When it comes to looking at toplines, I have a saying: head down, back up; head up, back down. That's because how a horse naturally carries his head and neck has a huge impact on his back. And his back has a huge impact on how well he can use his hindquarters...which in turn has a huge impact on his movement and athletic ability.
When a horse carries his neck and head level (or nearly level) with his withers, his back is elevated. That means his entire topline will be nearly level, with no major peaks or valleys. And that means he's able to coil up his body, reach deep beneath himself with his hind legs, and propel himself forward in a balanced, athletic—and attractive—frame. That's key whether you're riding cutters or hunters, reiners or Western pleasure horses.
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Plus, I personally like the look of "flat-necked" horses, regardless of event. When you're loping circles, these horses give you the look of a bird dog pointing in a field--their topline is beautifully level.
Contrast that with a horse that goes around with his head and neck in the air. When he does, his back hollows. That means he'll drag his hocks out behind his hind end, losing power. To understand how this works, picture a cardboard shoebox, set upside down, with the two long sides cut out so it's resting on the two short sides.
Now imagine the lengthwise surface of the box to be your horse's back, and the short sides to be his legs. Imagine pressing down on his "back," to mimic the hollowing that occurs when he raises his head. Then picture what that will do to his front and hind legs--it pushes them out, away from his body. And that destroys his balance, movement and athleticism.
In the following photos, I'll help you identify a good topline from a less-good one in two reiners and two pleasure horses. As you'll see, an imperfect topline doesn't mean a horse can't perform, but a good one sure makes it easier for him to do his job--and for you to ride him.
1. Here's an example of a terrific topline (and living proof of my "head down, back up" theory). This young stallion's neck comes flat out of his wither, which I love. Now look at the distance between his flank and wither--it's short, meaning his back is short. Plus, his back is level, both of which translate into strength. The result? Look how easy it is for him to lift it, so he can reach deep beneath his body with his hind legs, for maximum power--and he's just walking!
This colt rides exactly how he looks, meaning he's easy. When I lope him off, all I do is bring his nose in a bit to keep him soft--he packs his head and neck exactly like this, every time. This horse would have to work at raising them--it wouldn't be comfortable for him.
2. Compare this mare's back and neck to the stallion's in Photo 1. She's longer in her back (note the distance from flank to wither), and her neck is built to go up, not lie flat. You can see how deeply it ties into her chest, and how it naturally sticks up, out of her wither, rather than emerging level with it. And look what all that does to her back--it hollows it.
I can tell you, she's tough to ride. I'm not saying she can't do anything, but I'm constantly trying to get her to bridle up comfortably. I don't try to get her neck as low as the black colt's, because she's not made to go that way. When I do bridle her up, her neck bows up like a loaded spring. Whenever I release her, it shoots back up in the air, because that's how she's built.
And look at what that does to her legs. Her hollowed back and raised neck cause her to drag her hocks out behind her. That means she has to work harder than the colt does to sit down and stop. She can still stop well, but she sticks her head up high to do it--and she's not as pretty to look at as the black colt is.
The Pleasure Horses
3. I know this veteran mare well, and I can tell you she goes around with her topline just like this, with a rider and without, all the time. She's built to go that way. She has a long, lovely neck that comes out flat from her withers, and a strong, level back.
You can see how that enables her to reach deep beneath her body with her hind legs.
As with many flat-necked horses, she may naturally carry her head a bit lower at the walk and jog (as she's doing here), but when you kick her into the lope (what I call the "money gait"), her topline levels perfectly, which is a sign of balance.
4. This is my "caveat shot." I put it in to demonstrate that you have to look past circumstances to get a true topline evaluation. This young mare is trotting around with her head in the air. I know her, so I know she's not naturally high-headed. In fact, you
can see by the way her neck comes out of her chest (more like the mare's in Photo 3, than that in Photo 2), and how level her back is, that she's built to hold it relatively flat.
This mare was just hauled to a strange place and put in the round pen. Naturally, she's high-headed and "looky" here because everything's new. When evaluating young horses at liberty, give them a chance to relax and settle before making a decision. I have people haul horses over for me to look at, and they expect the horse to be perfect in 5 minutes. That's not going to happen.
When people haul in young prospects for me to evaluate, I'll usually turn the youngsters loose in the round pen for a half-hour, so they can run around and gawk at the new surroundings. Only when a horse looks relaxed will I go back and move him around. That way I get a true read on his potential--not a false impression.
Bob Avila has ridden home with American Quarter Horse Association world championships in cutting, reining, working cow horse, Western riding and halter. He also captured the 1994 National Reining Horse Association Futurity championship on Lenas Wright On. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is located in Temecula, Calif.
--Photos by Darrell Dodds
This article originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.