Notes from the Vaulting Circle

By Dusti Hausman
Notes from the Vaulting Circle

We’ve all been there: A loose horse, reins flapping in the air and snorting, zigzagging away from you. A soreness is just starting to creep into your joints as you scramble to your feet to rush through the field after your mount.

dusti and chi

PC: Kirsten LaChance

This feeling is all too familiar, no matter our chosen discipline. A weirdly shaped stump around the corner or a plastic bag is sometimes all it takes to distract horse and rider, and a few quick side steps later, we’re wrong side up on the ground. These types of blunders are an inherent chance we take as equestrians, and even the quickest of riders aren’t insusceptible. As a vaulter, I’ve managed to get myself into some especially interesting positions in the dirt. A few years back, no joke, I ended up slipping during an unplanned dismount and found myself sitting in a full split in the sand. How that was even possible, I’ll never know.

These moments are unfortunate. How can we minimize them, and maximize our moments of harmony and equilibrium, on both a large and small scale? Are there ways we can cultivate that coveted “sticky seat”? Can we react quicker and more effectively? Can we find new ways to dramatically improve our balance on horseback? Well, I think we can (and so does science).

The brain is every rider’s most important tool. In order to stay upright on horseback, the brain is constantly at work. Every second, it picks up information about the body’s position in space via receptors in the muscles and joints (a process called proprioception). The brain monitors these messages and sends signals for the body to adjust accordingly. Simple concept, right? Well, if the brain receives these messages too slowly, or if the messages aren’t exactly correct, our balance becomes compromised.

So, what can we do to improve the way our brain and body work together to quickly and effectively communicate about reacting and maintaining equilibrium? Scientists say that the part of the brain that governs proprioception is not fixed, and can be improved with work. By creatively stretching a rider’s body through a wider range of movements than usual while still maintaining balance on horseback, we can strengthen the proprioception, and in turn, improve balance! We have to get ourselves “outside the box.” This is the work where the growth happens.  

I’ll share a few exercises for riders’ balance here that I’ve taken from my experience as a vaulting athlete and trainer.  I’ve included both unmounted options as well as mounted. If you don’t think your horse will be okay with these unfamiliar exercises, please adjust as necessary or just stick with the unmounted option.

Balance Exercise Series 1, Unmounted:

 This exercise is beautiful in its simplicity. It’s so simple and can be done anywhere. I like to do it nearly every day and always before I get on a horse as a way to start to wake up my mind-body communication.

 Start by standing on a flat surface with your feet under your hips. Lower hands by your side, and close your eyes. Stand tall and relax. Take a couple of grounding breaths and start to feel your body in space. Are you staying still, or wobbling already? Do you feel well-aligned, or crooked somewhere? Just take note of these things. Then, begin to shift weight onto one foot, and lift the other so that your big toe is barely in contact with the floor. Take another breath here. Now lift the foot of the floor slowly and hold it there. How long can your hold it (with eyes still closed!) without losing your balance and collapsing? Were you surprised by the results? Can you wobble and recover, or do you fall all the way back to both feet? Can you move your leg around in space with out losing your balance or upright posture? See how long you can hold it. Once that becomes easier, challenge your self by moving the foot and leg! Take a couple of minutes to try this and be sure to do both sides.

Balance Exercise Series 2, Mounted:

  If you don’t have a set of vaulting tack, these mounted exercises are designed to be performed in a bareback pad. The horse is on a lunge line, and the reins should be removed or secured high on the neck. Always be sure that your horse is comfortable and familiar with lunging, and that the lunger knows how to communicate clearly to the horse.

  Start by sitting astride on your horse at the walk. Your legs should be hanging long and low around the horses barrel. No gripping with knees, and no “heels down” here! Palms should be in be relaxed contact with the upper thigh. Sit tall, close your eyes, take a few breaths, and start to feel the horse’s rhythm underneath you. Feel where you are stiff, and where you are wobbly. Keep breathing, and keep feeling.

 For the sake of brevity, I’ll put this next part into bullet point format. Each part is meant to be held for at least one breath or two full strides. Always start at the walk, then move to trot and canter in time. Start with eyes open, and then challenge yourself to try closing them.

-Sitting astride. Arms go out, then rotate the trunk sideways (hold, and repeat on opposite side) Laterally bend, one arm goes overhead, the other arm slides toward foot  (hold, and repeat on opposite side). Reach forward towards horses poll as far as possible, then backwards towards tail.

-Pull one leg over the withers with knee bent and rest it in a “taylor” position facing forward (think side-saddle). Balance with arms pressing into bareback pad just behind your seat bones and sit tall. Arms go out, then rotate the trunk sideways (hold, and repeat on opposite side) Laterally bend, one arm goes overhead, the other arm slides toward foot  (hold, and repeat on opposite side). Reach forward, then gently backward.

-Turn into sitting fully sideways facing. Balance with arms pressing into bareback pad just beside your hips and sit tall. Arms go out, then rotate the trunk sideways (hold, and repeat on opposite side) Laterally bend, one arm goes overhead, the other arm slides toward foot  (hold, and repeat on opposite side). Reach forward, then gently backward.

-Turn to sitting backwards. Balance with arms pressing into bareback pad behind your seat bones and sit tall. Arms go out, then rotate the trunk sideways (hold, and repeat on opposite side) Laterally bend, one arm goes overhead, the other arm slides toward foot  (hold, and repeat on opposite side). Reach forward, then gently backward.

-Facing backwards, pull one leg over the withers with knee bent and rest it in a “taylor” position (think side-saddle). Balance with arms pressing into bareback pad just behind your seat bones and sit tall. Arms go out, then rotate the trunk sideways (hold, and repeat on opposite side) Laterally bend, one arm goes overhead, the other arm slides toward foot  (hold, and repeat on opposite side). Reach forward, then gently backward.

*If you would like to find an equestrian vaulting trainer in your area, you can email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and I will be glad to help you get connected!