California Riding Magazine • May, 2014

3 Out of 4 Aren't Bad
How Topline in horses relates to behavior and performance.

by Chris Irwin • photos by Erpelding Photography

There are four basic levels or "top lines" of the back, neck and head of the horse.

First the worst: When the neck and head of a horse rise up above level with its withers while the spine becomes hammock-like under the saddle, this shape is "hollowed-out" or "inverted."

As soon as the head comes up and the back hollows out the horse will be pulling itself along by its front legs instead of pushing itself from the hindquarters. Even worse, an inverted back causes the horse to brace its entire body and the buckled vertebrae send a steady flow of adrenaline into the mind of the horse.

An inverted horse is nature's way of juicing the horse up for flight or fight. You'll notice that we say that things get "worked up" and they need to "calm down."  We do not say we are getting worked down and we need to calm up.  An inverted head and hollowed back not only indicates a problem, but is an integral part of creating the problem. And high-headed, inverted horses have lots of problems!

Too many trainers believe that a certain amount of "high-headedness" in a horse is good and even necessary. All too common in both english and western riding, we've all seen the horses that are always "stuck up," with many leaning their noses heavy and hard against tie downs and standing martingales. Ironically enough, these upside-down horses are usually involved in speed events.

Yes, horses do need to hold their heads high to scope out the jumping courses, and many of the breeds, most notably the gaited horses, do indeed work better while "high headed." But far too many trainers are unaware of the difference between high headed and inverted and high headed and "well rounded." There are two types of high-headed horses, high and hollowed or high and rounded. And it feels so much better for both horse and human to be riding a round horse flowing with endorphins than a hollow horse riddled with adrenaline!

And what about level-headed? Thoroughbreds are typically the fastest horses around and most of those wound-up Thoroughbreds will be galloping around the track inverted, full of adrenaline and braced against their jockey. However, the very best horse-and-jockey teams will be able to work together to relax and become level-headed as they push for the home stretch. And if you look at the logo of the Ford Mustang – it is a wild horse galloping level-headed. A level-headed gallop is absolutely the fastest, smoothest, most agile, best balanced and most comfortable gallop to ride. Sadly, most speed event horses are so stuck-up they are being robbed of their true potential for unleashing their greatest speed.

Long and low is the opposite of high-headedness. This causes the spine to stretch out, and when a horse's vertebrae stretch out, its spinal column starts to produce endorphins instead of the dreaded adrenaline. As their backs slowly round up and their necks start to release down, you can see the negative energy melt away from the horses.

However, a horse working with a low head, while very mellow, is not in the best frame of mind or balanced potential for speed and agility. We want calm and relaxation, but we also want athleticism and focus. There is a time for long and low therapy and there is a time for being level-headed and there is a time and place for up and well-rounded collected work. Low-headed is really just a transitional phase, a warm-up to loosen muscles and get into a calm, work-ethic sort of mindset before moving on to the more difficult gymnastics.

In the coming months we'll look at the art and science of what it takes for a rider to affect change for the positive with our horses so that we truly are "aiding" our equine friends.  The goal will be to help inverted horses relax and become supple with long and low work, find improved balance and greater impulsion with level-headed work, and then, finally, how to aid our horses into the power and grace of working truly "well rounded" and "calm and collected."

As Chris begins the riding class with two students we see the clear distinction between the high-head and hollowed back frame of the Pinto as opposed to the level-headed spine of the buckskin.

In the process of learning to "use the leg as an aid to the horse," Chris shows the rider how to stretch the topline of the horse not with her hands on the reins but instead from her leg. Notice the soft eye on the horse and the tension being released from his mouth as the adrenaline from the inverted back is now replaced by the endorphins provided from a stretching vertebrae.

We now see a completely opposite topline in the Pinto as his head is now held high with a lifted back that is rounding from the riders leg instead of hollowing and inverting against the riders hand.

In the final photo we see the Pinto now moving forward with an almost level-headed topline. His tail is not quite curled and completely relaxed yet and we can still see the tension releasing in his gaping jaw. The good news, the horse is releasing the tension in his body as he is now getting the physiotherapy he needed from working with a level back instead of the inverted spine he started with.

Author Chris Irwin is an internationally renowned horseman, best-selling author and a leading pioneer in the equine assisted movement.  It was discovering how to transform BLM wIld Mustangs into18 calm and collected U.S. National Champions in english, western and driving competitions, that first showed Chris his greatest insights into learning how to learn. To connect with Chris Irwin visit his website at