Good topline is one element of the ultimate condition that every horse owner strives for. But what is true topline and how much does what you feed really influence it?


What is topline?

The term ‘topline’ is used to describe the muscles which run down the top of the horse’s neck, along the back and over the hindquarters. As true topline consists largely of muscle (as opposed to fat), the two essential ingredients are quality protein and appropriate work.


The importance of quality protein

Protein is made of up of building blocks called amino acids, some of which termed ‘essential’ because they can’t be produced by the body and must be provided by the diet. Protein quality is determined by the presence (or lack) of essential amino acids, one of the most important being lysine. Lysine plays a key role in muscle development and is also the ‘first limiting amino acid’, meaning it is one most likely to be deficient in the diet. Protein synthesis and therefore muscle development relies on lysine requirements being met. If sufficient levels are not provided by the diet, the body will break down lean tissue (muscle) in order to meet requirements.


Meeting protein requirements

Levels of lysine in forage may be low be low but rest assured, feeding the recommended amount of a suitable compound feed or balancer will help to ensure that protein and lysine requirements are met. Balancers are the ideal option for horses that maintain weight easily on forage alone and unlike broad spectrum vitamin and mineral supplements, provide additional lysine to help support muscle and topline.


Do muscle supplements really work?

Excess protein and amino acids are excreted in the horse’s urine and therefore exceeding requirements is inefficient. Having said this, optimum requirements have not been truly established so it is possible that supplementing certain amino acids may be beneficial in some horses. However beware of supplements making bold claims which may promise far more than they can deliver. Despite a significant price tag, some supplements contain negligible levels of amino acids.


There is no substitute for correct work!

Getting in shape is hard work! Muscles require correct training and periods of rest in order for the fibres to stretch, repair, lay down new cells and ultimately grow. Simply feeding more protein, regardless of the quality will never achieve optimum results without suitable exercise.


Body condition score (BCS)

Body condition scoring is an assessment of fat coverage, not muscle development which means some horses may have an ‘ideal’ BCS but poor topline. Regular body condition scoring will help you to assess whether it is fat coverage or muscle development that your horse is really lacking. In general, muscle feels firm whilst fat feels soft although a loss of muscle tone or mass in older and/ or unexercised horses can sometimes be mistaken for a lack of fat coverage. For most horses, a BCS of 5/9 is considered ideal.


Fat cannot be converted to muscle – fact!

Unfortunately this is true for us and true for our horses. Although horses in negative energy balance (those consuming less calories than they burn) will not be able to able to build new muscle, avoid falling into the trap of allowing your horse to lay down excess fat in attempt to improve topline.


Foundations for success

When it comes to building topline there is no quick fix but following three simple (albeit not always easy) steps will provide the foundations for success:

*Aim to maintain a BCS of 5/ 9

*Provide suitable levels of quality protein and in particular lysine – a nutritionist will be able to provide advice on this

*Work your horse regularly ensuring exercise is of an appropriate type, intensity and frequency


For more advice on feeding a balanced diet contact the SPILLERS Care-Line on 01908 226626