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.

Understanding a Horse’s Topline: The Impact of Nutrition

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.

Identifying & Evaluating Your Horse’s Topline

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.

Evaluating Topline
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
2. Loin
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.

Hands-On Identification
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.

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.

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

Does My Horse Need a Diet or Exercise Change?

I recently taught an Equine Nutrition class to a group of seniors at an area college.  Our focus for the classroom lecture was dietary assessment by body condition scoring, weight and topline evaluation.   After the lecture I conducted a lab to apply hands on practice of what we had just reviewed.

One of the students asked if we could evaluate her horse during the lab session. The evaluation proved to be a classroom classic. The horse was a 4 year old Warmblood gelding. He was 17.1 hands and 1350 pounds. The horse at first glance appeared to be round and in good flesh, but as I ran my hands over his withers and back you could feel a lack of muscle and coverage.hand feeding red size

I asked the student what the horse’s current diet consisted of, she replied 20 pounds of first cutting hay per day and 8 pounds of locally grown oats. The calorie content of the diet appeared to be sufficient, however the amino acid balance was lacking. The student also mentioned she had her saddle recently refitted and the chiropractor out because the horse was having back issues.

With the move to college, the horse’s workload had increased and the need for additional fortification was obvious. I suggested that the student purchase a ration balancer to balance the needs of the young horse’s diet and help replenish his topline.

One of the students in the lab then challenged my recommendation.  She stated that she was an Equine Physiology major and felt my diagnosis was incorrect. She felt that by working the horse in a more collected manner, engaging his hind quarters and coming up under him would help to strengthen and develop his topline. She thought he looked fat and did not need to change his diet.

I went on to explain that the horse’s current diet was similar to a young child that would be on a straight rice diet, which is deficient in amino acids. You would see a round abdomen, but lack of muscle mass. If that child were getting ready to compete in a marathon, I doubt running extra laps would increase muscle mass, unless we supplemented the diet properly.

Again, your horse will tell you what is lacking in his diet, if you just take the time to look.