Better Understanding Equine Condition: Toplines, bellies, necks and ribs

This blog is for those who might have heard some erroneous information through “old horse tales” or lines of misinformation about what body condition, top lines and big bellies mean in horses.

I often say, “You don’t know what you DON’T know.” Well, we want to help you

One of the biggest errors we encounter relating to the weight of a horses are equines with big bellies. They are often mistaken as being fat. Too often. This happens from horse owners who are experienced and those who are novices all of the time.

Folks will actually say, “My horse is so fat,” and yet when we see the horse, we see a horse that is actually somewhat thin. You gauge a horse’s weight from the neck, rib coverage and top line (croup and spine). You do not measure weight based on the belly size. They aren’t especially related.

Bellies on horses may be large for many reasons, and unless the above mentioned areas match, the belly size has little to do with healthy weight. Bellies may be large due to poor quality hay (doesn’t digest well), poor teeth condition (thus good hay isn’t ground properly and doesn’t digest well), heavy parasite load, being used as a broodmare or being an aged horse. A belly is almost the last place you look to gauge healthy weight.

If you notice the ribs showing, the spine being visible at all or/and the croup pointing (top of the rump) and the horse has a massive belly, this horse is still too thin.

This is a young horse above. This foal likely has a heavy parasite load and may not be getting enough food quality forage. The distended belly is not a sign of health.


This photo may show a bred mare who has been neglected, but we often will see horses with bellies like this that are not bred but have been used as a brood mare often through their lives, and folks will see the belly and honestly believe that has something  to do with a healthy weight. This mare is very thin. If wormed, if teeth were done, the belly may go down some, but brood mares may keep an out of shape figure for the long term. That doesn’t mean you cannot get the topline to fill in, and until it does, the horse is underweight.


This is a horse that is getting close to a good weight but still carries that disproportionate belly. It sometimes starts to look more reasonable as the topline totally fills in, though. In the case above, the croup is still pointy and the spine a bit too prominent. The ribs can faintly be seen, but with continued good dental care and good forage and parasite protocol, this horse is close to being where he needs to be.


This horse has gotten almost there where he should be, as well, but he does still need a bit more. His spine and croup have mostly covered over. The belly still looks a bit too large for the rest of him, and the ribs are too obvious. So as with the horse before him, though this condition isn’t ideal, with the right care, he would soon be in tip top shape.

Sometimes you will hear folks talk about Narrow horses and athletic horses as a way to explain thinness, but we need to understand that skinny isn’t athletic. Narrow doesn’t mean to thin, either.

The horses below are examples of conditions on other equines I’ve seen described as Narrow or athletic. These horses do not have the large bellies, but they are not skin and bones, either. When you look at them, both have necks which look to even an untrained eye to be too small for their heads, and you notice the rumps are too pointy. All ribs can  be seen. Horses that look like these may not have dental issues or parasite issues, but they are simply aren’t getting quit enough hay  of good quality or enough pasture. They may need a bump up in their grain. This body condition is a quick fix once an owner realizes there is a problem. A True Athletic example can be found here at this link.


Lack of topline strength doesn’t mean the horse looks thin. We will hear things like, “the topline looks thin because he needs more muscle.” But, while the topline will look weak or slightly dipped because of lack of muscle, sometimes people use this as an uneducated reason for a horse actually being too thin. A horse with a topline lacking muscle should look out of shape, maybe even flabby, but the horse should not score lower on the body chart simply because of an out of shape topline.

Horses need quality protein to build muscle, and muscle accounts for a large amount of a horse’s weight, though, so make sure your horse’s nutritional needs are met with a forage or feed that gives the horse quality protein levels. You can safely add protein by adding alfalfa hay or pellets soaked to feedings. You can use various protein supplements, as well.

This collage from The Natural Horse Magazine shows a horse at a good weight but with a need for topline condition and the progress made with training and exercise.

Or for a dramatic difference but no weight change, see this image collage from The Horse Gym

Toplines relate to fitness not the weight of your horse most of the time. Your horse can fill in with fat, have a weak topline and be an acceptable weight. If you see spine and croup, you have a weight issue. That doesn’t mean you don’t need a stronger topline, but that isn’t why you see spine, ribs, etc.

If this blog helped you, it means it has helped a horse, so please take a moment and share, as our goal is more horses helped through extending education.

(Most Photos are from blogs concerning bellies, toplines and so forth. They aren’t HOP horses. The featured image shows an aged mare in foal rehabbing after rescue. She is too thin in this photo)

5 thoughts on “Better Understanding Equine Condition: Toplines, bellies, necks and ribs

  1. I got a horse in his late 20’s. I rescued him 2-3 months ago, we had a long draught here and the horse was quite underweight. He is now looking in good condition except for his topline, which is better than before but spine still prominent. Is that just his age? We have plenty of grass now and I feed him protein in a few forms. Wondering if will ever have a topline again?

  2. I’m buying a 6yo horse from someone who has neglected him.(I don’t know much about this topic because I’ve never seen a horse like this so please forgive me for not knowing the right words)he’s got a large dent in his back and his ribs are very visible .from what I saw when I checked up on him today(I’m paying him off) they’ve fed him and his belly if very bloated.can you please give me some advice on what I should do?

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