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Horse Topline: How to Identify and Fix Common Issues

Last updated: June 13, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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I was helping my son get his horse ready to ride and noticed that one side of its back seemed lower than the other. I asked him to look at it, and he saw the same thing. The horse is very special to him, and he wanted to ensure it was healthy, so he called a vet to check the horse’s topline.

The topline is a horse’s upper body muscles from the neck to the hindquarters that support its spine. A healthy topline is important for posture, movement, and athleticism. Common problems include uneven or sagging muscles, which can be improved through nutrition, exercise, and training. Left unattended, these conditions can lead to lameness in your horse.

A strong, well-developed topline is essential for a horse’s overall health and performance. It helps the animal move efficiently and comfortably and can also affect its appearance. This blog post explores the importance of a healthy topline, how to assess it, and ways to improve it.

What is horse topline syndrome, and why is it important?

Topline syndrome is a condition that affects the muscles and structure of the upper part of a horse’s body, including the neck, withers, back, and pelvis. It is characterized by weakness in the topline muscles, which can result in poor posture, difficulty with movement and athletic performance, and a range of other problems.

The causes of topline syndrome can vary but often include imbalances in nutrition and exercise, poor training techniques, and underlying health issues. It is important for horse owners to be aware of topline syndrome and to work with a veterinarian or equine professional to identify and address any issues to maintain their horses’ health and well-being.

Picture of a two-year-old thoroughbred horse, with a poor topline.
Before picture of Jimmy

How to identify topline syndrome in horses.

As much as we love our horses, it might be something we have done to cause topline syndrome to occur. Thankfully, we can use the topography of the horse’s back to identify the problem. Whether or not you have found the issue, it’s wise to connect with your vet before making drastic changes.

There are several signs that a horse may be suffering from topline syndrome:

Signs of topline syndromeObservable symptoms
Poor postureHunched or swayed back, Dropped or elevated head, Uneven gait
Difficulty with movementStruggle with turning, backing up, or extending gait
Decreased athletic performanceReduced stamina, power, or agility
Changes in muscle toneUneven, sagging or atrophied muscles
LamenessLimping or uneven gait

From a layman’s point of view, we can look at the following areas of a horse’s topline to see if there is an issue.

The Horse’s Neck

If one part of the horse’s mane keeps flipping over the middle line of the neck, it could mean there is muscle tension in that area. The tensed muscle will pull over the mane. A common reason for this is swelling around the C2 vertebra. This happens when the horse is ridden too much behind the vertical. It puts too much pressure on the horse’s poll.

Another part of a horse’s neck that can show topline syndrome is an overdeveloped and painful brachiocephalic muscle. The overdevelopment of this muscle often means the horse’s core is sinking, and they’re compensating by straining the muscle.

grey.filly .withers edited

The Horse’s Withers

The trapezius muscles are likely underdeveloped if there is a dip in front or behind the horse’s withers. The trapezius muscles begin to atrophy when the horse’s core sinks.

Usually, the cause for the dips by a horse’s withers is related to tension in the C7 and T1 joints. The tension in this joint extends to the sternum and affects the pectoral and subclavius muscles. Therefore, a horse with a dip on the withers will struggle to lift its back because it is painful.

The Horse’s Shoulders

If you look at your horse from your position in the saddle, you should see if one shoulder is more developed than the other. If this is the case, the tension in front of the scapula will affect how the horse’s foot lands on the ground. I.e., toe in or toe out.

The shoulders can become underdeveloped for a few reasons. It could be due to limited movement, the saddle being too far forward, or the martingale being ill-fitted. All will cause muscle atrophy under the shoulder blade, leaving only connective tissue.

Here is a YouTube video that provides useful information about identifying topline syndrome.

YouTube video

The Horse’s Back

One of the main topline issues you see on a horse’s back is “kissing spine.” It presents as a bump and can occur anywhere along the back. Kissing spine is where spurs grow on the vertebra, forming a bridge or bond between joints. These lesions are more likely to develop under the saddle (from the T9 to T18 vertebrae).

The leading cause of kissing spine is hyperextension. The long-term pulling of the muscles and connective tissue on the vertebra causes the bone to remodel itself. As a result, a painful cycle of inflammation and degeneration occurs as the muscles atrophy and the connective tissue pulls excessively on the joint.

Horses with a history of bolting or those with poorly fitted saddles are prone to developing kissing spine lesions.

The Horse’s Lumbosacral Joint

A horse’s lumbosacral joint is part of the horse’s hind end with the most extensive range of motion. A dip in this area is a lumbosacral dip. If there’s a bump, it’s called the “hunter’s bump.” Both issues tell us there’s a problem with the sacroiliac (SI) joint or joints. It could be a hollowed-out area due to muscle atrophy or a tear in the tissue.

The Horse’s Tail

If a horse carries its tail to the left or right and not in the center, it means there is muscle tension. The muscle tension is usually because of an inflamed SI joint.

Picture of a young horse on a walking wheel.  He has a strong topline.
Jimmy, after working with him to improve his topline.

Tips For Improving Horse Topline

There are several things you can do to improve your horse’s topline:

  1. Provide regular exercise: Regular exercise helps build and maintain muscle tone, improving your horse’s topline. This can include activities such as riding, lunging, and turnout in a large paddock or arena.
  2. Use proper nutrition: Proper nutrition is essential for maintaining a healthy topline. Make sure your horse receives the appropriate amount of high-quality hay, pasture, and, if necessary, a balanced feed.
  3. Incorporate stretching and massage: Stretching and massage can help to improve your horse’s flexibility and muscle tone. You can ask your veterinarian or a professional equine therapist for stretches that are appropriate for your horse.
  4. Use proper equipment: Make sure your horse is fitted with a saddle and neck collar for size and conformation. Ill-fitting equipment can cause muscle imbalances and contribute to poor topline development.
  5. Address any underlying health issues: If your horse has a health issue that is causing poor muscle development, it is important to address the issue before attempting to improve the topline. Consult with your veterinarian for a diagnosis and treatment plan.

It’s important to keep in mind that improving your horse’s topline may take time, and it’s important to be patient and consistent in your efforts. It took us months to get Jimmy feeling good and his topline in better shape. He is a work in progress, but so far, he is coming along well.

It takes a team to get results.

Improving your horse’s topline should be approached holistically, meaning you should consult your entire equine team.

Your first stop can be your vet, but you must call in other professionals. The professionals you can contact should include the following:

  • A qualified trainer. The trainer will look at how your horse’s feet land on the ground, how you ride your horse, and how you tack it up. They will recommend specific exercises and their duration and intensity to improve your horse’s topline. An active training program is the best way to maintain your horse’s topline.
  • A saddle fitter. Your saddle fitter can adjust various aspects of your horse’s tack to prevent further topline degeneration.
  • Your horse’s farrier. If your horse is misstepping, the farrier can shoe your horse with corrective shoes.
  • A horse nutritionist. If you have determined that your horse’s topline issues are related to its nutrition, you should call in an equine nutritionist to guide you on how to best feed your horse. edited 1

Questions To Ask Your Veterinarian About Horse Topline

As your first port of call, your vet will be able to assess your horse and advise which equine specialist you will need to help you. Questions you can ask your veterinarian include the following:

  • Does my horse need to have blood tests?

Your veterinarian might suspect your horse has Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID), which can lead to topline syndrome. If this is the case, they will do blood tests.

  • Is my horse’s topline syndrome a result of its age?
  • Is its topline syndrome a result of ill-fitted tack?
  • Do you think my horse has kissing spine? If so, will it need an operation?
  • Should I change my horse’s feed? Do you think it’s getting enough protein?
  • Should I still ride my horse?

With the answers you receive from your veterinarian, you will better understand how long your horse needs to recover and what its rehabilitation would entail.

ashton.poultice edited
One of my two-year-old Thoroughbreds

Exercises That Can Improve Horse Topline

The exercises you do with your horse will depend on the area of the topline that needs rehabilitation. Contacting a qualified trainer to work out a proper training regime for your horse’s specific needs is essential.

However, there are gentle exercises you can do with your horse that can improve your horse’s topline naturally.

  • I put the horses on a walking wheel for 30 mins a day for at least a week before I start riding. I also hand graze them during this time.
  • Working them on a lunge line can also help to strengthen their topline. You can work them both ways and see which side they favor.
  • You can walk and slow trot them uphill and downhill.
  • As their balance improves, trot and canter downhill.

Horse Nutrition In Maintaining Its Topline

Topline syndrome can result from poor nutrition, most commonly a lack of protein or insufficient calories. You can supplement your horse’s diet with quality feed that will improve your horse’s overall body condition. However, you should consult with an equine nutritionist first.

YouTube video

Below are some pointers regarding horse nutrition:

  • Their feed needs to include the essential amino acids (protein molecules) they can’t produce themselves. These are Lysine, Methionine, and Threonine.
  • Good quality feed supplements will have a higher ratio of essential amino acids.
  • Soy is used as a supplement to improve the protein profile in commercial feed.
  • Alfalfa has a higher protein content than other grasses but shouldn’t exceed 30% of the horse’s forage.
  • Too much protein in your horse’s diet is not good. It can lead to other unwanted issues and increased ammonia fumes in your horse’s stall.


A horse’s topline should be as balanced as possible. An unbalanced topline suggests an underlying health, biomechanical, or dietary issue which you should address as soon as possible. When managing your horse’s topline syndrome, it is preferable to call in equine specialists to help you with a rehabilitation program.