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Developing a Healthy Topline

27/01/2017 by Tania Cubitt, PhD, HyGain, www.hygain.com.au

How to get your horse that perfect topline is what we are all after, but first we must understand what a topline is! 

The topline of the horse includes the withers, back loin (or coupling) and croup. Strength of topline and loin muscles also influences soundness and athletic ability. The topline will vary in length and in curvature, with some relationship between the two. The shape of the back can vary greatly from horse to horse. 

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. 

There are several factors can contribute to a poor topline including:

  • Age,
  • Workload,
  • Pregnancy or lactation,
  • Lack of or incorrect exercise,
  • Poor saddle fit, and
  • Diet.

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, 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 cream buns with the end goal of developing muscles over your back and shoulders. This is one of the biggest misconceptions regarding a horse’s topline. 

A horse’s topline is not made up of fat; it is actually mostly made out 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 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 over 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 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 the 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 may have limited results. 

The quality of that crude protein or the amount of essential amino acids 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. 

Products such as HYGAIN® GROTORQUE®, HYGAIN® BALANCED® and HYGAIN® SHOWTORQUE® provide quality levels of essential amino acids to assist muscle development and added vitamins for muscle repair. These high-quality protein sources provide essential amino acids in reasonable feeding levels to allow for proper muscle development. 

Exercise

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 who are also easy keepers (e.g. lower level dressage horses or horses in semi-retirement) are fed a diet that is protein/amino acid deficient. These horses have plenty of rib cover and may even be overweight, but they have a poorly developed topline, especially over the loin, due to protein deficiency.

All HYGAIN® feeds utilise superior protein sources that contain high levels of essential amino acids. Using one of Hygains’ feeds, coupled with an appropriate exercise regime, will ensure your horse has a superior topline.