Exercises to Build Your Horse’s Topline

Photo courtesy of Emily Miller

BY EMILY MILLER

When I purchased my 2011 Warmblood cross mare, Dixie, in 2017 she was very green under saddle and unbalanced in her gaits. She was particularly weak in her back and didn’t know how to use herself correctly. Throughout the process of training her, I spent a lot of time focusing on different exercises to build up her top line, both ridden and on the ground.

Photo courtesy of Emily Miller

Groundwork and Stretching

Carrot stretches are something I learned about a few months ago and they have quickly become one of my favourite things to do. Every time before I ride, I go through a series of stretches. On each side, I ask my horse to stretch to her girth area, hip and hind fetlock.

Photo courtesy of Emily Miller

I also ask her to stretch down between her legs, to her chest and straight forward. I use carrots to convince her to do the stretches and I ask her to hold each stretch for approximately 5-10 seconds. Not only do these stretches help warm her up before our rides, they also have significantly improved her flexibility, balance and core strength, all of which have helped us a lot under saddle. While riding her, I feel a significant difference in how she carries herself now compared to before I started doing the stretches.

Photo courtesy of Emily Miller

Finally, I ask my horse to do hind end lifts and belly lifts. Both are great exercises that have significantly improved her top line. For belly lifts, I put one hand at her girth area on her belly and my other hand slightly behind that. I use my fingers and nails to “tickle” her until she lifts up her belly. I do 8 of these for 8 seconds each before each ride.

Photo courtesy of Emily Miller

For hind end lifts, I stand directly behind her and place my hands on either side of her hind end. I use my fingers and nails to “tickle” her until she tucks her hind end under. I ask her to do 8 of these for 8 seconds each before each ride. The amount of repetitions and time that each one should be held for completely depends on the horse. When I started them with my horse, I would ask her to do 3 of each for 8 seconds and slowly built up from there.

Riding Exercises

Riding many transitions are an easy, but beneficial exercise to do. I particularly like doing trot to walk transitions. I focus on making our transitions as smooth and as slow as possible, so she doesn’t slam on the breaks and fall to her forehand. I’ve found this to be an easy way to improve her balance, hind end strength and overall top line. As my horse’s training progressed, I started adding more challenging transitions such as canter to walk and transitions within each gait.

I quite enjoy doing pole work, because it’s a fun way to change things up and there’s many different ways you can set up the poles. I started out with walk poles to get my horse comfortable with the idea of going over them. A benefit to doing walk poles is that the horse has the work their muscles more than at other gaits because there isn’t as much momentum to carry them over the poles. As my horse became stronger, I moved on from ground walk poles to partially raised walk poles and then fully raised walk poles. I then added in trot poles and eventually canter poles, increasing them the same way as the walk poles.  

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

Riding long and low is another exercise my horse really enjoys doing. When done properly, long and low is a great way to strengthen a horse’s top line and core. I generally do long and low trot work at the beginning and end of all of my rides. I also ask her to stretch into the bit at the walk and canter, but most of my long and low is done at the trot. I incorporate transitions and pole work into my long and low work as well.

Backing up is an easy way to improve a horse’s hind end strength and engagement. Before I get on to ride, I ask my horse to back up down one of the long walls of the arena at a pace she is comfortable with. As her backing up has improved, I’ve began asking her to back up down the center line because it challenges her to back up straight without the help of an arena wall. Sometimes I don’t ask her to back up from the ground and I incorporate it into my ridden work instead.

Photo courtesy of Emily Miller

By being persistent and patient with these different exercises, you’ll begin to notice your horse’s topline filling out. Muscle doesn’t appear overnight, but hard work pays off if you keep at it!


Emily Miller is a dressage rider from Manitoba, Canada. She has been riding since she was five years old, and currently owns four horses.