A horse’s topline — the muscles that support the spine, from neck to hindquarters — plays an important role in how a horse performs, looks and feels. Nutrition is the single most important factor in achieving a healthy topline. To learn more, visit ToplineBalance.com.
A horse’s topline — the muscles that support the spine, from neck to hindquarters — plays an important role in how a horse performs, looks and feels.
Awareness about this topic, however, is limited. Those who do understand the need for a healthy topline have likely heard a lot of lore and conflicting information about how to achieve it. Exercise, saddle fit, genetics and age are most frequently blamed for a poor topline. Nutrition plays the most critical role, and is often overlooked as a solution to build and maintain the topline.
So What is Topline?
Topline, simply put, is the muscle groups that run along a horse’s spine. The topline of a horse stretches along the vertebral column (spine) from the end of the neck at the wither area, down the back and loin, and over the top of the hip into the croup region. Three main muscle groups surround each side of this boney column. The longissimus dorsi is attached to the pelvis, the entire thoracic vertebrae and the last four cervical vertebrae. The latissimus dorsi attaches the upper and mid back vertebrae to the lower lumbar vertebrae. The thoracic trapezius attaches the neck and mid back vertebrae to the shoulder blade. Topline can be affected to some extent by conformation, specifically as it pertains to the angle of the hip and shoulder.
The Topline Evaluation Score (TES) allows horse owners to easily grade their horse’s topline. This evaluation system assigns a score to help determine the stages of topline development.
TES breaks the topline into three sections:
1. Withers and mid back
3. Croup area
Begin by visually examining the horse in these three areas. If any areas appear sunken in on the sides of the spine, improvement is needed.
Horse owners should also observe whether musculature along the spine is adequate. An ideal topline can be described as well-muscled, displaying a full and rounded athletic appearance, lacking concave or sunken-in areas, providing ability for sustained self-carriage. This region of the horse is a good visual indicator of the whole body amino acid status. Concave, or topline areas that appear “sunken-in,” are never acceptable. Flat areas may be acceptable based on breed and/or genetics, and some breeds/genetic traits may exhibit a bulging muscle around the spine.
The topline of the horse is predominately muscle. However, once a horse gets to a BCS of 8 and above (considered obese), the subcutaneous fat layer over the topline musculature becomes visible. The goal is to maximize the topline musculature without adding fat.
While a visual examination is a good tool to evaluate topline, the addition of a hands-on evaluation is recommended. Visual examinations alone can be misleading, especially with winter hair coats.
Follow these steps to conduct a hands-on evaluation.
Place the palm of your hand on the side of the horse’s withers. Does it fall inward? If so, some muscle is gone. If it remains flat, depending on the breed/horse, the amount of muscle may be adequate or can still use improvement. If your hand flexes outward there is adequate muscling in that area, unless the horse is obese. When palpating, note the presence of muscle or fat (muscle will feel firm, while fat is spongy).
Place your fingertips on the horse’s backbone with your palm facing downward, toward the ribs. Use the same assessment above to evaluate the muscles.
Follow the same process for the horse’s loin and croup.
Assessing Your Horse’s Topline – Evaluation Criteria
To evaluate a horse’s topline, refer to the visual descriptions in the chart below. Then assign a grade for each area. Add up the number of areas that are adequate-to-good to determine your horse’s TES grade.
All 3 areas adequate to good = TES score of A
2 of 3 areas = B
1 of 3 areas = C
0 of 3 areas = D
Topline Score: A – Ideal
This Horse Has Ideal Muscle Development:
•The topline muscles are well developed in all three areas, the spinal processes cannot be seen, and the muscles blend smoothly into the ribs
•The wither/back and loin of the horse is full and well rounded
•The croup and hip are full and the stifle muscle is well defined
Topline Score: B
The Sides of the Wither are Concave, as is the Back Between the Vertebrae and the Top of the Ribs:
•The loin muscles are well developed and are the same height as the spinal process
•The croup and the hip muscling is adequate; pelvis to point of hip is rounded
Topline Score: C
The Wither/Back and Loin Areas, Between the Vertebrae and the Ribs, are Concave:
•The ‘spinal process’ in the loin area is higher than the muscles beside it and can easily be seen and palpated
•Muscles over the croup and hindquarters are well developed and rounded
Topline Score: D
The Entire Topline, Including the Wither/Back, Loin, and Croup Areas, are Concave:
•The croup appears pointed at the top since the vertebrae and hip bones are higher than the concave muscles in between them
•In a severely affected horse, the width of its stifle is narrower than the width of the point of hip
Next Steps in Improving Topline
One of the key ways to impact topline is with the right nutrition comprised of quality protein. Since the topline is comprised of muscle, any nutrition that influences muscle will influence the topline.
To determine what nutrition best fits your horse’s needs, take the Topline Balance assessment for a customized nutrition plan.
Information compiled by: Emily Lamprecht, Ph.D., Russell Mueller, M.S. PAS and Abby Keegan, M.S. – Cargill Animal Nutrition
The Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron, Shire and Suffolk breeds are the primary draft horse breeds in the U.S. The breeds are named for their country or area of origin. The Belgians originated in the Belgium, the Clydesdales originated in the river Clyde district of Scotland, the Percherons originated in the Perche region of France, the Shires originated in the east of England and the Suffolk originated in the counties of Norwich and Suffolk in England. They were originally imported to the U.S. for true horsepower and are now very popular for shows, pulling competitions, parades and work. The commercials and advertising associated with the Clydesdales have made that breed one of the most recognized of the draft breeds.
Draft horses are large, heavy muscled animals that are relatively slow to mature and are metabolically very efficient. Mature horses will weigh anywhere from 1500 lbs to well over 2000 lbs. Hoof quality, bone strength, muscle development and hair coat are all key criteria that are important in raising and using draft horses. As draft horses perform work, energy requirements increase substantially.
Good quality forages, grass or grass/legume mixtures, are an important part of the draft horse diet. Horses will consume 1.5-2.5% of bodyweight in forage. Properly balanced grain mixtures, pelleted or textured, may be used to provide the additional energy, amino acids, minerals, trace minerals and vitamins to balance the diets.
Poor quality hoof growth can be a problem with draft horses. The use of feeds containing biotin, zinc and methionine may be beneficial for these horses.
Draft horses may also be affected by Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy, which used to be called Monday Morning Disease or Azoturia. This conditions results in the horse “tying up” with stiff muscles and reluctance to move. These horses may benefit from a diet that has controlled levels of non-structural carbohydrates or soluble carbohydrates (starches and sugars) and that contains added fat from vegetable oil as well as optimum selenium and vitamin E levels. Regular exercise and turn out are also important for these horses.
Growing draft horses may also develop Developmental Orthopedic Disease problems as a result of genetics, conformation, stress or improper nutrition. Feeding a balanced diet and avoiding excess body condition score may be beneficial in reducing the risk of these problems.
Be sure to provide free choice salt and access to fresh clean water for all your draft horses, especially those who are performing heavy work.
There has been a recent trend to manage horses in a more “natural” manner, especially when it comes to feeding. Extending the length of time horses spend foraging has been linked to improvements in horse health and wellbeing, including reductions in unwanted behaviors, ulcers, choke and insulin and glucose responses after a meal. Slowing feed intake is also important for horses on restricted diets, those who are meal fed a few times each day, and horses who tend to aggressively and quickly feed. Many horse owners can slow equine feed intake rates by simply altering how they deliver feed to their horse.
1. Slow‐feed Hay Nets
Researchers from the University of Minnesota recently evaluated different hay nets to determine the effect on horse intake rates. Horses were fed hay (1% bodyweight twice daily) off the boxstall floor (control), or from one of three hay nets, including a large net (6 inch openings), medium net (1.75 inches) and small net (1.0 inch). The study revealed that horses feeding from the medium net took just over 5 hours to consume the hay meal, while horses eating from the small nets took 6.5 hours to consume the meal. Both the control and large net resulted in consumption times of 3.2 and 3.4 hours, respectively. If small or medium hay nets (Hay Chix hay nets) were used for twice daily feedings, the anticipated amount of time horses would spend foraging would be 10 to 13 hours each day, more closely mimicking a horse’s natural grazing behavior.
2. Grazing Muzzles
Recent research has shown that grazing muzzles can help slow horse intake of both pasture and grain. Researchers from the University of Minnesota determined the use of a grazing muzzle (Weaver) reduced a horse’s pasture intake by approximately 30%. Researchers from Illinois recently evaluated two grazing muzzles (Tough 1 Nylon and Easy Breathe) when horses were fed grain and determined that the use of a grazing muzzle slowed grain intake but tended to spill more grain. However, horses were able to acclimate to the grazing muzzle and increased their intake rate over time.
3. Specialized Grain Feeders
Researchers from Texas A&M University tested a newly designed feed bucket (Pre‐Vent Feeder) and determined that the bucket slowed grain consumption and reduced grain spillage. Horses spent 21 to 60 additional minutes eating grain from the feeder compared to a bucket or tub. In some situations, regular cleaning of the feeder will be needed. In a separate study, researchers from North Carolina State University developed a waffle structure that was inserted into a feed bucket. They concluded the waffle insert increased grain consumption time by nearly 50% compared to a bucket without the waffle insert.
Researchers from North Carolina State University tested grain feeding time using a bucket with four movable boccestyle balls (4 inch diameter) placed in it and found the balls were effective at extending (by 4 minutes) and maintaining the time it took horses to consume feed after multiple days of use. Additionally, the researchers found that the balls produced the lowest glucose and insulin responses compared to other feeding methods tested.
5. Forage Quality
The fiber content in hays can be used to slow horse consumption. Neutral detergent fiber (NDF) is a measurement of insoluble fiber and provides the plant with structural rigidity. The higher the NDF, the less a horse will consume. NDF levels between 40 and 50% are considered ideal and promote hay intake, while NDF levels above 65% tend to result in a reduction in intake by most horses. Hays high in NDF tend to be classified as “busy hay” and are especially useful when managing aggressive and quick eaters or horses on a restricted diet. However, only a small proportion of a horse’s diet should be comprised of “busy hay” high in NDF.
6. Feeding Order
Many people believe that feeding hay before grain slows feed intake. Research has confirmed this belief and determined that horses consumed grain slower when hay was fed 20 minutes before the grain meal. When hay was fed before grain, grain consumption was 0.3 pounds per minute compared to 0.4 pounds per minute when hay and grain were fed simultaneously.
Slow‐feed hay nets, grazing muzzles, specialized grain feeders, obstacles, forages high in NDF and feeding order are all effective management strategies for slowing horse feed intake and represent simple and affordable management options horse owners can implement.
This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.
Unusual eating behavior ( sometimes referred to as pica) can be caused by a number of factors and may cause the horse to eat manure, eat dirt, eat bark off trees, chew on board fences, chew on stable mate’s mane & tail or chew on tool handles or leather equipment.
I usually suggest going thru the following check list for the most common causes of unusual eating behavior:
- Lack of salt. Lack of salt can trigger a number of unusual eating behaviors (eating manure, chewing bark on trees, eating dirt, chewing on objects, chewing on tool handles etc.) Recommendation is to offer loose salt free choice as horses will consume more readily than block salt, particularly in cold weather. Block salt is better than not offering any salt source. Maintenance horses require 1-2 ounces of salt per day. This may increase to 4-6 ounces per head per day in hot humid conditions or with added exercise. Commercial feeds may contain 0.5% salt. Horses may still benefit from salt being offered free choice along with access to fresh, clean water.
- Fiber intake in the diet might be inadequate. If a horse does not feel full, it will look for other things to eat. Make sure there is adequate long stem roughage available. Fences, trees, manes and tails may suffer if there is not sufficient roughage!
- Phosphorus deficiency. Horses have quite limited “nutritional wisdom”, but phosphorus deficiency may trigger unusual eating behavior, including eating manure or dirt. Offering a free choice calcium, phosphorus and salt mineral may be useful. In the wild, animals frequently consume bones or shed antlers to get minerals.
- Protein deficiency. Again, horses have limited “nutritional wisdom”, but inadequate protein or poor quality protein may trigger some of the unusual eating behaviors. Evaluating the forage and the overall feeding program is useful.
- Ulcers. Horses that have ulcers will sometimes eat dirt or manure as well as chew on other objects. The saliva produced when chewing is believed to have a buffering effect.
I always start by offering loose salt free choice and making certain that fiber intake is adequate. If that does not remedy the problem, I will then go to offering a good mineral product (calcium, phosphorus, salt combination, perhaps with some trace minerals) and perhaps a full ration evaluation. Other behaviors may help decide if ulcer assessment is needed.
Unusual behavior may be the horse’s way of trying to tell us something!
We are a far cry from a fancy operation with four horses on my property to manage. The horses in our herd live outside in one of two paddocks with fulltime access to a run-in shed which is divided in half. They get rotational turn out onto the pasture whenever possible.
With the variety of horses we have, our little operation is anything but simple. And oh how they vary! One is a 32-year-old hard keeping Arabian mare with a princess complex who has progressively lost dentition efficacy in the last few years. Next is her 14-year-old gelding son who is an air fern, aka quite possibly the world’s easiest keeper. Finally the two Warmblood geldings, half-brothers both in light work. One is a 16 hand, 10-year old fair doer while his brother (12 years) just under 16 hands, tends to be higher strung and a notch or two closer to being a hard keeper than his half-brother.
We feed good quality grass hay in small squares as we don’t have the storage space, equipment or desire to feed rounds. With these parameters, in combination with our variety of personalities, feeding time can be quite….interesting. Over time, we’ve developed some strategies for making this living arrangement work. Here’s a few you might consider if you have a similar herd situation:
- Divide your herd by feeding needs and behaviors
- Separate the bully of the herd.
- If possible, put harder keepers with harder keepers, easy keepers with other easy keepers.
- Keep an eye over time as the herd dynamics shift, the bullies can easily become bullied and go from ideal weight to underweight if you’re not checking regularly.
- Check body condition score on a regular basis and be prepared to move horses around if dietary needs change.
- Provide at least as many feeders as there are horses. More if you can. Divide the ration of hay evenly among them. This allows those who are bullied by others the chance to get what they need.
- While on pasture, use a grazing muzzle on the easy keepers so that the harder keepers can have sufficient time with the forage.
- When it comes to feeding concentrate, use paddock, pasture, round pens, arena etc. to separate the herd. This way, those who need a different feed type (example: ration balancer versus a senior feed) can get what they need and have time to eat it.
- If you don’t have facilities to separate during the time to feed concentrate, consider guarding the slower eater so they can get sufficient time to eat their full ration. This may add time to the chore schedule, but it will help to ensure all horses are meeting their unique nutritional needs.
Keeping multiple horses with a variety of nutritional needs in a smaller space can be a challenge. But with a little creativity and the right tools, you can be assured everyone gets what they need. What ideas do you have to manage the variety of horses in your herd?
You just received a new load of hay in to your barn. It smells so good, and looks just like the last load you got from your regular supplier. But is it really the same? While it might be similar, growing and harvesting conditions vary with every single cutting, and that can have an impact on the nutrition contained in that sweet-smelling pile of bales in front of you.
Generally speaking, the differences aren’t going to be very big – but the next time your horse mysteriously starts losing weight, or losing muscle condition over his topline, you might want to question your hay supplier or get your hay tested.
For example – if your hay got rained on after it was cut, the rain can shatter the leaves, which is where much of the highly digestible protein is found in your hay. And given how much of your horse’s daily diet is made up of hay, a small decrease in protein can have a big impact. Let’s take a look at the math behind this:
A 1000 lb horse should eat 1.5-2.0% of its body weight per day in forage – that’s 15-20 lbs!
- Hay A has 10% protein: 20 lbs of hay x 0.10 protein = 2 lbs of protein intake per day
- Hay B has 8% protein: 20 lbs of hay x 0.08 protein = 1.6 lbs of protein intake per day
In this scenario, you’d have to feed an extra 5 lbs of Hay B per day to be feeding the same total protein as Hay A provides!
But how much difference does this really make, you ask? If your horse’s intake is already on the low end of protein requirements for his size and activity level, then a 2% drop in hay protein would potentially show up in 2 to 6 weeks. Over that time, all else being consistent, a decrease in general muscle tone, and muscling over the topline, will start to appear. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to combat – in many cases, simply tossing in an extra flake or two of hay per day, or adding a ration balancer or 1 – 2 lbs of grain per day, at feeding time will combat the decreases – and what horse won’t love you for that?
Keep the following diet and feeding considerations in mind to help your horse smoothly transition from winter to spring:
Tip 1: Monitor Your Horse’s Body Condition
We all know every horse is different. This means that some horses will have gained winter weight from working less, while other horses will have shed a few pounds keeping warm in the cold. Before even thinking of altering your horse’s spring-feeding regimen, first evaluate his body condition. With the help of your veterinarian or a knowledgeable equine professional, determine if your horse is too skinny, too fat or carrying just the right amount of weight.
To monitor your horse’s weight without using a scale, you can utilize the body condition scoring method. This system will help you estimate the fat present on your horse’s body. Once you have estimated the level of fat cover, you will be able to more accurately determine whether you should increase or decrease your horse’s caloric intake.
It is important to note that each horse will require a different body condition level that is dependent on a number of factors, including: age, level of work, breed, current or past injuries, etc.
Tip 2: Don’t Forget About Concentrates (Grain)
Many horses are fed grain on a daily basis. Throughout winter some horses need extra grain to maintain their ideal body weight, while other horses have their grain reduced, due to inactivity. Adjusting the type and amount of concentrate or grain your horse consumes should be done slowly and carefully. A horse’s internal digestive system is built for slow changes.
With this in mind, monitor his level of work and body condition. If your horse’s work level is increased, he might need to receive more grain. Conversely, if his work level remains the same, and he is able to safely consume spring grasses, then your horse might need to receive fewer concentrates.
Whatever adjustments are made, make sure your horse is still receiving the appropriate level of essential nutrients, such as amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Achieving this may require a change in the feed product being used. Horses requiring additional calories could be bumped up to a higher-calorie performance horse feed, while those needing fewer calories could go down to a ration balancer product.
Tip 3: Horses Tend to Eat A lot of Forage
It is no secret that horses eat a lot of forage. However, what most people don’t know is that a horse’s forage is only as good as the fiber that it contains. Pastures often lay dormant during winter, which can reduce a horse’s natural intake of grass forage. As a result, many equestrians will feed their horses extra forage via hay or beet pulp. This feeding tactic can be great for the cold months, but it should be re-evaluated in spring.
When spring arrives, most pasture paddocks will be filled with new grasses rich in sugar. Monitor your horse’s body condition score as it begins to consume the rich green grasses. Horses that gorge themselves on spring grasses may encounter some serious health issues. For example, overweight horses or those with Cushing’s disease, insulin resistance or laminitis will need to be carefully monitored. High sugar and starch levels of spring grass can aggravate the latter conditions. In these instances, reduced turnout time or a grazing muzzle can help limit pasture intake for certain at-risk horses.
Tip 4: Lots of Fresh Water
This last suggestion holds true in any season: Horses need to have access to plenty of fresh water 24 hours a day. Warmer temperatures and an increase in body sweat can result in dehydration. Make sure that your horse has water access post workout. Some equestrians also add electrolyte supplements to their horse’s feed. These supplements can help replenish essential nutrients during particularly warm or hot weather. Of course, consult your veterinarian if you have further questions.
Spring is a fantastic time of year for horses and equestrians. It is a chance to shed bulky winter clothing and spend time riding to your heart’s content. However, spring is also a time that a horse’s body condition should be properly monitored. If you need to make any changes to your horse’s spring feeding regime, be sure to make the changes slowly and consult a nutritionist or your veterinarian for advice or guidance.
Ashly Snell works at Dover Saddlery and enjoys eventing with and caring for her two Dutch Warmbloods. She has been an avid equestrian for 20 years.