My Go-To Topline Building Exercises

Disclaimer: I am not a vet, nor a professional. These are simply my suggestions based on what works for my mare. Please work with your vet and trainer to find the right routine for you and your horse!

Hill work.

Little hills, big hills, steep hills, rolling hills. Sorry for the #DrSuessMoment, but really, climb them all! Hills have been a huge game changer for Piper since moving to our new barn in the fall. The pastures and arena are lower than the barn, so we have to walk up and down them every day. Even though she hasn’t been in work much, her body looks better than majority of the time I’ve had her. Just because of her daily hill walks!

I ride Piper up and down the hills throughout the week, too. I try not to touch her face at all, but I still insist on a forward swinging motion in her walk. She has to push from behind and really engage all of her butt and back muscles. It may seem boring but it’s hard work! And the results are incredible.

Ground Poles and Raised poles.

Making your horse lift their feet over poles up is a great way to engage their belly muscles and lift their backs. Start off with only two or three ground poles, then add on from there after you are both comfortable. Once that feels normal, raise them up 3 or 4 inches on either side for more of a challenge.

Raised poles are great for introducing more suspension, which means horses have to use themselves more. It’s also great practice for the rider to stay balanced and not fall behind over the poles. Pole exercises are an easy way to “mix up” a boring flat ride, and both you and your horse can reap the benefits from them!


I feel that transitions are often overlooked (or at least I always overlooked them) while riding and training. Maybe that’s just me… regardless practicing proper upward and downward transitions is essential in developing the right muscles for your horse, including the topline.

Notice how I italicized “proper”? One of my favorite things a trainer has told me is, “Perfect practice makes perfect. If it’s not perfect, abandon the transition and try again. There’s no need to practice imperfect transitions.” That has seriously stuck with me through the rest of my training with Piper. Asking for the transition with my seat and pushing her into the new gait, rather than pulling with my reins, keeps her back and hind-end engaged. For a gangly baby like Piper, this is tough stuff!

Long and low.

Forcing your horse to move in frame 24/7 is going to lead to a tight neck and back. Ask your horse to reach his head down to the ground while he walks/trots/canters after you finish your ride. It’s a great exercise to stretch and engage his topline muscles and it allows his shoulder to swing freely.

Now, there’s a difference between “long and low” and riding your horse on the buckle while he runs around like a giraffe (*cough* Piper *cough*). You have to start off slow in asking him to reach for the bit and lower his head and neck. Begin with a normal connection. Slowly lengthen the reins and allow him to stretch down while keeping a forward momentum in your gait. If his head comes back up, gather up the connection again and start over. It takes time but your horse will thank you for it later! (Psst…this can also help you with your free walk during a dressage test ;))


Just like humans, horses need to stretch before and after they work out! Would you want to go to the gym, lift some weights or run a few miles, and never stretch or roll out after? I didn’t think so. There are tons of stretches you can do for your horse, but some great ones for their backs are belly lifts and butt tucks!

(I’ve been meaning to get photos of me doing Piper’s stretches, but until enjoy these examples from Integrated Equine and Practical Horseman!)

Give these exercises and tips a try and let me know how they work for you in the comments below! I’d love to see your horse’s transformations.

xoxo emily + piper