Got Good Topline? Why Your Horse Wants One. 3 DIY Topline Improvement Exercises and Stretches (part one of a two part series on the topline)

The topline of the horse is a term used to describe the area of the horse including the withers, back, loin and croup as pictured below.  So, what’s all the hoopla about having a good topline…. and what is a good topline?
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The withers, back, loin and croup comprise the topline of your horse.
The shape of the topline varies greatly from horse to horse.  There are many factors that can affect the topline including conformation, feet issues, nutrition, saddle fit, age, exercise level and type, riding ability and pregnancy status.  A healthy horse with a “good topline” will typically have excellent muscle tone and suppleness, move well, and display athleticism. That is why riders would like their horse to have a good topline (and why horses want one too!  :)  )
 
What is a good topline?  A picture is worth a thousand words.


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Good topline. All areas are engaged, lifted and displaying good tone. Horse is relaxed and has good posture.
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This horse has a dip in it back. The topline needs work.
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This horse has a sway back. Note the large dip and atrophied muscles throughout the entire topline.
This blog post is part one of a two part series discussing 3 DIY exercises you can do from the ground to improve your horse’s topline regardless of your riding ability.  All of the exercises assume you and your horse are healthy.  Next week, we will have a guest blogger, European and Olympian-trained USDF Bronze medalist, Rebekah Larimer, discussing how you can improve your horse’s topline while riding.
 
One final word before jumping into the exercises and stretches.  Every horse is unique.  Some horses may be older and have sway backs (back with a big dip.)  Other horses may have conformational challenges. The good news is that assuming your horse is healthy, you can improve your horse’s topline by strengthening and stretching the topline muscles and your horse’s core or abdominal muscles supporting it.  It is not about comparing your horse to the ideal topline, but rather helping your horse achieve the best topline they can have given the myriad factors affecting the topline mentioned above.

A Quick Anatomy Primer

Horses have a superficial and a deep layer of muscles just like humans. (Some anatomists characterize the muscles as superficial, intermediate and deep.) Improving the topline requires stretching and strengthening the muscles of the topline AND the core or abdominal muscles as well!

The names and locations of the major muscles of the topline (and the horse in general) are depicted in the diagrams below.   Please refer to the diagrams as we discuss the exercises and stretches.  Think of them as horse pilates and horse yoga!
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3 Topline Improvement Exercises & Stretches

1) Belly Lift aka horse sit ups! (# 9 in the Stretch Your Horse App)
(The #s in parenthesis next to each muscle name below refer to the muscle charts above.)

You may have heard of the belly lift which is both a stretch for the withers, back and loin muscles and a strengthening exercise for the core aka abdominal muscles. For anatomy geeks like me, the specific muscles of the topline stretched are the trapezius(#4), serratus ventralis (#30), spinalis (#31), longissimus dorsi (long back muscle) (#32), and the intercostal muscles of the ribs (#14).  The abdominals (#15 and #16) and the pecs (#13) are also strengthened as they engage to create the lift of the topline.

I have found that many riders are not doing the belly lift correctly, so their horse is not getting all the incredible benefits of this exercise. Many also give up as it can sometimes take 1-2 months for some horses to fully respond to the cues to do this exercise. It is important to stay with it! Success will come. And, as you and your horse get more experienced, eventually you may need to only touch your horse’s abs with one fingertip to signal your horse to do the belly lift.
 
Here is a link to the Belly Lift stretch contained in the Stretch Your Horse App. This free sample link will only remain active for a short period of time, so be sure to watch it now! It explains the entire exercise and stretch step by step. It also provides some tricks for those of you with long fingernails so you can do the exercise without poking your horse!
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Fingertips wiggle and press up on the abdominal groove, never moving more than 1/3 down the horse's abs. Starting position is with arm closest to the leg touching the horse's elbow. Do not move arms until lift is achieved in starting position. You are not playing the piano and moving fingertips up and down the groove.
2) Chin to Chest Stretch (#16 in the Stretch Your Horse App)
(The #s in parenthesis next to each muscle name below refer to the muscle charts above.)


The Chin to Chest stretch is an excellent stretch for the trapezius (# 3 and 4) cervical rhomboids (#22) and splenius (#1) muscles of the topline.  Also, one the cool things about this stretch is that most horses will also engage and strengthen the muscles in the withers pocket and even some in the back itself when doing it.  Also, once you and your horse are proficient doing this stretch, you can do variations such as chin between the knees to increase muscle suppleness and strength.
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This stretch involves using a treat. Be sure to watch the Successful Treat Stretching Tips video included in the SYH App at no additional charge.

Here is a link to the Chin to Chest stretch
 contained in the Stretch Your Horse App. This free sample link will also only remain active for a short period of time, so be sure to watch it now! It explains the entire stretch step by step.


The Chin to Chest Stretch involves safely holding a treat and using it to gently guide (well ok, entice) your horse to move its chin to the center of their chest and stretch the neck, withers and back. Ensuring the chin stays in the center is key.  If your horse has tight neck muscles on one side, for example, they may move their chin toward that side and lose the benefits of this stretch
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3) Tail Pull/ Tail Circles Stretch (#9 in the Stretch Your Horse App)
(The #s in parenthesis next to each muscle name below refer to the muscle charts above.)


This is both an exercise and stretch for almost every muscle in the horse’s topline. When done properly, the horse's tail is gently pulled back and the horse pulls it's body forward so the topline muscles are stretched and strengthened.
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Rex loves the Tail Pull! He pulls slightly forward to increase the stretch and strengthen his entire topline. Be sure your body is aligned with the center of the horse's body, the horse is standing square and your arms are raised as if shooting a bow and arrow.
Here is a link to the Tail Pull and Tail Semi-Circle stretch that is contained in the Stretch Your Horse App. This free sample link will also only remain active for a short period of time, so be sure to watch it now! It explains the entire exercise and stretch step by step.

Because this stretch involves pulling on the tail, if your horse clamps their tail or the tail is very tight, you may have to do to Tail Semi-Circles for a week or two to loosen up the tail. The video explains how to do Tail Semi-Circles.

The Bottom Line…. Or Should I Say the Topline….
Every horse is special and unique. Any healthy horse can reap the benefits of an improved topline whether they are a competitive sport horse, a horse that is ridden on leisurely traiI rides or in an arena, or a retired horse playing in the pasture with their buddy! A strong and supple core and topline is really a combination of yoga and pilates which we all know are highly beneficial for everyone!


Get Your Horse Stretch On!

What do you do to improve your horse's topline?  Join the conversation on the Stretch Your Horse Facebook page.

The Stretch Your Horse App costs $2.99 and comes with 3 videos.  Each additional instructional video costs only $1.99.  Buy only the videos your horse needs at a fraction of the the price of one riding lesson, not to mention the cost of a vet or bodywork bill!  And, once you download the videos, you can watch them as many times as you want right at your horse's side to be sure you are doing them correctly!  No cell or wi-ci connection needed.

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