A lot of owners worry about their horse’s topline and want to find ways to improve it and build it up. One of the most common questions about how to do this, however, reveals a degree of misunderstanding: what feed should I give to build topline? The quick answer, sadly, is that no feed, by itself, can help to build topline! To understand why, let’s look at some biology.
When we eat, we of course digest our food. Digestion is the process by which food is broken down to its simpler components. Starch is broken down into sugars, fats are broken down into fatty acids and glycerol, and proteins are broken down into amino acids. We are then able to use these various simple components in different ways.
Amino acids will be used to make new proteins. Our bodies are heavily dependent on proteins – even the enzymes that help us digest our food are proteins themselves. And protein is also what makes up muscle. Fats and sugars, on the other hand, are primarily sources of energy. We have evolved to store fat as a way to keep alive in times of meager pickings. When we have an excess of any of these components in our diets, we end up storing more fat. This is also true of horses.
So for your horse to build topline muscle, of course they need protein in their diet. But think about it… If you eat lots of red meat, which is high in protein, would you spontaneously start building muscle?
We probably all know from experience that this isn’t how it works! Eating protein alone will not help you build muscle. You need to use your muscles for them to grow!
This is because our bodies – and horses’ bodies too – have evolved to avoid wasting energy. Muscles burn a lot of calories so if we built lots of muscle that we didn’t actually need, it would be very wasteful. We would have to eat more to keep ourselves alive and in the past, when food wasn’t so readily available, that might have made the difference between life and death.
So the solution our bodies have found is to only build up the muscles we regularly use. And when we stop using them, they shrink again. That is why exercise builds muscle. And we need enough protein in our diets to build the muscle we are using.
So you are probably thinking that it’s really important to eat lots of protein. The trouble is that any excess protein you eat that is not used up cannot simply disappear. It is either burnt to provide energy or it ends up being converted into fat and stored in the body. So surplus protein, just like extra sugars or fat, will just end up making your horse overweight.
The idea that you can feed protein to horses to build up their topline is therefore mistaken. No feed, by itself, is going to build muscle. If only that was how it worked: we’d all be bodybuilders! The only thing you’ll get using feed without appropriate exercise is a ‘topline’ built of fat! And that is definitely not what you want.
The belief that topline can be built using feed alone is still quite widespread in the horse world. But it is a very harmful belief as overweight horses can suffer from many health problems brought on by their diet.
Instead of feeding more and making your horse overweight, think about balancing the diet so that it fulfills all your horse’s daily needs. In reality the majority of horses will be able to extract all their nutritional requirements from a good quality grass and legume hay mix, supplemented with a mineral lick or commercial balancer. There is no ‘magic’ feed for building muscle.
If your horse currently thinks he’s a giraffe, this is what you should address first. Once your horse is relaxed and has started to work ‘correctly’, building up a nicely muscled topline will be a lot easier! For some ideas for ridden work to help build your horse’s topline, take a look at this article.