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What Makes a Great Topline? | Groundmaster

What Makes a Great Topline?

There are only two key elements that contribute to your horse’s topline: feed and exercise.  But it’s not that easy!  There’s much more to it than that.  

Horse’s body labeled with parts of the topline

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What is the Topline and Why Do We Care?

First of all, what are all these people referring to when they say ‘topline?’  Your horse’s topline comprises those muscles that support the spine.  As shown in the above picture, these are the muscles – from neck to tail – that enable the horse to reach under himself with his hind legs and push himself forward (or upward in a jump).   

Everything athletic and beautiful about a horse’s movement starts with his topline.  

World champion rider, trainer, and clinician Bob Avila says, “When it comes to looking at toplines, I have a saying: head down, back up; head up, back down. That’s because how a horse naturally carries his head and neck has a huge impact on his back. And his back has a huge impact on how well he can use his hindquarters…which in turn has a huge impact on his movement and athletic ability.” 

What’s Good and What’s Bad?

Before evaluating good versus bad toplines, it’s essential to differentiate between weight and muscle condition.  Just like in humans, a horse can be heavy in weight yet still strong in muscle.  A horse can also be light in weight and strong in muscle.   

Veterinarians have long used a Body Condition Score (BSC) to evaluate a horse’s physical shape.  On a 1-9 scale (1 being “poor” and 9 being “extremely fat”), this scoring system is based on how much flesh is covering the horse’s ribs, withers, buttocks, etc.   


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Click here to get your own copy of this BCS Chart, courtesy of the University of Florida/Florida Extension Service

The topline is a separate body area that many veterinarians, show judges, and nutritionists now also review to better evaluate muscle condition.  Muscle development along a horse’s topline is a useful evaluation tool to determine condition and strength.  

But the topline may be covered in fat and/or muscle, making it difficult to evaluate.   

Nancy Loving, DVM, writes in an article published in The Horse, “A horse can have an ideal BCS, but deficient topline muscles.  In horses with BCS scores of less than 7, muscle development of the withers, back, loins, croup, and hindquarters make up the visible topline.  Often, a horse shows signs of reduced performance before (you see) visible topline changes.”   

Here is a Topline Evaluation Chart, developed by Progressive Nutrition, to evaluate your horse’s topline. This system uses a scale from A-D. ‘A’ is an ideal, well-muscled topline, and ‘D’ represents the poorest of toplines. 

  • Grade A—The ideal topline.  “The back, loin, and croup are full and well rounded. The topline muscles are well developed and blend smoothly into his ribs. The horse should be able to perform work requiring the use of all of these muscles.” 
  • Grade B—The topline is sunken between the vertebrae and concave at the top of the ribs. 
  • Grade C—Topline is sunken in both the back and loin areas. 
  • Grade D—Topline is sunken in the back, loins, and croup. 

What Does Feed Have to do With Topline Greatness?

At this point, you may be thinking, “Wow – my horse eats better than I do!  I’m riding the snot out of him.  He gets grain, plenty of hay…why doesn’t his topline look better?”   

And this is where it gets tricky – and a bit confusing.  Remember earlier we said that a horse can have an ideal BCS but deficient topline muscles?  Your horse’s topline muscles are often the first indicator that something is out of balance in his diet. 

Kelly Graber, BSC, PAS from Cargill Animal Nutrition, describes it best, saying, “While exercise will condition muscle, it does not make muscle.  Rather, muscle production and repair require the essential amino acids as well as the nutrients the horse uses while working.” 

Amino Acids Are Key to Topline Health

Loving explains that while exercise activates muscle conditioning processes, nutrition provides its building blocks in amino acids, which make up protein.  Horses digest proteins and then use the amino acids to help grow and repair bodily tissues. 

21 different amino acids form proteins in the horse’s body.  Of those 21, your horse must acquire 10 of them from his diet.  These are known as the ‘essential amino acids.’   

The 10 Essential Amino Acid

Here are the 10 amino acids you need to make sure are sufficient (but not overdone) in your horse’s diet.  

These 10 cannot be synthesized anywhere else: 

  • Lysine for young horse growth 
  • Threonine for older horse repair and maturation 
  • Methionine for hoof and hair growth 
  • Valine, Leucine, and Isoleucine, which are branch-chain amino acids necessary for muscle recovery 
  • Phenylalanine – a building block for proteins as well as being a precursor to neurotransmitters 
  • Tryptophan – a building block for proteins as well as being a precursor to neurotransmitters 
  • Arginine and Histidine, which are used in protein biosynthesis 

Read much more about amino acids in horse feed in Nutrena’s blog on the topic.  

Exercises to Improve Topline 

When humans want to build muscle in a specific area of their body, they do certain exercises.  The same goes for horses.  In the case of a horse’s topline, that means building his core – strengthening those stabilizing muscles in his back and abdomen.  

Okay, it’s time for Tina (or whatever your horse’s name is) to head to the gym!  But don’t worry! These exercises are quick and can easily be incorporated into your daily routine.   

Examples of ground exercises you can do include bringing the horse’s head to each side then down between his front legs using hay, a treat, or carrot.  Do five repetitions, each position, working to increase the hold time in each position over time.  Start with holding the position for two seconds, and over several weeks, build up to 10-second holds in each spot.  These are great warmup exercises before riding.   

There are numerous exercises you can incorporate into your ride in the saddle, including riding up and down hills at slow speed (forward and backing).  You should also incorporate ground poles and raised poles into your workout.  Trotting and cantering over poles of varying height, distance, and angles forces your horse to continually think about how he should be raising and lowering his legs and where he should be placing his feet.   

These exercises and more are available in several sources, including this handy reference, “Activate Your Horse’s Core” by Clayton and Stubbs


Exercise, regular evaluation of the muscle mass along your horse’s topline, and a careful review of the nutrient balance in your horse’s diet can help you maximize his muscle development.  Just like mom always said, “Eat your vegetables and exercise so you can be big and strong!”  You can help your horse develop a healthy topline and perform to his genetic potential. 

Do you have a question about your horse’s conformation, exercise routine, or nutrition?  Let us know in the comments! 



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