Horses with toplines that are sunken in over the withers, concave along the back and dished-in around the hips and hindquarters are not living up to their full potential. Your horse’s topline and overall muscle development play critical roles in how your horse performs, looks and feels.
One of the biggest misconceptions regarding a horse’s topline is that the topline is made up of fat; in reality, it is 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. Often referred to as a loss of weight, it is important to identify whether the weight loss is focused on the topline, which is muscle loss, or over the ribs, which is fat loss due to a shortage of calories. Muscle loss and weight loss or rib cover must be evaluated separately.
DOES MY HORSE HAVE A “POOR” TOPLINE?
Determining if your horse can improve in the topline area involves evaluation of several key areas, including the withers, along the back, loin, croup and down into the hip area. Sometimes visual evaluation can be misleading, especially with winter hair coats, so it takes a hands-on approach:
Step 1. Place the palm of your hand on the side of your horse’s withers and see if your hand falls inward, remains flat, or flexes outward. If it falls inward, your horse has lost some muscle. If your hand is flat, depending on the breed/horse, the amount of muscle may be adequate or can still use improvement. If your hand flexes outward there is adequate muscling in that area.
Step 2. With your fingertips placed on the horse’s backbone and your palm pointed downwards toward the ribs, you can conduct the same assessment along the horse’s back, loin, and croup. A comprehensive assessment video can be seen at www.prognutrition.com/tes.html . This “Topline Evaluation System” helps assign a score or grade for your horse’s topline to further determine the stages of topline development.
WHAT CAUSES A LOSS OF TOPLINE?
Several factors can contribute to muscle loss along the topline including:
- pregnancy or lactation
- lack of or incorrect exercise
- poor saddle fit
While exercise will condition and train existing muscles, it can help build a topline only if the nutritional building blocks of muscle are available in the diet. Unfounded fear of protein, lower quality hays and/or a reduction of quality ingredients in feeds focused on price, have resulted in more horses with a poor topline problem.
HOW TO IMPROVE A POOR TOPLINE
For years horses have been provided additional calories in the form of grains or fats to improve inadequate toplines. Using a human analogy, if you were to eat nothing but jelly donuts (calories) your body would deposit fat over your belly (rib) area and not develop muscles in your arms, shoulders and back. Calories coming from either fats or grains provide the body with energy for digestion, growth and to perform exercise. Calories fed in excess of calories burned in a day cause the body to deposit fat predominantly over the ribs and sides of the body. Once a horse has become obese, some fat is deposited over the muscles of the topline. But we have all seen horses with poor toplines and adequate rib cover, signifying that they are receiving adequate calories in the diet, but something else is still missing.
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. If a horse is lacking topline, it is a clear sign that the horse’s daily protein needs are not being met.
A horse in any level of work, reproduction or growth will have an increased requirement for total daily protein, and this can sometimes be met by the increased feed intake necessary to meet energy demands. However, most grass hays and/or grains cannot come close to meeting the need, ultimately leading to a loss of topline. Therefore, the quality of protein provided by the diet is extremely important.
Very often, horses in low to moderate work who are also easy keepers (i.e., 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.
THE AMINO ACID FACTOR
Not all protein is created equal, and horses actually have an “amino acid” requirement rather than a “protein” requirement. Therefore, just feeding a higher crude protein feed or hay, may have limited results. The quality of that crude protein is what determines our future success rate.
Proteins are chains of smaller nutrients known as amino acids. There are 22 amino acids in nature and 10 of these amino acids are essential to the horse’s diet and have been identified as major components of muscle protein essential for growth, proper muscle development, and muscle repair. Lysine, Methionine, Tryptophan and Threonine are four of the more common essential amino acids that may show up on a feed tag or literature.
Feeding a commercially prepared concentrate containing high-quality protein sources such as soybean and alfalfa 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. As we build a diet for our horse, we must use a balanced combination of ingredients to achieve the essential nutrient intake at a reasonable feeding level and cost.
By taking the time to understand your horse’s nutrient requirements, you can more effectively choose a nutrition program that will work best for your horse. Proper dietary evaluation and balance can help correct this growing problem and return our horses to their optimum level. You will know when your feeding program is right, because your horse’s coat will shine, he will have the correct muscle definition according to his level of exercise, and he will have the energy and stamina to easily make it through a training session.
Russell Mueller is an Equine Nutrition Consultant based in Mulhall, Oklahoma. As a certified member in good standing with the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists (ARPAS) and the Equine Science Society, he has conducted nutritional seminars all across the United States.