lessons we went over the basics and started developing the rhythm and balance.

Then my client heard the phrase “needs to build her topline” and started to get a little confused about what we were doing and why.

I guess it’s actually quite a hard concept to get your head around, but a good topline is the result of all the building blocks of the training and stable management coming together. There is no one “build the topline” exercise. And it doesn’t happen overnight.

Anyway, I thought it was a good subject to ramble about, so here it is.

A horse’s topline is the muscles over the top of their neck, back and top of their hindquarters, and a strong topline enables them to carry themselves efficiently and correctly, so minimising the risk of injuring themselves due to strain.

So how do you improve a horse’s topline? Firstly, from a management point of view, you need to ensure the diet includes a sufficient amount of protein. Protein is the building blocks for muscle, so regardless of the training you do, a horse won’t muscle up until they are receiving enough protein in their diet. Feed such as Alfa-A and conditioning mixes have higher levels of protein.

Feeding forage from the floor is a well known method of encouraging good muscle growth, as well as being the most natural way a horse can eat. With their head low to the ground, the topline muscles are stretched so maintain their suppleness and are working when the horse eats.

Checking saddle fit frequently as training continues is important, as is getting them checked by a physio. A saddle that is too tight (which happens as they develop muscle) will restrict muscle movement and blood flow so reducing that muscle’s ability to grow. Tightness or muscle soreness, ironed out by the physio, will limit the horse from using themselves correctly so will slow the rate of improvement or create a risk of injury somewhere else in their body.

In terms of training a horse and improving their topline, the best methods are not the quick fixes. It’s using the Stages of Training, to slowly establish the correct way of going and build up muscle steadily so that the horse is less likely to over stress muscle.

Rhythm and suppleness together improve a horse’s balance and quality of the gait, so that the strides are of an even length and cadence. As the quality and balance improves the horse will be able to accept a light, consistent contact and then you can add impulsion, which is the controlled, forwards energy created in the hindquarters. Going back to a horse with good basic balance, when you add the contact and impulsion they will begin to step more actively underneath their body with their hind legs, thus contracting the abdominals and lifting and engaging the back and top neck muscles. Only when this happens does the topline start to develop.

I think it’s also important to understand that a horse in training will not look like the finished article. As they develop strength and learn to balance in this new way of going then they may be slightly behind the vertical, or in front of the vertical, or low in poll, or slightly on the forehand, but so long as you continue to build them up steadily these don’t become faults, but are rather small sacrifices that are made while the horse learns and as soon as they feel strong enough, and so long as you aren’t forcing them into an outline or frame beyond their current ability, they will correct themselves. For example, when you begin to introduce impulsion, some horses may use the reins to balance, which puts their low in front and behind the vertical. By taking it back half a step and not inputting too much impulsion, or doing it for too long, they will find their balance and come up off the forehand and back onto the vertical as they find their self carriage.

Ridden exercises should focus on the basics: circles and serpentines of steadily increasing difficulty, transitions between gaits and within the gaits.

Lunging can also be very beneficial in encouraging a horse to use their topline. Gadgets, used with care, can show the horse where to put their body, and then you can test their ability and strength by working them “naked” and seeing if they can work themselves over their topline.

I like polework for getting a horse to realise that they have abdominals and back muscles. It increases their cadence so they end up rounding their backs, which can be helpful in giving a rider an insight into the feel they are aiming for, and can just show the horse the way. Incorporating poles into flatwork is a really good way of giving the horse something to think about and breaking up the monotony of circles and straight lines. Jumping, such as gridwork, will also help because having a correct bascule requires the topline muscles to function correctly.

Hill work will also improve the topline muscles: trotting and walking up hills with the horse working correctly (there’s no point trotting up a hill if their heads in the air and they are using their forehand to pull themselves along) as the incline makes the muscles work harder without having to work faster.

Developing the topline doesn’t happen overnight, it takes consistency and steady work. Then after a couple of months, you all of a sudden step back and realise that your horse has changed shape and there is more muscle over their neck and back.

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