How Do I Build My Horse’s Topline?

Ok, so you came here to find an answer to the question: “how do I build my horse’s topline“. A well ridden and well cared for horse should display a symmetrical, rounded shape from head to tail. He should have a well muscled chest as well as a well muscled topline, and he should appear mentally and physically relaxed.

As he moves along, you should see the muscles of the loin coil and the base of the neck raise. This allows the horse’s shoulders and back to move freely as the hind legs move along in powerful steps. This is all possible when a well cared for horse is allowed to make use of his neck and head for balancing. This is done by riding in a light handed, intuitive manner that makes good use of leg and seat cues.

Heavy handed riders who maintain excessive contact with the mouth and/or force their horses to carry their heads unnaturally by raising the head too high, shortening the neck or over flexing at the poll cause their horses a great deal of stress and tension as well as unnatural muscle development and poor topline development.

When you force your horse to carry his head and neck unnaturally, he is unable to balance properly and use the strength in his back correctly. This leads to pain and abnormal muscle development and a poor topline. Chronic, heavy handed riding can cause real physical damage to your horse. This can lead to use of unnecessary gear such as draw reins and even to dependence on horse drugs intended to reduce stress and relieve pain.

For this reason, improving your own riding skills and keeping yourself in good condition as a rider is a very important part of developing a good topline in your horse. When you grow strong enough and skilled enough to communicate with your horse and keep your balance without clinging to the reins, you and your horse will both be better for it.

Work On Yourself

Here are some exercises you can do that will improve you as a rider while contributing to your horses strong topline.

1. Practice Your Two Point Position Out Of The Saddle

To do this exercise, you’ll need to stand on a mounting block, some stairs or an exercise step. Step up onto the object and position your feet so that you are balanced on the balls of your feet with your heels down off the edge.

Balance and bend your knees to attain the two point position with the angles of your knees and hips closed and your ankles flexed mildly. Your upper body should be slightly inclined.

Put your focus into keeping your weight balanced over the balls of the feet. Breathe deeply and hold the position for as long as you comfortably can. When you begin to feel muscle stress, straighten up and shake it out. Breathe deeply and resume. Work toward being able to hold the position for longer and longer periods of time.

At first, just focus on your legs and seat. When you’ve become very good at holding this position for an extended time, begin working on holding your arms in the correct position for riding. Also remember to hold your head correctly looking straight ahead and breathe deeply. These are actually important aspects of good riding.

Use this exercise to build up your strength.

2. Transfer Your Skills To The Saddle

When you become very strong at practicing your two point position on the ground, you can transfer your skills to riding. This involves working on your balance in the two point position while in the saddle at a standstill or moving quietly with your horse. Practice riding with a loose rein and focusing on using your legs and seat to communicate your intentions.

3. Use Your Mind Not Your Hands

Always pay attention when you’re riding. Look ahead and visualize what you want to do. You’ll soon be pleased to find that your horse will apparently respond to your thoughts. Of course, what is really happening is that as you visualize the next turn, stop, speeding up and so on, you will be signaling your horse very subtly through your own body movements. This means that you will be able to ride effectively with a very loose rein, very little mouth contact and no negative impact on your horses top line.

4. Don’t Micromanage Your Horse

As you move along, giving your horse his head, more or less, he may move more quickly or more slowly than you desire. Don’t be quick to correct. Allow a few steps at the horse’s desired pace and then correct gently to the pace that you desire. This gives your horse time to transition, maintain balance and work his head, neck and back correctly for healthy development.

5. Remember To Use Leg Cues And Seat Cues

Focus on communicating with your horse subtly using your calves and thighs and the weight of your body. Strive to keep your hands in the ten inch square above his withers and use only small reining cues to communicate through the reins. Only you and your horse should know what you want from him. This kind of clear, non-aggressive communication encourages comfortable, well balanced head and neck carriage.

Work On Your Horse

Of course, sometimes your horse’s topline problems may be caused by an injury, poor diet or a lifetime of bad riding habits from the rider who preceded you. In this case, your horse will also need some exercises to help develop a strong, healthy topline.

The muscles you will be working on involve the horse’s neck, his back and also his hindquarters, which must all move together smoothly and strongly to carry your weight and produce confident, assured movement.

Follow these steps to help your horse strengthen his topline.

1. Work With Your Vet

Talk with your vet about your horse’s current exercise routine and diet. Have your vet perform a complete exam to rule out problems such as kissing vertebrae which may be causing your horse to have a weak or sore back and an asymmetrical silhouette.

2. Perform Stretching Exercises

Before you ride, or on days when you don’t ride, help your horse stretch and engage his core by doing simple exercises such as “carrot stretches”.

Horse Stretches: Carrot Stretch

To do this, you encourage your horse to twist his head from one side to the other and up and down by tempting with the carrot. Try to get him to stretch his nose to the left hip and the right hip, down between his front feet and up.

3. Practice Backing

When you do groundwork, practice backing up. This helps strengthen the hindquarters and engages your horses core. Focus on teaching your horse to hold his head low and level as he backs. Don’t overdo it, begin with just a couple of steps at a time and gradually build up to as many as twenty steps at once.

4. Do Cavaletti Work

Whether riding or working your horse with the lunge line, having him navigate poles laid out at measured intervals on the ground is a good way to encourage him to hold his head and neck in a relaxed and balanced manner. It also helps him to learn to lift and work his back and legs as he moves along.

3 Easy Cavaletti Exercises

5. Ride Challenging Trails

When you go out for a pleasure ride, be sure to take in some hills and valleys to help your horse get a good natural workout. Remember to use a loose rein so that he’ll be able to freely use his head and neck for balance.

Build Your Relationship

Just as your horse learns what you want by reading your subtle body language and cues, you will learn what your horse wants and what your horse is feeling by reading his subtle body language and cues.

Spending time with your horse in grooming, doing casual groundwork and riding just for fun helps you become completely comfortable with one another, and this ultimately contributes to a relaxed way of moving and being that is part of creating an attractive and strong topline in your horse.

Recognizing Topline Syndrome

Nicky Ellis
Nicky has been an editor at Horses & Foals since 2017. Horses have been in her life from her earliest memories, and she learned to ride a horse when she was 5. She is a mom of three who spends all her free time with her family and friends, her mare Joy, or just sipping her favorite cup of tea.


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