To get your horse that perfect topline, first you must understand what the topline is, as the shape of a horse's back can vary greatly from horse to horse.
The topline of the horse includes the withers, back loin (or coupling) and croup. The strength of topline and loin muscles also influence soundness and athletic ability. Topline will vary in length and in curvature, with some relationship between the two. Horses with toplines that are sunken in over their withers, concave along the back and loin or dished in around their hip bones and hindquarters will have diminished strength in those areas.
Several factors can contribute to a poor topline including:
- Pregnancy or lactation
- Lack of or incorrect exercise
- Poor saddle fit
It has been a common practice for many years to feed additional calories from fat supplements or grains to try and improve a horse’s topline condition. This is not very successful as these calories are either used for energy and exercise, or they are stored as fat.
Typical fat storage areas in horses are behind the shoulders, over the ribs and neck, and around the tail head, but not necessarily over the topline.
A horse would have to be fed quite a lot of additional calories for fat to be laid down over the back.
If we think of humans, for example, you wouldn’t eat multiple doughnuts with the end goal of developing muscles over your back and shoulders. This is one of the biggest misconceptions regarding a horse’s topline is that the topline is made up of fat; it is actually made mostly of muscle. Since the muscles along the withers, back, loin and croup make up the horse’s topline, losses in this area are actually atrophy of these muscles.
So, what can we feed that will help build the perfect topline?
Now that we have established that the horse’s topline is primarily muscle, the question then becomes: "What can we feed to develop more muscle in the horse?"
Since muscle is made up of more than 70% protein, building and maintaining muscle in the body requires the correct amount of dietary protein. Unfortunately, protein is mistakenly seen in a negative light nutritionally and is often avoided.
When a horse has a poor topline, it is due to diminished muscle mass and potentially due to insufficient, good-quality protein in the diet. Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids and are an essential part of a horse’s diet. Some of these amino acids include: lysine, methionine, tryptophan and threonine. These and other essential amino acids are linked together in the body to form muscle. Not all protein, however, is created equal. Just feeding a higher crude protein feed or hay might have limited results. The quality of that crude protein or the amount of essential amino acids it contains is what determines the effectiveness of that protein. Diets containing adequate levels of all the essential amino acids can drastically improve an imperfect topline.
Feeding a commercially prepared concentrate containing high-quality protein sources such as legumes )including soybean and lucerne meal), along with additional individual amino acids, will promote muscle tone and a strong topline. These high-quality protein sources provide essential amino acids in reasonable feeding levels to allow for proper muscle development.
Exercise is also important when trying to develop or improve a horse’s topline. Exercise will condition and train existing muscles and will help build a topline only if the nutritional building blocks of muscle are available in the diet. Very often, horses in low to moderate work, which are also easy keepers (i.e., lower-level dressage horses or horses in semi-retirement), are fed diets that are deficient in protein/amino acids. These horses have plenty of rib cover, and might even be overweight, but they have a poorly developed topline, especially over the loin, due to protein deficiency.
Standlee Premium Western Forage has several forage options with superior protein sources that contain high levels of essential amino acids. Using one of Standlee’s forages coupled with an appropriate exercise regime will ensure your horse has a superior topline. Please visit www.StandleeForage.com for additional information.