Exercise and Its Role in Your Horse’s Topline

A common misperception about topline is that it can be improved through exercise alone. Lack of exercise – or the wrong type of exercise is often blamed for a poor topline. While exercise alters existing muscles, building new muscles is a different story. The nutritional building blocks of muscle (essential amino acids) must be present in sufficient quantities and balanced with adequate calories to rebuild or augment muscle tissue. In fact, if a horse is worked hard but his diet lacks sufficient amino acids, existing muscle mass can shrink. This can be a slippery slope in some situations, and as muscle atrophy sets in, the belief is that the horse needs to work even harder when in fact the fuel is not present (in the form of nutrition) to help support and repair tissue that is broken down with exercise. Just like human athletes, athletic equine partners need more essential amino acids than maintenance horses to maximize the effects of training and allow the horse to look and feel its best.

Certain exercises are thought to improve topline include hill work, backing exercises, and those that encourage the horse to collect and arc the body. These exercises can help condition muscles, but only if the diet is supporting the muscles through proper nutrition.

To learn more, visit ToplineBalance.com.

Saddle Fit Impact on Topline

Poor saddle fit can be a symptom of a much larger issue. If the musculature of the horse’s back/topline area is not full and rounded, expressing high quality of muscle, many times a saddle will not fit correctly. In these instances riders may try to overcompensate for this deficiency by using extra padding and/or trying multiple saddles. Poor saddle fit can cause pain and soreness in the horse with pressure and points that may pinch and be uncomfortable. This pain and pressure can manifest itself in a poor attitude or poor performance. In addition, saddle fit issues may show up in irritability during tacking up, hesitation or refusals to take action on one side vs. the other (think leads, etc.) and overall unpleasant disposition.

While poor saddle fit can come from a variety of areas, including size, shape and defects of the saddle, one thing that should be considered is that the topline of the horse is lacking and therefore causing issues with saddle fit. In extreme cases, when topline scores have been improved from a low grade to an ideal grade, the fit of the saddle is enhanced to a noticeable extent. In the illustration below, you can see how the key muscles in the topline area may impact the way that the saddle sits on the horse.

To learn more, visit ToplineBalance.com.

Body Condition Scoring vs. Topline Evaluation System

Body Condition Scoring (BCS) and Topline Evaluation System (TES) are two methods of evaluating the overall health and nutritional status of a horse.

Body condition scoring is a system where a horse is ranked from 1 – 9 on its level of fatness. This score indicates if we need more or less CALORIES in the horse’s diet. Owners may also use a simplified system that looks primarily at the fat cover over the ribs to place the horse in one of three simplified score categories.
Topline evaluation is done by measuring the musculature along the spine, and giving a grade of A, B, C, or D. This score indicates AMINO ACID status and muscle quality.

Topline Evaluation System

Body Condition Score

These two measurements must be evaluated independently of one another. To learn how to measure each, refer to the tools below.

Assess Your Horse’s Topline:

To evaluate a horse’s topline, refer to the visual of the three areas to evaluate 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

Follow these steps to conduct a hands-on evaluation.

Step 1. 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).

Step 2. 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.

Step 3. Follow the same process for the horse’s loin and croup.

Assess Your Horse’s Body Condition:

To evaluate a horse’s body condition score, utilize this simplified method that looks at the fat cover over the ribs, which is a primary indicator area of overall condition. Hands on evaluation is key, particularly for horses with long hair coats.

If your horse has easily visible ribs that you can feel, then the BCS is a 4 or lower.
If you can feel your horse’s ribs but cannot see them, then the BCS is a 5 to 6.
If you can’t see OR feel your horse’s ribs, then the BCS is a 7 or greater.
The ideal BCS for most horses is 5-6, but individual horses will vary based on metabolic needs, breed, level of fitness and conformation.

To help identify the nutritional needs for your horse’s topline, visit Topline Balance and take the asssessment tool to get a customized nutrition plan.

Why are Amino Acids for Horses Important?

In order to fuel, repair, and recover muscle, equine diets must optimally contain a superior amino acid profile, including all 10 of the essential amino acids. Most horse owners can quickly name the crude protein level in the feed they provide their horses. But, what horse owners really need to know about is the amino acid content. Protein is made up of amino acids, similar to how a chain is made up of links. There are two basic categories of amino acids: Essential and nonessential. Essential amino acids must be provided in the diet, as the horse cannot create them on its own in the digestive tract, where the nonessential amino acids can be made. Nutrena products that include Topline Balance help to provide the right kind and ratio of amino acids in each formula.

Another key point is that some amino acids are known as “limiting” amino acids. This means that if a horse runs out of this type of amino acid, it can’t utilize any of the remaining amino acids present in the feed. If the horse has enough of the first most-limiting amino acid, but then runs out of the second most-limiting amino acid, it can’t use the remaining amount of the third most limiting, and so on.

In horses, the first three most-limiting amino acids, in order, are lysine, methionine and threonine. Generally speaking, if these three amino acids are present in sufficient quantities, the ingredients used also provide the remaining amino acids in sufficient quantities. It is increasingly common to see these three amino acids listed on the guaranteed analysis of horse feed tags, as it is an indication of the quality of the protein sources and the balanced nature of the feed.

If you are looking for a feed that may help impact topline, be sure to look at the guaranteed analysis on the feed tag. In specific Nutrena feeds – SafeChoice products, ProForce products, and Empower Balance – the amino acid levels are called out and guaranteed on the tag. The amino acids included in Nutrena’s Topline Balance products are included in specific amounts and ratios. Research has shown that this specific combination and type of amino acids help to support a healthy topline when fed correctly.

Guaranteed amino acids on the tag is a good starting point. You then need to let the horse tell you if the feed is working by regularly evaluating and noting changes in topline condition.