Building A Horse’s Topline

Industry Standard For Evaluating a Horse’s Diet

The industry standard for evaluating a horse’s diet is the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System. It is a 1 to 9 scoring system, with 1 being extremely emaciated and 9 being extremely obese. A horse’s body condition score is an excellent tool to evaluate if a horse is receiving enough energy (calories) in their diet. However, this system is not designed to evaluate other nutrients in the diet or if a horse is suffering from metabolic issues.

Tribute® Wellness System

At Tribute, we have developed a supplemental system, which gives a more complete picture of a horse’s nutritional status. This is the Tribute® Wellness System. In addition to looking at overall body condition, it evaluates indicators of a horse’s metabolic status, as well as a horse’s topline.

The topline of the horse is the area that runs from the withers, along its back (loin) and down to the croup. The muscling in the topline is important. Not only does it support the spine and joints, it also is an indicator of health (muscling) and diet. A strong topline is also vital to maintaining a horse’s athletic ability and soundness.

The Tribute® Wellness System uses a 1 to 4 scoring system to evaluate topline. It follows as:

  • Score of 1: spine can easily be seen and felt, topline muscles are significantly sunken
  • Score of 2: spine is protruding but not easily felt, topline muscles are slightly sunken
  • Score of 3: spine and topline muscles are even
  • Score of 4: topline muscles sit above the spine (ideal)
horse topline scoring

A horse’s topline can be influenced by both exercise and the individual animal’s genetics. However, a topline will never reach its full potential without the proper nutrients. The most critical nutrient for improving a horse’s topline is protein, and not just any protein will do. Rather, high-quality protein with the proper amino acids.

Protein is made up of chains of amino acids that are the basic building blocks of muscles and other important tissues. While a horse owner may be meeting a horse’s daily crude protein requirement, they may not be meeting all of the horse’s amino acid requirements. For example, forages are often lacking in the essential amino acids: lysine, methionine, and threonine. Thus, even if an owner is feeding a high-quality forage, they will not provide enough of the right amino acids to ensure a strong and healthy topline. This is even more true if feeding low-quality forage. It is also important to remember that just feeding more protein (or forage) is not the answer. An abundance of one amino acid does not make up for the deficiency in another. Together, all the amino acids are critical to muscle growth and repair.

To ensure your horse is meeting its protein and other nutrient needs, you should supplement their diets with a quality concentrate or ration balancer. Quality feeds from reputable companies are usually fortified with the amino acids lacking in forage. This is because the protein in a quality concentrate is sourced from things such as soy, peas, flax seeds, and others. These contain the essential amino acids that forage doesn’t.

Owners may run into issues in trying to feed enough protein with the proper amino acid balance and then trying not to overfeed their horses. For example, too much energy (calories) in the diet can lead to an overweight horse. Thus, this is where a quality ration balancer comes in. For example,  Essential K® and Wholesome Blends™ Balancer are excellent choices for easier-keepers. These low-calorie, nutrient-dense ration balancers are fortified with the essential amino acids (lysine, methionine, threonine) not provided by forage. These are also excellent choices for overweight horses. They will provide them the amino acids they need to maintain or improve their toplines, while also limiting their energy intake.

For thin horses, or those that have difficulty maintaining weight, they will need additional nutritional support besides additional amino acids. Thus, quality feeds, such as Kalm ‘N EZ® or Senior Sport™, are both excellent choices. It is worth mentioning that these feeds are low in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), but high in fat and fiber. This ensures hard-working or thin horses have the proper nutrients to maintain or gain body weight, and also improve or maintain their toplines.

Take Home Message

Finally, it is always critical to ensure you read and follow the feed’s directions on the feed tag. If any quality feed is underfed of the company’s recommendations, then horses will still be deficient in the amino acids needed to improve their topline, as well as other essential nutrients. If you need guidance with a feeding plan or about how to improve your horse’s topline, please contact us for advice and support.

Article By: Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.
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