Is it gymnastics or horseback riding? It’s a little bit of both, but when you bring vaulting to your barn, you introduce a new approach to teaching beginner riders. Vaulting teaches essential riding skills of balance and flexibility. But vaulting is also a sport in its own right, which makes it a unique way to expand your client services and attract new riders.
Vaulting is a European sport, in which the vaulter springs aboard the horse. In rhythm with his gait she sits, kneels, pivots, and stands. Like a gymnast, the rider bends and stretches, except her “balance beam” is the horse’s back. The horse walks, trots, and canters in a circle while the vaulter performs the exercises.
Sounds tricky, but it really isn’t. The horse is controlled by a longeur, who keeps the horse moving steadily in a circle, so the vaulter is freed from that responsibility. Instead of sitting in a traditional English or Western saddle, the vaulter uses a vaulting surcingle, which has stirrup loops and two handles rather like those of a gymnastics pommel horse (guess where that name comes from) instead of reins or a Western pommel. The large handles give beginners a firm and stable grip on their horses. Vaulters learn to mount and perform basic maneuvers on a stationary dummy before they ever get on a real steed.
“It’s a terrific way for a barn to teach young kids about riding without them taking the risks of sitting up there and handling their own horse,” says coach Noel Martonovich of Golden, Colorado.
But, where do you start? The answer: with a vaulting horse. And what should you look for? First comes a calm temperament. A vaulting horse is a real “people” horse, who relishes being the center of attention. He’s a reliable performer who completely accepts all motions of beginner vaulters on his back, croup, and even neck.
Emma Drinker, a champion vaulter and now a coach and judge, describes what the horse should think: “This is my job. You can climb all over me. Kick me in the head, do what you want.”
He should also be sure-footed and trained to maintain his rhythm on the longe. He shouldn’t speed up or slow down unless the longeur gives the cue. Martonovich says, “If the horse is steady, fast or slow, the vaulters can adjust to it. It’s not so easy to get a horse to go rhythmically at the end of a 20-foot longe line.”
Vaulters progress through the three gaits. Performing on a cantering horse is the most challenging, requiring a horse with a steady rhythm. A flat canter is easier to work with, as a “big,” energetic mover can throw vaulters up from the horse’s back. “It’s important for the horse to have a true, three-beat canter,” says international competitor Pam Geisler.
Getting the Right Equipment
Vaulting requires simple tack. The horse wears the vaulting surcingle with hand grips and stirrup loops. Most vaulters also use a broad pad to protect the horse’s back.