June 2018
Farm & Field

Why does my performance horse have a weak topline?

There are many contributing factors, so a multifaceted treatment approach may be needed.


(Credit: theequinepractice.com)

Many high performance horses present with weak toplines, characterized by little or no fat covering either side of the spinal processes and poor muscle definition along the spine from the withers to the coupling and hip. Performance horses require a strong back to properly balance themselves and power through movements required for racing, galloping, jumping and dressage. A horse with a weak topline is not expected to perform to the best of its ability.

The causes of weak toplines are many and often interrelated. To improve the topline, one needs to determine the primary cause. Often, it is much more involved than simply trying to feed more.

Common factors contributing to a weak topline include:

  • Gastric ulcers

  • Intestinal inflammation

  • Chronic pain

  • Sore back

  • Subluxation of vertebrae

  • Inadequate nutrition

Many performance horses show with gastric ulcers, intestinal inflammation or both. When a horse suffers from gastric ulcers/intestinal inflammation, nutrients are not adequately digested and assimilated. Additionally, metabolic hormones (cortisol, insulin, growth hormone) are adversely affected, resulting in poor utilization of energy and protein substrates. The net result is the inability to increase muscle protein and effectively metabolize energy sources. A horse in such condition cannot build muscle or build fat on its topline, no matter how much it is fed. Furthermore, intestinal inflammation is often also noticed with a sore back and tight hamstrings.

I recommend omeprazole for gastric ulcers, and physical therapy, massage and chiropractic adjustment for sore back and tight hamstrings.

Chronic pain alters metabolic hormone profiles, especially cortisol, that decreases nutrient utilization and increases muscle breakdown. A horse in a chronic state of breaking down muscle will almost always have a weak topline.

Causes of chronic pain include microfractures, tendon/ligament injuries, osteoarthritis, strained muscles, spinal subluxation(s) and hoof pain caused by navicular syndrome, laminitis or sesamoiditis. A horse suffering from chronic pain will subconsciously adjust its use of muscles in an attempt to relieve pain, resulting in an unbalanced horse with a weak topline.

I recommend an evaluation by a veterinarian or chronic pain expert because the horse may not show any visible signs of lameness, making it extremely difficult to isolate the source of pain.

Subluxation of spinal vertebrae is also common. Unaligned spinal vertebrae interfere with normal muscle innervations. Muscles lacking adequate innervation cannot function normally, resulting in atrophy. Interruption of normal muscular innervation also affects other organ functions such as the digestive system and immune system.

Physical therapies such as aquatic treadmills, swimming, TheraPlate and massage combined with proper chiropractic adjustment can be extremely effective.

Nutrition can also play a significant role in helping horses strengthen a weak topline. I recommend for a horse with gastric ulcers/intestinal inflammation Triple Crown’s Alfa-Lox Forage to buffer the digestive system and support cellular regeneration of the digestive tract; Triple Crown Senior to support healthy fermentation in the large intestine, in combination with omeprazole to heal and prevent gastric ulcers; and for nerve impairment, a vitamin E supplementation.

In severe cases, I include amino acid supplementation such as L-carnitine, L-leucine and beta-alanine that is known to improve muscle protein synthesis. These amino acids can be found in high concentration in whey protein or a supplemental product such as Triple Crown’s Alfa-Lox.

It is also imperative to provide high-quality-forage sources to horses exhibiting weak toplines. Four to 7 pounds of alfalfa hay or cubes per day can be extremely beneficial to horses in need of extra condition. Utilizing a feed with 10 percent fat or more will provide concentrated calories without making the horse too hyper, especially if it is a fiber-based feed such as Triple Crown Senior.

Weak toplines can be a multifaceted problem. Utilizing a systematic approach to rule out or address each issue, beginning with the most prevalent, can successfully correct this common condition. Your horse’s attitude and performance, as well as your enjoyment, will increase, too.

For more information about Triple Crown and their complete horse feed line, call 800-451-9916 or visit www.triplecrownfeed.com.


Dr. Bill Vandergrift is the founder of EquiVision Inc., an international equine nutrition consulting company, working with clients in North America, Ireland, England and Japan. He formulated the Triple Crown Nutrition feed line. Dr. Vandergrift and his wife Janice own and operate EV Farms in Versailles, Kentucky, a full service broodmare-boarding and sales-prep facility. You can find more information about his company and other articles at www.equivision.com.