A horse’s topline is the muscle that runs from his poll to his croup, literally connecting head to tail. It’s important because a strong topline means better carrying power, balance and ability to work from behind. Basically, better everything.

The challenge is that the topline is often the last to come and first to go, on the list of horse muscle-building anatomy. So it’s a good idea to be intentional about strengthening it. Trotting builds muscle, so it’s the best gait to use for this.

Horses need to learn to carry themselves correctly so they reach top potential and aren’t heavy in their mouths. Oftentimes when you have a horse that pulls a lot or hangs on the bit, it’s because he’s trying to lean on your hand for balancing help, instead of just engaging his butt, back and abs and doing it himself.

Also, correct carriage and balance is simply better for the horse. Just like athletes who build strength and work on proper form, horses that move correctly are less injury prone and will have longer working careers.

They also learn how to use their bodies effectively, which makes them better athletes overall.

Frequently when we think of “building horse top line muscle,” we think of a classic collected frame that looks like the photo above.

But when you’re just starting out, it’s better to allow your horse to work in a more comfortable frame before you ask for all that fanciness. Let him stretch his neck out, kinda like this:

horse trotting relaxed

He can still trot that way…in fact, it’s a more natural position. It might go against your instincts to give such rein leeway, especially if he’s on the faster side, but it’ll also tell you if you’re using your seat correctly.

Riders who are tempted to overdo it with their hands often end up pulling the horse’s head up, which hollows out his back. That’s the opposite of what you want.

So, as you ride the trot on a loose rein, work at it until you can do turns and transitions smoothly without overusing the reins. You want your horse to respond to your leg and seat and be soft in the mouth as he learns to balance without hanging on you, so think leg and seat first, not reins.

Check and re-check your own position and try different ways to establish and maintain connection that don’t involve the reins. Need to check your position? Try standing up for a few beats just to see. It should be easy if you’re correct and balanced. If it isn’t, you know you need to fix something.

Engage your core and ride so your seat controls the horse’s hind legs. As you do this, posting up-down-up-down, think of sitting into the saddle as lightly as you possibly can, with control rather than bounce. That way, you’ll avoid impeding the horse’s ability to relax and bring up his back into a rounder position.

Then, use the rhythm of your hips—rather than your hands—to control the horse’s speed. This takes practice, but it works! If you learn how to do this, you and your horse will both become stronger and more balanced, and you’ll make a better team both now and in the future.

Want more info and detailed instructions on transitions using rhythm, not reins? Here’s a great article on building topline with a stretchy trot: http://dressagefundamentals.com/the-trick-to-stretchy-trot-and-topline-building/


Featured photo at top by Jean – originally posted to Flickr as WEG 2010 – Dressage Qualifying, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11835922.