Leap, Twist and Somersault Into It

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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.

Starting Up

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.

The horse is longed with a snaffle bridle and side reins to maintain his position. International vaulting judge Adrienne Stang says, “A vaulting horse should go as a dressage horse, not ahead or behind of the bit. The side reins should not be too tight.”

Vaulting doesn’t need a large riding area. The regulation-size circle is 66 feet (20 meters) across. Fencing isn’t needed (or even a good idea) because the vaulters are on a line, and they need an open unobstructed space to perform.

Footing should be a balance that’s good for vaulters and the horse. “You’re looking for footing that’s soft enough for the vaulters, but not too soft so the horses get stuck in it,” says Martonovich. She advises using wood shavings or sand on the circle.

Getting Started

Vaulting starts by leaping onto the horse’s back, using the stirrup loops and inside hand grip. Usually the horse is moving to the left. Sitting the gait, the vaulter first experiences the basic seat. She rides in harmony with the motion, her legs draped on the horse’s sides.

When it comes time to dismount, vaulting down tests agility, because riders need to land safely with knees bent. Vaulters also learn how to fall, to push off, tuck and roll.

But before a newbie gets access to a horse, most instructors have vaulters practice first on a barrel, usually fashioned from a 55-gallon drum, covered and padded. The barrel imitates the size of the horse’s back, fitted with built-in handles. After warming up with stretching exercises, beginners learn the “vault-on.” Just like they’ll do on the horse, they spring up onto the barrel and settle astride the “mount.” The barrel won’t move, so vaulters gain confidence learning the typical exercises; the Flag, Mill, Flank, Stand, and Scissors. The vaulter uses the hand grips of the vaulting surcingle as a base for the exercises.

When vaulters experience the exercises on the horse, the ideal feeling is “flying” in sync with the horse. “There’s nothing like it,” says Suzanne Detol, an international judge. “It’s like sitting on a magic carpet when you do an exercise on a cantering horse!”

Teaching Vaulting

Ideally, lessons on the horse require an instructor and a longeur. A good way to start is to enlist the expertise of a vaulting coach. You can bring a coach to your barn for a week to launch your program, teach the first students, and help your staff learn about vaulting. The American Vaulting Association promotes education through contact lists.

Vaulting can complement riding lessons for beginners of any age, even adults. Martonovich explains how the sport is a safer way to start youngsters. “I would always teach vaulting first. With all beginners, they clutch with their legs. It’s hard to teach them to relax them. With the surcingle, you can let go because you get to hold on with your hands. As your balance gets better, you can let go with your hands.”

As those beginner vaulters develop their skills, they can form a vaulting club or even a competition team. A club can be affiliated with your barn, or be part of an organization like U.S. Pony Clubs or 4-H. And when your club demonstrates their skills to parents or the public, they’ll show off your barn’s level of horsemanship and team spirit.