Having a strong topline is essential for any horse, especially an off-the-track Thoroughbred (OTTB). The horse's topline is the key to bringing out its full physical strength and balance.
It helps your horse move more freely, with better posture and improved coordination.
However, strengthening a horse’s back requires time, patience, and practice. There are a number of exercises you can do on the ground and under the saddle to help build your horse's back and topline.
This article covers 5 of the exercises you can use to build your horse's topline muscles.
1. Back Stretches
Back stretches are an important part of any horse's exercise routine. Not only will it help your horse get stronger and more flexible, but it can also prevent them from injuring themselves.
Dr. Emma Poole has a great video demonstrating the correct way to carry out some of these stretches. See for yourself by clicking on the link below:
Simply hold the middle of your horse's abdomen with the palms of both your hands and pull it up slightly. This action causes the horse to lift their back for a few seconds and engage their abdominal muscles.
However, it's important to ensure that they are standing square on all four feet before doing so.
You can start out small by making them hold the position for at least five seconds, and then allow them to gradually hold it longer with each workout session.
This stretch will be a valuable asset no matter how far along your horse's training journey you are.
2. Hill Work
Horses benefit greatly from doing hill work because it builds muscle and enhances balance. Incorporating hills into groundwork exercises encourages the horse to use all of their muscle groups.
Joseph Newcomb gives a great demonstration of an exercise you can try with your horse. He also explains that you must ensure the horse's haunches come down and both the topline and back lift up.
This can be done by firmly holding the halter at the bottom of the horse's head and moving it back and forth slightly to ensure the frame is positioned properly. Check out this video to see how it's done:
Hill work on a slight incline is most effective. The incline can be increased over time as your horse's strength improves.
Repetition of this exercise will help your horse learn how to use proper back and hind muscles when going up hills. This type of exercise should be done regularly in order for it to have maximum benefit for your horse's overall fitness level.
3. Cavalettis or Ground Poles
Horse owners benefit greatly from the use of cavalettis, ground poles, or cross rails. These tools can be very useful, as they teach your horse to maintain a long, low stance and to focus on the movement of its feet.
Most horses can be trained to move properly by simply following patterns created with the poles. The pessoa system is also an effective way of teaching the horse to keep its head low and back engaged while lunging over the poles. If you are still in need of lunging and training equipment, you can purchase some from Country & Stable.
A trainer from the YouTube channel, Evention TV provides three different cavaletti exercises you can try on your horse. Take a look by clicking on the video below:
These exercises include serpentines, figure eights, and zigzags. All of these exercises will help improve your horse’s balance, coordination, awareness, and, most importantly, their topline muscles.
Alternatively, if your horse has trouble adjusting, you could try simpler exercises using ground poles to help them get used to going over obstacles.
Watch this video to see how:
4. Transitions Under Saddle
Transitions are an important part of riding, as they help to isolate the use of back and hindmuscles.
In a video by Amelia Newcomb, a trot-canter-trot transition sequence is demonstrated as a warm up exercise for dressage students. Check it out in the link below:
This exercise focuses on practicing lots of different transitions, from walk-to-trot to trot-to-canter to canter-to-trot, and so on. Back strength can be improved under the saddle by using this method.
5. Liberty Work & Free Lunging
If you're having trouble getting your horse to move the way you want, then it may be the result of horse feeding mistakes or issues with poorly fitted tack. In this case, you'll need to slow down and go back to the basics, or get a professional tack fitter to take a look.
Liberty work and free lunging can be a great way to help your horse learn how to move more comfortably under saddle. Allow your horse to move freely around you and reward them when they stretch out or raise their back.
It's all about letting them figure things out on their own and allowing back muscle development to happen naturally so that they can learn to carry both their own weight and yours.
For a better understanding of how this is done, watch the progress of Meghan Lalonde's journey using free lunging and liberty work to get her horse back on track in the video below:
In the meantime, make sure they are getting the right nutrition for horses by giving them feed with good protein. The building blocks of protein are amino acids, which also promote muscle development.
Additionally, it's important to note that an ill-fitting saddle can lead to chronic back pain and loss of muscle mass along the top line. This is why it's so important to give careful attention to the saddle's fit and seek a professional opinion. You can purchase a saddle pad to improve the horse's riding experience.
With time and effort, you'll be rewarded with a horse that carries itself correctly under the saddle.
Once this is done, you can go back to doing exercises that will help you build strong muscles on your topline.
In A Nutshell
You'll be sure to see improvements in your horse's topline muscles as you keep practicing and have patience. It’s important to remember that proper saddle fit should be established from the beginning of horseback riding training.
You should also make sure that you create a balanced feeding ratio for horses. This will ensure that your horse is in tip-top shape for any upcoming equestrian events or horse competitions.
If you're in need of some extra guidance or have questions, don't hesitate to contact us today so that we can provide you with the answers you need.
If you are unsure of your horse’s fitness level, health or ability to carry out such exercises, seek approval from a qualified veterinary practitioner or physio before beginning any new exercises with your horse.