Vaulting - A Horse Sport Where Spirits Soar!
By Nancy Stevens-Brown

Exercises are initially taught on a barrel that simulates the horse's back.

When I was a very young girl, I lived in the city. All I ever dreamed of then was to see, be around, and ride horses. One day, two horsemen rode by our house dressed in their parade best on shiny chestnuts with silver mounted saddles. For me it was Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Trigger, and all my western daydreams come true. When I ran up to ask whether I could pet their beautiful mounts, they looked down indifferently and said "No."

Forty-five years later I still feel the pain of that blunt refusal to share the magic of horses. Fortunately, I have since found an equine sport where people think that sharing is a natural part of caring for their horse: that sport is Vaulting.

Ancient Art with Modern Charm - This unique activity involves gymnastics and dance on a horse, with roots stretching back to times before Ancient Rome, when men needed expert equine skills to survive the rigors of battle. The ability to mount and dismount at a gallop, lean over their horses' necks and pop back up, or assist a fallen comrade on behind, meant survival for these deft early vaulters.

Vaulting horse Dakota gets pets from Brett.

From Battle to Ballet - Today vaulting has evolved from battle to ballet. Freestyle moves are choreographed to music and performed on a horse that is being lunged in a circle. Vaulters of all levels and ages, including persons with special needs, find that this distinctive horse sport allows them to face their fears, meet personal challenges, and achieve things that few others attain. Worldwide, more than eighteen countries boast of clubs where enthusiasts thrill to vaulting onto their specially trained horses.

Exceptional Training - What first appears to be a difficult or even a dangerous pastime is surprisingly safe. Vaulting horses are carefully selected and trained for this hybrid sport. By their nature they must be kind, forgiving, and steady. The best seem proud of what they do as they carry as many as three vaulters simultaneously during synchronized routines. The emphasis from the beginning is consideration for the horse, safety, and increased fitness for the students. Classes will include warm-ups and cross-training as a regular part of each lesson. Soon, vaulters become athletes along with their carefully schooled equine partners. Footing also receives special attention and is prepared to have extra spring and cushion to make dismounting safer.

Team Spirit - These exceptional demands create a strong bond that allows all involved in vaulting to develop a sense of cooperation and trust uncommon in most other sports. Vaulters readily acknowledge each other's skill, understanding the dedication that it takes to master this multi-dimensional sport. Along the way, they gain a heightened sense of team spirit and consideration.

Sportsmanship Spotlighted - An example of this amazing support highlighted this year's National Vaulting Championships in Massachusetts. One evening after the day's display of top performances by the best vaulters in America, a group of girls from a foster home exhibited their vaulting during the awards ceremony. These girls had been on a one-way track to little in life before they discovered vaulting at Rainbow Valley Farms in Pennsylvania. Under Coach Julie Bair's guidance these teens, who had trusted nothing and were untrustworthy, found that they could trust their horse and in the process themselves and others. Through the gift of vaulting they gained confidence and poise. The angry had become happier, the illiterate learned the discipline to read, and the violent gained self-control. Though their vaulting was basic, the knowledgeable crowd cheered enthusiastically for the Rainbow vaulting program, they all knew everyone wins by vaulting, no matter at what level.

Trust is built; vaulters practice a lift first on a balance beam.

From the Ground Up! - All vaulters start with basic moves called compulsories. These seven exercises are initially taught on a barrel that simulates the horse's back. Here, too, vaulters practice positions on all parts of the horse, including the neck and rump. They learn to execute leaps and ground-jumps that will later be timed to the moving horse. The vaulter and horse are both trained for the sport by carefully introducing any new exercise in steps. Each move is taught sequentially so that both horse and vaulter gain confidence in the position being mastered.

Equipped and Equipment - Horses are always lunged in a snaffle bit with side reins, and are worked to both the left and right. A specially designed surcingle is used. It is fitted with two specialized handles (grips), and two 'Cossack' loops for the vaulters to step into for various movements. The loops hang where stirrups would be, but are intended for a variety of positions that showcase balance, stretch, or strength. Additionally, a thick back pad is used that protects the horse and provides extra friction for the vaulter.

Stepping Up to the Challenge - Students from the most disabled to the most gifted find exciting rewards in vaulting. The combination of horse and athlete needing to be in harmony challenges everyone to new levels of stability, power, security, trust, and poise. The benefits are heightened balance and body awareness along with increased self-esteem. Often, when vaulters vault on the horse and then let go or step up to stand for the first time, they sense that they can do anything that they set themselves to.

Every Vaulter Benefits - My former pupil Kerith Lemon came weekly to help a class of handicapped children learn to do the sport at which she already excelled. Keri particularly liked her little friend Patrick, who had been born with Cerebral Palsy. Pat's condition was so extreme that he had never been expected to crawl. The day came when Pat took his first walking steps during vaulting class. Soon after, Keri stepped up on the podium at the World Equestrian Games in Holland to receive her Silver Medal. These club-mates and friends both found that vaulting had elevated them to personal heights undreamed of when they first let go of the surcingle!

Vaulting allows many children to share one horse. Here fast-paced drills add to vaulter skills.

Mastering Team Vaulting - Vaulting can be done individually or as a member of a team. For team freestyle the vaulters spend extra time mastering the sequence of moves they will perform on the horse. Handholds, assists, and lifts all must be drilled on the ground and barrel before they are introduced on the vaulting horse. These skills require that the vaulters communicate clearly and problem solve, lessons which go on long after vaulting days are done. When vaulters first try new moves on their horse, they are usually done at the standstill or walk to make certain that positioning and security are present. Then depending on the vaulters' level, the horse will be lunged at the trot or canter, and the exercises practiced 'at gait' until they flow and are not disruptive to the horse. This process can be time-consuming, but for safety and success vaulters universally have learned that there is no shortcut to excellence, and the time and steps that they take help to insure control, safe vaulting, and a happy horse.

At the walk - Bob lets this trio show their stuff!

What Judges Look For - In competition the horse is judged on its gait and manner of going. The vaulters are scored on form, style, harmony, security, degree of difficulty, and musical use. The complexity of all this requires that teams and individual vaulters spend time analyzing and discussing how to make theirs smooth and secure. In competitions, an individual vaulter is given one minute to present a combination of exercises that exhibit balance, form, timing, stretch, strength, and versatility. In team, eight members are expected to perform the compulsory moves plus a five-minute freestyle routine called a Kür. This consists of single, double, and triple movements all synchronized to music and the horse's gait.

Vaulting Respect - At Nationals this year the top teams were vying for the Championship titles. Mt. Tabor's B team from Blacksburg, Virginia presented a flawless freestyle performance and exited confident that they had perhaps capped their hopes of becoming the 2001 Champions. The last team to go, Vaulters of Ice Pond, from Amston, Connecticut, had the best chance of changing these dreams. When VIP entered it became evident that their horse, Bella, was not comfortable, and sadly the Chief Judge dismissed them before their start. Since the horse's well-being is essential, the stunned group exited worried about their beloved mare, speechless knowing that their chance to become Champions was gone. Before anyone had time to register their shock, the coach of Mt. Tabor stepped forward and extended her team's offer to lend their own magnificent horse, "King," to their rivals. Forty minutes later, Ice Pond Vaulters returned to try their difficult routine on this borrowed horse. Trust in themselves and the man who now lunged the horse allowed the Connecticut crew to deliver a brilliant Kür for the first and only time on the steady black Percheron. As the dust settled, all that watched were moved by this spontaneous generosity. No one was surprised though, for this type of consideration is typical of what vaulting engenders. That memory of those long ago riders only serves to remind me of how extraordinary the vaulting world is.

American Vaulting Soars! - Today American vaulting offers wide appeal to anyone interested in an exceptional and remarkable horse sport. Over three decades of showing children how to dance upon a horse's back have resulted in international acclaim for competitive U.S. Vaulters, and astonishing results with the disabled. Beyond this distinguished level of achievement it is still vaulting's amazing way of bettering everyone who participates, which is its best value. Vaulting is one horse sport where sharing, consideration, and teamwork are hallmarks. The beauty and grace vaulters display is a ballet on horseback: difficult, exciting, and amazing. More amazing, though, is that this is one horse sport where sportsmanship and camaraderie shape life-building lessons in teamwork, communication, and cooperation, while dancing on a horse's back.

Nancy Stevens-Brown is a thirty-year resident of Soquel, California where the sport of vaulting was first introduced in America by AVA founder Elizabeth Seattle. For the last three decades Nancy has taught all levels of the sport from beginners to international competitors, and is the current president of the American Vaulting Association. When not promoting or teaching vaulting Nancy spends her time as a wildlife photographer and freelance writer.

2001 National Gold Men's Champion Kenny Geisler dances on the back of his horse Goliath

For more information
The American Vaulting Association
642 Alford Place
Bainbridge Island, WA 98010