Maintaining Your Horse’s Topline, Part 1

AQHA Professional Horsewoman Carla Wennberg shows you horse-training exercises that strengthen and lengthen your horse’s topline to help him achieve self-carriage.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

The way you think about topline really is the same whether it’s for English or western riding. A horse’s topline goes from the hip, over the loin, through the back and through the neck. It consists of the muscles the horse uses to carry himself through the gaits, especially in transitions. A strong topline has to be developed for a horse to have self-carriage; it’s how you know whether or not a horse is balanced.

We want the topline level. (“Level” may depend on the horse and where he carries himself.) The horse has to have impulsion through his body up to your hand to stay level.

That means the horse has to have a lot of strength through the hip, loin and neck, and that all has to be going forward. If a horse is truly balanced, he carries his neck level with or slightly above the withers. I believe the best-moving, softest horses move from behind, up through the body and into a light hand. That’s what makes the topline stronger and more level.

People often want to put devices and gadgets on their horses to help them come into self-carriage. They expect the horse to come into a frame because of the bit or the spur or the reins or whatever. But horses get into self-carriage with a balanced topline (and they’re happy going that way) only when they’ve finally developed the muscle strength and the endurance to do that.

Your horse's topline can be influenced by his conformation. To become a horse conformation expert, download AQHA's Form to Function report.

Common Topline Problems

If your horse has a weak topline, you might notice the following:

    • He has an inconsistent pace and rhythm in his gaits.
    • He speeds up or slows down while you ride a circle or a straight line.
    • He uses his neck to lift his body up for upward transitions.

What to Do

We do exercises consistently for at least 20 to 30 minutes before any pattern work. I think it’s good for the horse and rider mentally and to develop their muscle strength.

We do a lot: transitions, circles, lateral movements, spirals and squares. Here are a couple for you to try.

Transition Exercises

We start with working on transitions between gaits. Transitions make a horse have to balance himself and come back together, or spring off his feet, which requires a lot of push, or impulsion from behind. That gets him off the forehand.

We begin with doing a walk-jog-walk series; then move to jog-stop-jog. Then we go to a lope-jog-lope series (or canter-trot-canter). You can also mix it up with jog-lope-jog, or lope-walk-lope (canter-walk-canter) to collect and bounce them back up into a more forward gait.

I start the transitions with walks and trots between the gaits then move to stops between the gaits. We also work on pacing within the gait, doing an extended jog-jog-extended jog, or canter-hand gallop-canter.

The most important thing is to pay attention to when your horse gets tired, especially a young or unfit horse. Give him a walk for a transition and rest, then go back to exercise. Training for me is done in intervals: 10 minutes’ exercise, five minutes’ rest; 15 minutes’ exercise, then another rest. A horse will tell you what he can take. By mixing it up, you make the horse appreciate the walk, and he’ll feel better when you go back to work.

Your horse's conformation has a big influence on the types of events he is best suited for. Learning how to evaluate a horse's conformation is easy with the help of AQHA's Form to Function report.

Roll Back Into an Extended Trot

Rollbacks really make a horse gather himself and collect, and get off the front end. After we get our lope/canter warmed up then we’ll stop, roll back and either lope out or trot out. Doing a rollback into an extended trot is very hard because a horse wants to lope right out. It teaches the horse to wait for the cue yet still creates impulsion from behind.

Let’s say you’re doing a rollback to the left. You come to a stop, and the horse stands up. Then you ask with an active right rein aid and an active right leg, and push the horse around into the 180-degree turn. When you ask for an extended trot out of that, you lighten the leg aid. Use the impulsion of the turn, then ask for the trot with both legs. (If you were loping or cantering off, you would just push them into the gait from your right leg.) You still want forward motion, so you push him right out of the rollback but then ease up on that aid. If you lighten that aid to ask him to go forward, he’ll trot instead of canter.

Get just a couple of trot steps to make sure he understands you want just a trot, and then build the trot into the extended trot. If you’ve got your horse really in tune with you, you can turn and blast right out of there in the trot. But he has to understand your aids very lightly.