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Zig zag exercise. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

January 18, 2020

The zig zag exercise is a great exercise that will help build strength and suppleness and can also be used as a therapeutic exercise for horses that are coming back from an injury or have been on stall rest for a period of time.

When you think about the horse’s bend, we quite often only consider the inside of the bend, for example how it bends around the inside leg or around a pylon. But what actually happens during a bending motion? First, on the inside of the bend the horse’s muscles contract and shorten through the topline and sides of the body bringing the front and hind end closer to each other. On the outside of the bend the muscles lengthen to allow the bend on the inside. During this exercise the muscles contract and then lengthen, working both sides of the body equally.

To set up the exercise place five poles on the ground lengthwise about a metre apart, forming a long line, either down the centre of the arena or along the quarter line.

Begin the exercise in working walk and ride down the line making wide loops to start to create a nice bend through the horse’s body.


Riding a wide arc to the pole.

Turn your body in the direction of the bend, guiding your horse over each pole. A good way to think of the turn of your body is as the horse’s front feet cross the pole begin to turn into the next direction. This will keep the horse turning smoothly over each pole. Use your inside (of the bend) leg to aid the horse into each bend. Your hands will follow the turn of your body. If your horse needs more help turning use your outside aids – the outside rein against the neck will help turn the shoulder and your outside leg against the horse’s side will help turn the body. Pulling on the inside rein could cause the horse’s neck to overbend, which will then allow the body to continue to drift away from the turn.


Nicely lined up to the first pole. Notice how the horse is stepping over the rail with the foot closest to the pole. As you progress through the exercise a few times the horse will figure out the footfalls and become more coordinated.

Once your horse is comfortable and can change from bend to bend without lifting his head and hollowing his back begin to make the loops tighter. You can do this by keeping the horse close to the poles and making very subtle changes of bend. As you make the loops tighter the horse will begin to step laterally over the pole (stepping away from the body and to the side to step over the pole). Be sure to keep the horse connected from back to front. If the horse inverts while going over the pole or starts to lean into the turn and not bend through his rib cage the exercise will not be as effective. Keep the movement slow to start with. When the horse is comfortable in the walk and can do the exercise without inverting then you can progress to doing the exercise in a working jog. As you increase the speed you may want to go over every other pole and work your way up to doing every pole at the jog.


Softly bending over the pole. The horse is listening to the rider’s body guiding him. The rider is looking ahead to the next crossover point at the next rail.

As you progress through this exercise your horse will be using many muscles as he bends and lifts over the poles. Go slowly and work on precision rather than speed. This is a simple exercise with great results for strength and suppleness. It is also a great exercise for the rider as it teaches to turn from the centre and to keep rein aids at a minimum. The horse will respond well to the rider’s slight aids and the turn from the centre. For horses on rehab you can lead your horse through the line of poles in the same way that you would ride through. Start with larger arcs and work up to keeping the line tight and having the horse lift laterally over the pole. Have fun with this exercise and feel the difference it makes in your horse!


There will be a moment of straightness before the change of bend to the next pole. Notice how the rider is turning to the new direction.

Photo credits Lisa Wieben. Rider Jacklyn Hegberg riding “Maverick”

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles that appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis. The articles are a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz.

Lisa Wieben is a versatile and exceptional riding coach, balancing her skills as a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Equine Canada Western Competition Coach, and Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer. Currently specializing in Western and English Dressage, she trains youth, adult amateurs, and professionals as well as coaching a local 4H group at her facility near Bowden/Olds, AB. Through dressage and foundational training she helps riders of all disciplines create stronger partnerships with their horses. Also, as a Hanna Somatic Instructor and Practitioner in Training, Lisa works with riders, in class or privately, learning movement exercises that target specific muscle issues in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and overuse. Her approach, using Dressage, Centered Riding, Irwin Insights principles, and Somatics, all come together to develop a balanced rider and a balanced horse.

Birgit Stutz is an Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer and offers horse training, riding lessons in the English and Western disciplines, horsemanship clinics, mentorship programs, intensive horsemanship courses, workshops, short courses and demos on various topics, as well as working student programs at Falling Star Ranch Academy of Foundational Horsemanship in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language, biomechanics, as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage.

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