"Lily has developed a really nice neck and topline," my trainer remarked after a jumping session last week. Sure enough, after untacking and taking a step back in the grooming stall, I noticed that Lily has, indeed, developed quite a nice figure. Smiles and mental high-fives all around!

I love sport horses with nice round necks like Lily's.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church

Like many, I absolutely love a good topline and muscular neck on a sport horse. It's a thing of beauty and signifies a fit animal. But sometimes--and especially in the "hunter world"--I think we mistake a cresty-necked horse on the path to equine metabolic syndrome for a well-muscled and round athlete.

I've edited several articles for The Horse recently about the perils of obesity and metabolic conditions. And a cresty neck is at the top of most veterinary experts' checklists of signs to watch for in at-risk horses. This got me thinking: How do you know if your horse's round neck is a sign of strength or impending health condition?

At first guess, I'd say Lily's current form is due to muscle, seeing as when I bought her a year and a half ago she was underweight and undermuscled with no neck mass to speak of. The crest my other horse, Hannah, however, sported last summer likely went hand-in-hand with her weight gain and lack of exercise.

But because I'm no expert, I called on Dr. Shannon Pratt-Phillips (PhD), associate professor of Equine Nutrition and Physiology at North Carolina State University, to help define a neck that's round from muscling and one that's cresty from fat accumulation.

First of all, she said, knowing what's what is about feel rather than appearance. "Muscle is strong and won't jiggle--particularly when flexed--while fat will jiggle and feel 'gushy,' " she explained. Imagine flexing your bicep muscle: You should be able to tell the difference between the hard muscle and any doughy fat just beneath the skin.

So at the barn after work I did the neck-jiggling test on both my horses, explaining to a few barnmates that no, I was not practicing some cool new equine massage technique. Turns out, Hannah has no wiggle (or crest) to speak of anymore, whereas Lily has started to develop a slight fleshy region along her mane.

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So how do I help her lose the fat that I mistook for muscle? Unfortunately, said Dr. Pratt-Phillips, there's no such thing as "spot reducing" fat on your horse's body.

"If you want your horse to lose weight in the neck, he'll need to lose weight overall," she said. "Similar to people, weight loss is a result of taking in fewer calories than you're expending. So you can put your horse on a restricted calorie diet (work with a nutritionist to ensure you're not missing out on another nutrient by reducing energy intake) and/or increase expenditure through exercise."

And if you want to develop that nice, round neck the healthy way, your only option is to work the muscles along the neck and back. "There are no magic diets for building muscle," said Dr. Pratt-Phillips. "Working with a good trainer can help pinpoint some equipment that might help (such as working in side reins), but lots of hills and pole work can help also."

More hill, pole, and flat work it is, then, for both my horses--for Lily to lose a little weight and for Hannah to build muscle.

How do you enhance or reduce your horse's "round" neck and topline?