The topline tells the tale of a horse’s overall health

It’s one of the clearest and widest indicators of well-being — or problematic issues

Multiple aspects of a horse’s health, lifestyle and environment dovetail together and contribute to the appearance of its topline.

An esthetically pleasing topline in a horse at any age is a testament to the alignment of a good many conditions and circumstances which are supportive of the horse’s health and well-being. The opposite is equally important, for deficiencies in a horse’s topline are usually indicative of some way in which the quality of a horse’s life is deficient.

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The term topline in the horse describes muscle coverage over and along the vertebral column (spine). This muscle coverage with its collection of connective tissues begins at the base of the skull or poll and travels along the neck, withers, down the back and loin, and over top the hip into the croup and hindquarter region, ending at the tip of the tail.

These tissues support and stabilize proper movement and self-carriage or posture in the horse. Just like in the human, good posture in horses plays an important role in how a horse looks, feels and performs. Deficiencies in a horse’s topline may be an indication of a multitude of problematic issues. Horses with weak, hollowed or sunken toplines experience various degrees of soreness and pathology of the neck, withers, mid-back, sacroiliac region, loins, hindquarters and croup, poor balance, improper foot loading, reduced limb strength, length and stride and consequential lamenesses. It is not ‘just’ the topline in the horse that is affected.

Digestive health plays a critical role in building and maintaining the appearance of a well-developed topline as well. Since a horse’s topline is predominantly musculature in nature, ‘losses’ or the ‘emptiness’ that appears reflects an actual atrophy, weakness or wasting of these muscles.

Although a topline can be “filled out” to some degree with calorie-rich foods, this result is not from healthy muscle development but rather from fat accumulation as the horse’s body also utilizes this region as a depot for fat storage. Topline assessments, paired with body condition scoring, reveal a more complete story for any age group of horses.

Horses with poor digestive health, gastrointestinal ulceration and loss of the rich, diverse microbiome of the hindgut will have a “wasting” look to their toplines and upper flanks regardless of exercises targeted to improve their topline. Commonly, horses with poor digestive health exhibit no other significant clinical symptoms than that of a poor topline. The volatile fatty acids produced by the rich microbiome in the hindgut are an essential fuel source for muscle function and development and thus full expression of the topline. For this, the horse relies on quality long-stem fibrous forages rather than supplements, ration balancers, and vitamin/mineral blends to create muscle-skeletal health.

Once a good-quality forage is in place, the addition of a sensible source and/or amount of quality protein such as alfalfa can be added to the diet to ensure the adequate amino acid profile necessary for proper muscle development. This aspect of a diet can be particularly relevant to young, growing and performance horses.

Once digestive health is addressed the horse requires movement to develop and condition its body — which it will naturally do for the most part when living in a pasture environment alongside fellow companions. Whenever the natural movement of horses is limited to stalls and small paddocks they inevitably develop bodies akin to a sedentary lifestyle and/or bodies likened to bedrest for the human. Muscle groups invariably ‘waste’ away and are weakened without sure and steady movement.

Horses need environments that allow them to graze and eat at ground level to strengthen and reset all stabilizing and postural muscles. Horses with ample freedom to move are better able to relieve themselves of the chronic residual muscle tensions that often accumulate along the topline.

Dental and foot health significantly influence how the horse ‘uses’ its body and carries itself. Painful discomfort in the mouth or feet creates compensation patterns throughout the entire body which hold the horse in poor posture as it attempts to evade the pain located ‘elsewhere’ in the body.

If the root cause is not properly addressed the horse continues to carry musculature tension in its topline and a ‘hollowness.’ Attempts at topline building exercises will often trigger and amplify unwanted and defensive behaviours unless the root cause for the discomfort is remedied.

Many causes for a poor topline can be traced back through the musculoskeletal history of a horse and this includes its early development and training schedule. If a horse is ridden too young before its back is fully mature and able to effectively carry the burden of a rider many horses succumb to poor toplines for the remainder of their lives.

Horses need to be educated how to properly carry the burden of a rider without bringing physical harm to themselves over time.

This requires movement which is meaningful to the horse physically, mentally and emotionally so the horse can develop and maintain self-carriage with proper balance, stability and posture. These early beginnings are of great influence to the appearance of a horse’s topline throughout its entire lifetime. To the discerning eye every step taken by the horse is either conditioning the topline for the better or the worse.

Despite all efforts to ensure a good diet, health care and proper work, ill-fitting tack such as saddles and blankets can significantly derail a horse’s topline. The solution of the horse’s body to ill-fitting tack and its discomfort is ‘hollowing’ of the back and resistance. Over time, seemingly small insults of unforgiving pressure upon the tissues become readily apparent as saddle sores and deficiencies along the topline especially over and behind the withers.

The general appearance of a horse’s topline is a trustworthy indicator of the horse’s overall health and comfort, extending from foot and dental health, to tack, training regimen, and everything in between.

About the author

Contributor

Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.

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