How to build up your horse’s topline

Sheldon's Top line
Sheldon is a bit underweight but he could use some muscle in the right places more than he needs more calories. He doesn’t look bad but with the right muscles he’ll look great.

To build the muscles that strengthen a horse’s topline, first you have to get the horse to work correctly — to use his back, engage his abdominals, and push from behind and connect with your hand.

You can tell when a horse isn’t working correctly by looking at his musculature. If your horse’s underneck is too developed, there’s not enough muscle over the back and they might be a bit “saggy” in the belly or back even if they aren’t fat.

Guess what? That describes Sheldon! He is a bit thin right now but mostly he needs to put muscle in the right places. He needs to lose the muscle under his neck and put it on the top of his neck and his back. He’s a bit over muscled and tight in his glutes.

This shows Sheldon over the winter. You can see how easily he hollows his back and braces with his neck -- this is especially true when he's in a situation that causes anxiety.
This shows Sheldon over the winter. You can see how easily he hollows his back and braces with his neck — this is especially true when he’s in a situation that causes anxiety. He’s come a long way since then.

It’s been hard to get Sheldon to use his body correctly but we’re making progress. Partly this is related to conformation. Because of the way his neck ties into his withers — Sheldon naturally carries his head high and it’s easy for him to hollow his back and pull himself along rather than push. And partly it’s because as a racehorse no one asked him to use his body the way we want him to now. He needs to learn how to rebalance and simultaneously develop the muscle to carry himself properly.

The bodywork he had recently certainly helped. Often when a horse is too tight and doesn’t want to move correctly, there is some underlying pain and/or some weakness.  I knew he was tight in his glutes and tender in his SI area; Gary focused on those areas. I never would have had the conviction to use that much pressure. I would have been afraid that it would just hurt and not help. That’s why you bring in the expert.

Before the bodywork I would get a few minutes of really nice work during a ride — times when Sheldon would drop his head, engage his abdominals and push into my hand. Those moments felt great but they didn’t last long.

Now I’m getting the good work sooner and it’s lasting longer. He’s staying nicely in my hand and reaching down into the bridle. His back is coming up and starting to loosen. He can hold it very nicely at the trot and his canter work is getting better every day. The trick now is to work him just enough to build more muscle but not so much that he gets tired and cranky. He’s still not great at the walk. He does better when his feet are moving.

Freedom when I first got him
When I first got Freedom he had no muscle. Look at that skinny neck! And the sagging belly.

I’m lucky to have a field to ride where we have a very slight hill. Working a horse on a hill is a great way to encourage them to stretch down and push from behind. Trot poles are also a great way to get a horse to use its back correctly too.

There are “short cuts” to bringing a horse’s head down, such as draw reins, but you have to be very, very careful with them. It’s too easy to focus just on bringing the head down and not achieve engagement from the hind end.  If used tactfully, draw reins can help some horses but I knew that Sheldon would just feel trapped. He had to find his way into a better frame by encouraging him to reach down into my hand and pushing him forward. You might remember that forward can be a bit of a challenge for Sheldon so initially I let him stay inverted as long as he went forward. Now I’m insisting that he moves more correctly.

Freedom last summer
Freedom’s body shape is completely different now that he’s in regular work and uses his body more correctly. Of course, it’s easier for him because his neck ties into his withers in a way that makes it easier for him to stretch down.

My guess is that in the next month or two Sheldon will look completely different. Just take a look at Freedom’s before and after shots. The first picture was taken about two weeks after I got him. He was underweight and had no topline. The second photo is how Freedom looked last year.

Now I’ll admit that Freedom has conformation that makes it easier for him to work properly. His neck ties into his withers much lower than Sheldon’s. Even from the beginning he didn’t have the same issue with hollowing his back — he was curled up behind the bit and needed to learn to stretch properly. In contrast, Sheldon is learning how to use his body in a way that will allow self carriage and will strengthen his back.

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