Hard Keeper and Special Needs Mare - Everyone says she has a topline but I don't see it!!!

TLDR; I’ve read countless threads but nothing that speaks to my unique situation.

Overview: 16.1 hh 7 y/o OTTB mare 3 years off the track. I’ve had her a year. She came to be severely malnourished and sickly. A year later she’s at the best weight she’s ever been at 1200, flat, muscular topline, bulging muscles, the whole bit. I was so happy. It took INTENSE dedication. This was 2016

Since then, 2017, we have had an incredibly difficult year building muscle and weight. In winter of last year we lost almost all of our weight and dropped to 980. No feed changes but I was ignorant and did not blanket (she was clipped). We slowly built it back up to 1150 in May.

Things were wonderful until winter hit again. She’s a BCS of 5. Can’t see ribs, can feel if you press. Her topline has suffered yet again. Her back looks more “^” than “n” , if you get my drift…

She has calcification on her lumbar area so 4 spinal processes are raised. More fat and muscling helps hide them.

She is my dressage mare. She is ridden by my trainer 2x a week with 1 lesson a week. I ride her on the weekends in the winter. She is in what I would consider medium-heavy work (an hour of very intense, correct and round riding a day).

We just moved to our new facility a week ago. She’s been treated for ulcers several times. She is not insured so medicine is expensive but my vet and I use ranitidine for her, usually 2 months at a time (t’s not as fast to work as gastrogard). She’s also has been on SmartGI, tri-amino, and smartomega 3. Right now she is on SmartGI, SmartOmega 3, and SmartMuscle (new smartpaks to come).

What I have noticed: I’ve put her on and off tri-amino. right now she is off tri amino, and she’s dropping muscle. When she’s been on tri-amino her topline has been great. I know feed-through supplements do not always work. Is this a coincidence or is tri amino helping?

She has a VERY muscular neck. it is the most well-formed part of her body. It is very thick and very, very toned.

I’ll say right now in my neck of the west coast hay is very expensive. The place I am at now is 2x what I was paying before. I was able to afford 2 extra bales a week at old place. New place doesn’t allow that in the budget but it is full care. She gets 3 meals a ay: 1 flake alfalfa in AM, 1 flake timothy in afternoon turnout, 2 flakes timothy PM dinner. Total is 20 lbs of hay (weighed).

She is between 1085-1180 right now weight wise. Muscle is building everywhere but the topline. When she is tense, cold, or in pain, because her lumbar is fused (so is the thought) she does not hollow her back like a normal horse would but tightens and tenses the muscles around her spine and they drop away. Her spine stays parallel. she is EXTREMELY EXTREMELY PRONE to a sore back and adequate muscling has helped prevent discomfort.

She is always ridden through, with contact, stepping under herself and a round frame. It is the only way we have found to maintain her muscling.

right now she is fed 2 lbs fortified rice bran, and 4 lbs nutrena safechoice perform grain (2 meals, so halve each of those servings).

Is there anything I am missing? I am so concerned. She is blanketed at night, clipped.

I have access to these feeds:
Fortified rice bran
Fortified wheat bran
Nutrena Safechoice Perform, Original, and Senior
Nutrena XTN
LMF (i think most of them)
Alfalfa and Timothy Pellets
Alfalfa Cubes

I do NOT have access to Triple Crown products. I also do not have the ability (car) or the budget to add supplemental hay. I can ask barn if they will feed more but we do not have free choice hay out here, this is as close as I can find.

Saddle fit is 100% custom to the horse (I hate it but it fit her) and flocked and has been fitted less an 6 months ago.

Thanks to everyone who can help.

EDITED to add that she has seen a bodyworker twice in the past 3 months and they have said that yes she has a topline and that her back will always be more roof-like. but I am concerned about her lumbar area that always seems to stick up.

MORE EDIT: When she is due for a trim she tends to tense her back.Every time we do her feet magically she’s “gained” back the 50 lbs i swore she lost. She’s due for her next trim next weekend, she is on a 7 week cycle but I usually call in my farrier at 6 weeks. This will have been 5 weeks - she grows very fast.

No pictures. But it sounds to me like she needs more for protein and vitamin/mineral package. 4# of nutrena safe voice perform is WAY too little. They recommend 6.8-9.5# for a horse in moderate work.

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rememberthenight - thank you so much! I’ve done a lot of reading on horse nutrition and that was the first thing that i found, our grain rations are too low. Thanks for confirming!

Pictures coming tonight. She is by no means THIN, but she’s far from the rotund rolly poly warmbloods i am used to seeing

We need to see pictures. I am not sure if you are describing an underweight horse, or you are describing a horse with a pathology to the back such as a hunter’s bump that is making her topline look wrong.

I would also be curious if the muscling in her neck from being constantly ridden “round” is correct or not. it isn’t a great idea to always ride in a “frame,” it is hard on the horse and they need some stretching. Riding “in a frame” can in fact be riding upside down and can stress the SI joint and hocks.

It would be good to see a straight-up conformation shot and also a few pictures of her being worked under saddle.

BCS of 5 /10 is meant to be perfect, BTW.

Generally for everything the best cure is as much good hay as the horse will eat. No matter how expensive hay seems, guaranteed it is cheaper than anything that comes in a bag. I don’t see why you can’t pay the barn to feed more hay, if the horse needs it. Seems silly for you to be hauling hay in your car.

If you find that a protein supplement is helping her keep muscles and weight, then the obvious thing to do is to continue feeding it.

Keep her feet trimmed to keep her comfortable. If that means more frequent trims, so be it.


Which picture is the current one? If it is the one where we see her side view and she is looking at the camera she looks fine.

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yes that is the one. And her in the crossties was a week ago.

Is she fine even though her back is still ^ and not n? I think that is what I want to know most of all…

If more hay is the only answer I would really like to know if hay cubes can help? They said the could feed her an extra flake to make it 5, but beyond that I believe we are getting into a difficult realm. I don’t want to be the finnicky, overbearing boarder. I respect my BO and I’d feel better if I took care of her nutrition myself instead of spending $60 for an extra flake that could buy me 3 bales of hay…

First of all, I would double the alfalfa and give her two flakes a day. My Thoroughbreds cannot keep weight on with grass hay or Timothy.

In the photos you show, she looks fat in photo number three (the conformation shot with her head on the left side of the screen). I would not want my horse to be that heavy unless it were a Quarter Horse or similar. I guess I would say that to me, she looks heavy for a Thoroughbred, but not so heavy I would worry about it because she still looks healthy. In other words, a little bit thinner would be fine but I would definitely not want her fatter. The older photo of her from the front which shows a protruding hip bone looks like she’s super thin, so good job fattening her up.

I would bet that the thing that has changed is that they are not feeding her enough at your new barn. As I said, I think she needs a flake of alfalfa morning and evening if you are giving her other supplemental foods. If you supplement her for a month on your own, just throw in an extra flake in the evening (after the barn staff feeds so that they don’t cut back on what they are giving her) as an experiment, then you will know if that is the problem. I’ll bet it is. Or better yet, ask if they will substitute a flake of alfalfa for one of those evening flakes of Timothy. They probably will, Timothy is expensive in California.

If you have to buy your own supplemental alfalfa, and are worried about the VW bug, don’t sweat it; I used to transport 120# bales of alfalfa in my BMW convertible. I would take big black garbage bags and split the bale into fourths, package them up at the feed store and load them into the car. Believe me, they will easily fit into your bug that way and keep it clean. It’s not pretty but it’s doable. And it’s a lot of hay; for one horse it will last you a while.

wow, thank you for more help PeteyPie! I would have never guessed fat… It took me SO LONG to get her that robust, and yes she does look like a quarter horse. She was out of work from november 16 to may 17 due to bad saddle fit (yay new custom sommer!) and she was mostly lunged/ground work (we had a crazy time with a CA disciple…), so that might have attributed. Now she is back in steady work and appears more streamline.

I think what I could do, if the barn is reluctant to give more hay, is buy a bale, lug it to my apartment, store it in my outdoor storage area (will it get moldy?? It’s waterproof) and carry a flake or two in a duffel bag to the barn. Perhaps that could work? I definitely will talk to management about more protein.

There is an option to feed alfalfa/grass instead of grass at night. The three feeds they give are alfalfa, alfalfa/grass, or grass, and I can pick from whichever I want.

I was reluctant to ask for more alf in the morning because the chowhounds/horsey hoovers go to turnout as soon as they are done and she is a rather slow eater and i didn’t want her left behind while everyone else is being pulled out of their stalls and taken outside.

So here are my two options that i’ve come up with. Petey, tell me which one you like or if you have a better idea, i’d love to hear:

2 flakes alfalfa in the morning
1 flake timothy in afternoon
2 flakes alfalfa/timothy at night.

8 lbs safechoice perform and 2 lbs rice bran

She has had a history of laminitis. She was pre-laminitic/mildly laminitic when I bought her according to my barefoot trimmer and vet. She had been left in a pasture and forgotten about/only ate the grass. No laminitis/hoof issues since. But I have her on timothy for that reason. Would alfalfa still be OK to give?

offtopic rant, but looking at her old photos i remember being so upset because I was only just able to drag her - two hooves in - from death’s door… my biggest fear is her falling back to that horrible, skeletal weight.

I am so thankful for everyone’s help.

Alfalfa hay cubes might be easier than storing and transporting hay. Do you have access to those?

I do! That’s where my mindset was as well. I can easily store them in the feed room. I just really don’t want to make demand after demand to my new BO. I am the only one who keeps asking for special accommodations and I feel like I sound like a brat. For the last year and a half I have been the sole caretaker for my horse, and now we have two stable hands who take care of everything, but there are certain expectations that they know best. They are very good, but I just don’t feel comfortable giving someone else the power that I wielded for so long.

This horse appears to be in fine weight. I’m not sure what the question is about the horse’s back? Not all horses have a natural “double back” like a quarterhorse does.


Scribbler, my concern is her propensity to have a sore back when hollow and the three vertibrae that stick up at the very end of her spine (hard to see in above photos). Are those a concern? Is something darker going on? She is an absolutely perfect horse to ride but every trainer, pro, vet, chiro, massage therapist has told me she must have correct riding and have a topline if she is to stay comfortable and sound. I am asking, apart from exercise, is there anything nutrition-related we can do to help her?

Scribbler, I think she said that since that photo was taken two months ago, the mare has lost a noticeable amount of weight. It would be nice to see a current photo.

As for the feeding options, I would pick this one and see how it works out. I feel that they just can’t have too much hay and I am more comfortable with hay than with processed feeds (nothing is absolute though, it depends on the horse). But I also want to add that lots of alfalfa works for me with my mares who are not in work, so be sure to pay attention to those who have more experience than I do. Anyway I like this option which you proposed:

2 flakes alfalfa in the morning
1 flake timothy in afternoon
2 flakes alfalfa/timothy at night.

Thank you, PeteyPie. Updated pictures tonight. Alfalfa won’t create a calcium imbalance?

Could you get a photo? It sounds to me more like a horse that has some subluxation of the SI joint, also known as “hunter’s bump,” and that can be a chronic injury from moving wrong. When you said her spine was fused at some point, can you explain?

Pictures everyone requests.

today was her first day with her new body clip and of course now she has a sore back… :frowning:

Pictures look like a fine weight to me, personally I think carrying around more weight would certainly not help whatever she has going on in her back.

In particular, I like to go by the chart here: https://www.habitatforhorses.org/the-henneke-body-condition-scoring-system/ It’s hard to tell without “hands on”, but I would guess the slight peak along her back is the only 4 and everything else is a 5, so I would say that it is more of a confirmation thing about where she carries her weight, vs being under weight. (Specifically, the tail head is my favorite weight indicator, since it seems to be the most consistent across different shapes of horses.)

The horse is certainly not underweight and does not need more groceries. The prominent spine looks like a skeletal issue and from everything the OP says consistent with some kind of past injury whether acute trauma or chronic strain. I would be unconcerned with it for appearance but concerned for what it could mean for long term performance and soundness. If your vets and bodyworkers agree it’s old injury then manage the symptoms as they appear. But this is not a skinny horse.


My TBs did best on alfalfa hay. Tons of money and energy and prepping and weighing and soaking and supplement blah blah blah, no help. Plain old alfalfa hay = miracle. No more beet pulp, alflafa cubes or pellets. Just a couple or three flakes a day of Uncle AL. Huge money, effort and time saver to desired wt. I beg you to try it.


Guys, thank you so much. I am overwhelmed at how helpful everyone has been. I will ask barn manager to switch her to alfalfa. My trainer also constantly, constantly pulls me from the deep end about my horse’s weight. I’m upset that the old owner hurt her, and I agree - long term soundness was never predicted with this horse but she makes me unbelievable happy and hopefully by the time her Career is over I will be able to have a second horse. She also has tremendous value As a broodmare.

thrilled my grain bill wasn’t about to double! :smiley: