Topline in horses is used to describe the muscle coverage over the top of the horse’s neck, back and hindquarters. The predominant ‘topline’ muscles are the rhomboideus, splenius, trapezius, longissimus dorsi and gluteal muscles which enable the horse to collect and extend the neck, lift the shoulder and forehand, flex the back and engage the hind legs. It is important that the difference between fat and muscle within the neck is clear, therefore owners should get their hands on the horse using body fat scoring.
The only way to build muscle is through an appropriate exercise regime and by providing essential dietary support together; neither method will work alone. A common myth is that fat can be turned to muscle, however this is unfortunately not the case.
Muscle has a tremendous capacity to respond to training, with muscle fibres needing to stretch and lay down new cells in order to grow. Single bouts of exercise have very little effect on a horse’s fitness, therefore we need to train the muscles through repeated bouts of exercise to improve fitness.
Although it can be tempting to get cracking with your horse’s new fitness regime it is important to get the balance right between fitness and injury. Ensure you give your horse time to rest and recover between training sessions to allow muscle recovery and do not increase the intensity of the exercise suddenly.
To encourage muscle development a strength training programme should be initiated, with specific exercises to target the key muscle groups and engage the muscles correctly. Ensure that your horse is working actively and correctly even when out for a short hack to promote correct muscle development. One of the most effective ways to develop the hindquarters is through the use of hill work. Encouraging your horse to walk actively uphill (no jogging allowed!) approximately seven times, twice a week to engage the gluteal muscles. Don’t worry if you do not live in a hilly area, cavaletti poles encourage the gluteals to work through lifting of the hind leg so can be utilised instead!
To develop the longissimus dorsi muscle core strength exercises can be used that will improve tone and flexibility such as ‘carrot stretches’. These stretches must be done whilst the muscles are warm to avoid damage so ensure you warm up first! Take a piece of carrot and encourage your horse to stretch to each side and to the chest, repeating several times and ensuring you are performing the exercise evenly on both sides. Ask four your vet or physiotherapist’s advice if you are unsure.
The main component of muscle and body tissue is protein which is supplied in limited amounts by forage (grass, hay and haylage). However working horses will require supplementation in the form of a fully balanced compound feed or balancer. Some riders can be afraid of feeding protein in the belief that it will cause excitable behaviour - it won’t! Fizziness and excitability may be the result of a horse having excess energy through being fed too many calories, but not too much protein. It is not just the level of protein in a feed we need to consider but more importantly the quality, determined by the amino acid ‘building blocks’ from which it is made up. The horse’s body can produce some amino acids, however there are a number of essential amino acids such as lysine, which when limited will limit muscle development.
The most common problem that we see is a horse being fed less than the recommended amount of hard feed, as extra calories aren’t needed, without ‘topping-up’ with a balancer to supply essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Dodson & Horrell recommend either feeding the full recommended amount of a performance feed that contains lysine or, if your horse does not need the calories, using a high quality balancer that contains lysine. If you feed a chaff alongside your feeds consider using alfalfa, a natural source of high quality protein.
Changing your horse onto a high quality protein diet, alongside an appropriate exercise regime should be sufficient to enable topline development within six weeks, however if no improvement is made a protein supplement could be considered.