Karen, I know you mean well. I saw you giving out advice again, and my offense bucket is now overflowing. You don’t know me but I’m reading your comments with fire in my eyes. I must write you a good old rant to help rebalance my Chakras. Stay with me for this one. I don’t like to force my thoughts onto folk as much as you do, but I’m going to try and bring you a better perspective on your latest specialism. (Oh, and well done for getting back on and completing that 5 mile sponsored ride last weekend! I’m sure the ‘Gobby Cobster’ would have been fine if it weren’t for the Swan.)

Karen, how often do you tell people their horse ‘needs more topline’ or advise someone to ‘feed for topline?’

Let’s talk about Topline mythology.

 

Needs more topline.

No horse I have ever met needed more top line. They already have enough for whatever they are doing – or they couldn’t do it. I see this phrase on various Facebook threads everyday used totally out of context, in its most dangerous form. Nutrition and training build true topline, but what I see is horrible advice to feed up older or younger horses who have either not developed or naturally lost muscle tone. No Karen! 23-year-old Crunchie does not need more topline for lead rein hacks with a toddler!

Karen, I think that you throw this phrase out there without a true understanding of what this means. It is a confusing and damaging phrase which gives some owners a misdirected belief they need to feed more. It gives others false reason to believe their horse is ‘muscled’ when in fact it is fat. A lot of the horse owners I speak to everyday have a distorted view on the importance of topline in relation to what is required of the horse. They are confused, and only want to do the best by the horse. Our leisure horses do not need the toned rippling pumped back muscles that we see on higher level competition horses. The pursuit of this fallacy is one of the many obstacles we need to overcome to make any real difference to the welfare crisis in equine obesity.

Let’s have a quick look at what we are talking about here Karen. Topline is the term we use to describe the muscle cover over the horses neck back and quarters. Going back to my coaching days (so long ago…) I used to describe this vital muscle group as a chain of muscle. When looking at the locomotion of the equine athlete, the power starts from the big engine muscles in the hind quarters (impulsion) and runs up the back and neck with various muscle groups working together to be contained and directed by the riders hand. It’s important to consider the condition of the topline when we are training our horses and look at progressively improving the whole picture. However, context is crucial here Karen and I think this is your first failing.

 

If your horse ‘needs’ a good topline because they are training towards Advanced Medium dressage for example, then they clearly have what they need already. You are getting it right. The horse has progressively trained up and strengthened the muscle he requires to perform at his current level. He will likely progress further in his training and development if he avoids injury. Fabulous! However your horse does not need and cannot achieve this level of muscle development if he’s not training regularly at a level which has already produced results. This means most leisure horses are a country mile away from significant muscle development. Happy hackers, low level competition horses and riding school cobs do not need an amazing topline to do their jobs very well. Even hunters can be incredibly fit but lack some topline development because they mostly work off the bridle. This is completely fine Karen!

Topline training requires a balanced horse to use those muscles in such a way that the back lifts when the muscles engage, and the horse works in a rounder deeper frame. This is hard work for young, old or unfit horses, particularly because they are carrying a rider on those muscles (with their own balance challenges) but also because they wouldn’t naturally use themselves in this way for any length of time. Sure, they will look stunning in the field when they drop the nose and bring out that medium trot but they will never choose to do this for a prolonged time and certainly not within the restrictions of circles and shapes that we require in an arena.

To achieve a strong well developed topline takes months if not years of strategic training in your horse. It’s a delight to see horses competing at higher levels with fabulous toned strong supportive muscles. That says to me, somebody has put a huge amount of work into this horse, and I can admire this physique in just the same way as I would look at a human athlete and think WOW! – you have done some serious training. Though these guys are training every day, and they are not just training one muscle group. The back muscles develop with the rest of the horse. They do not arrive on their own. They get stronger with all the other muscle groups which work in harmony to build a well balanced, strong fit athlete. The supporting abs and core muscles are particularly important to the topline, and without the other muscle groups working well the topline simply would not and could not develop.

It really bothers me Karen, to hear you telling Mary to focus on the horses topline, because you’re missing 95% of the training picture. The topline will come when you have got everything else right, including fitness.

I’m going to throw this snippet out there for you to consider Karen. You might not like it, but it is true and it’s important to digest this and remember it. You and those you advise in your guru capacity on Facebook are not giving your horses enough of the type of work required to develop significant topline improvement.

So that’s when you’ll spend money on the quick fix Karen!  I know Gobby Cobster has been on Super Prime Topline Guff Nuggets for a year now and you swear by them, but…..

 

Birtles Cottage Riding School in Cheshire, Holmes Chapel

 

You cannot feed for topline!

 

This topline myth gives feed companies the perfect opportunity to manipulate you, and you really go for it don’t you Karen! Let’s use an easy comparison to ourselves. Human and horse are both mammals. Do you believe if we eat a certain type of food, we can grow bigger quads or triceps? We can pick specific muscles more in line with topline mythology. Let’s go for some back muscles, traps and lats. If I told you Karen, I could sell you some biscuits that would make your traps and lats stronger and more defined would you buy them? Then if I said I have some granola bars that target your obliques and abs, are you now dreaming of your beach body? Oh and I’ve got some special bananas that will make your glutes bigger….. would you buy them? The Glute bananas are £40 each, I’ll send you my PayPal details.

When it comes to feeding, the main building block for building muscle is protein. Feed companies will tell you all about the proteins and amino acids your horse needs for building muscle, and of course they are absolutely correct. You can’t argue with science Karen, and I won’t tolerate that either. Though who’s to say your horse doesn’t already get enough? What makes you think the horse needs more protein? Perhaps your horses lack of satisfactory muscle development is not due to any protein deficiency. A review with an independent nutritionist could save you a small fortune if they analyse what you’re feeding and find that your horse already gets enough protein in his diet. Or maybe a simple change in the hay you feed will support muscle development better IF you are planning to add the vital ingredient too. Many feed companies don’t tell you much about the vital ingredient for building topline. Some do, and kudos to them! Though I would go so far as to say (how dare I!) some of them may even try to baffle you with science and clever marketing while neglecting the one crucial factor that is vital to building muscle mass. Karen, I don’t see you giving much advice on the vital topline ingredient either.

Training.

I lift weights occasionally. When I’m really ‘on it’ I can build traps delts and quads that scare the boys, impatiently waiting for the only woman near the weights to get off the squat rack. When I don’t lift weights, my muscles do not get bigger. I can eat all the superfoods Aldi has to offer, and my body may function better in its regular tasks. I may even feel a bit better for a nutritional boost, and I may think more clearly and be in a better mood. (I can probably tolerate you more easily when I’m full of spinach Karen) Though my muscles will not change in shape size or tone until I train them. When I say train them, what I mean is I need to ask for more effort from the muscle than is usually required – repeatedly. Muscles build by a process called hypertrophy. Pushing the muscle to work a bit harder creates tiny tears in the fibres. The body then repairs and adapts the muscles to better handle the stimulus (the training) and the result is accumulated muscle mass, which is muscle development.

 

Good nutrition is the foundation of all physical training. So I can stuff myself full of nutrients, and benefit in terms of my usual daily body function, but the most perfectly balanced nutritional input will not make one millimetre of difference to my muscles if I do not use them – MORE THAN USUAL, IN REGULAR AND PROGRESSIVE TRAINING.

Getting the diet right sets you up well. You will have the energy and the mood to go for a run, or smash through a little Jo Wicks workout, but without repeated and strategic physical effort you will make no significant difference to muscle mass. The same goes for your horse. If you think you can change your horses feed to include ‘Super Prime Topline Guff Nuggets’ and keep the same work routine, you will see no muscle development whatsoever. In fact, if the only change is that you are now feeding more energy, you could be making your horse fatter and see a decline in fitness.

Karen, I know you’ve had Gobby Cobster on those Super Prime Topline Guff Nuggets for a year now, but when I stalk your Facebook photos I’m struggling to see any change in his muscle development. I know he had some time off when the treeless saddle didn’t work out too well…

To put it quite bluntly Karen, you cannot feed for topline. This is marketing rubbish designed to tap into the human need for the quick fix. You can TRAIN specific muscles, though this is much more difficult in the horse. As a prey animal, his muscles are all geared towards acceleration and locomotion so they work together very naturally. It’s ideal to train the whole horse with occasional focus on specific areas. The human can single out many muscles that we do not require for locomotion. This is why we see guys who don’t like training legs but overdo it on the bench press. (You know, those V shaped chaps.) So, you can feed to ensure the horse gets the nutrients required for overall muscle development, but you cannot feed anything to target one specific muscle group. If this were the case, my abs would be ripped as that’s the group I would choose to train with a targeted boost. I might even start eating the Super Prime Topline Guff Nuggets to get back into a backless frock!

Feed companies use careful phrases like ‘promotes muscle development’ (Don’t you have to work hard for promotion!?) and often include the word ‘condition’ with the topline references.

Condition. Otherwise known as FAT in horses. To include the fluffy and mildly positive word ‘condition’ the feed company tricks your subconscious mind into a positive opinion and escapes liability. They know perfectly well that topline improvement will only come from training muscles that are supported with appropriate nutrition. If the horse doesn’t get this training, and instead piles on ‘condition’ – they were not wrong were they!

Which brings me to my next point Karen.

 

FAT IS NOT TOPLINE!

Right Karen, I want you to pay attention to this as it is very important. Muscle sits under fat. FACT. The topline muscles include (but are not limited to) the Splenius, Trapezius cervicis and thoracis (we sit on this one.) Around these we have the Deltoideus and Latissimus. I’m just selecting some obvious groups here. When we look at a fit horse, or even a horse with less aerobic fitness but one who’s been trained and conditioned in his discipline which consequently develops these muscle groups – we can see definition. Those muscles I selected are easily visible. It’s most obvious on the lean horses who’s heart and lungs are conditioned superbly well. These horses burn a lot of energy, and even the untrained eye can pick out defined muscle groups in a toned lean racehorse or higher level eventer. The horses who focus more on strength training such as dressage horses won’t be so lean, but the muscle mass is greater and we can still see fabulous definition in these athletes.

 

Fat obscures muscle definition. I know this from the pain of pulling out my guns in the mirror at the gym, then feeling completely deflated and torn between my love of sexy biceps and Chinese food. But at least nobody saw me do that right?

For muscle definition you must do one of two things. Get lean or increase muscle mass. Getting lean is the sexy eventer option, increasing muscle mass is the powerful dressage option. Gobby Cobster is neither of these Karen.

When you ‘feed for topline’ without appropriate training, you may see the horses back fill out a little, as well as other areas. Karen this is fat, it is not muscle. I am sorry to tell you but you can’t magic muscle into an area, and you can’t feed it there either. To build muscle requires shed loads of sustained and repeated effort. As one who tries to do this, it really hurts me deeply Karen when you claim that credit just because your horse got fatter. It is not topline. It is fat, and you need to know the difference.

Gobby Cobster is fat. We cannot comment on his topline because we can’t see it under the fat. If he fat scored (Henneke) a 5/9 rather than a 7/9 we might be able to see some muscle. As he stands Karen, he is fat. The Super Prime Topline Guff Nuggets have worked no magic, your training is none existent and your horse is fat.

The most dangerous aspect of topline mythology is the warped belief in horse owners that fat cover across the back is muscle. If the horse carries excess fat across the back, there will be excess fat in other areas too. Our horses are facing the biggest ever crisis in equine welfare. Equine obesity is so common, many horse owners now cannot recognise a healthy horse. They have no example for comparison, because all the horses on the livery yard are also obese now. This seriously threatens the lives of our beloved horses and I believe responsibility sits with all of us. It’s not just the feed companies selling you the quick fix you are hoping for, because someone told you ‘it needs more topline.’ It’s not just the showing world who still harbour judges that want to see fat horses, despite the irony of such horses not being fit enough to do what is says on the schedule. It’s not just you Karen, who gains a little knowledge in one aspect of a huge topic, then becomes the guru of all things equine on Facebook. It is all of us. Every one of us.

As horse owners we are so incredibly fortunate to live with these beautiful sentient beings who endure our constant demands, carrying us on their backs for some of the best days of our lives. Horses give us far more than we give them. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves in what our horses require. How they can live their most healthy sound and happy lives. We need to learn what is natural and normal for our horses, and not be swayed by pressure from you Karen, or the livery yard or marketing that casts a spell over you. It’s a minefield out there, I know that. So it’s very important to build relationships with those closer to your horse who can give you professional advice based on first hand knowledge. Your vet does not mind a quick chat on the phone if you need to check something. That is their job. Your farrier will be delighted to tell you if he/she thinks your horse has gained or lost some weight. Many farriers don’t want to offend you by saying your horse is dangerously overweight, but there are a few brave ones who will tell you anyway. Get in touch with an independent nutritionist who can show you exactly what you feed and what is required. (We can recommend some excellent nutritionists who put your horses health front and centre and will not try to sell you anything.) I’m willing to bet they will quickly pay for themselves and certainly help you learn how to keep your horse in good shape. And of course, a good coach is invaluable. If you want to build your horses muscle strength, they will be able to help you and your horse progress in the right direction to do this correctly. You can save the money from Super Prime Topline Guff Nuggets Karen. Spend it on good training. This will be so much more beneficial in your pursuit of topline perfection. However, it does involve listening to somebody else, and taking on board their experienced advice. I’m not sure how you feel about that.

 

I feel better now though Karen. I have spilled all my frustration out in this letter to you. Thanks for reading this and listening to me. Just one last thing now Karen. I’d really like you to please take away these three important points and consider them next time you give any advice around topline mythology.

No horse needs more topline. You cannot feed for topline. Fat is not topline.

 

Karen if I’m honest, I am a bit scared of your super ego. I think you’ll come back at me with Gobby Cobster’s distant ancestry links to Totilas, and the fact that he’s definitely improved because he can now canter for a full minute without stopping on the way home. I’m just going to block you on Facebook before you launch the counterattack. Sorry.

 

I probably should have done that in the first place