Vaulting 101: Discover Gymnastics on Horseback

Over the past thirty years, equestrian vaulting has grown across the country, becoming a popular sport with a variety of people from 4-H clubs to World Equestrian Games competitors. Here, we take a look at the sport to find out what it is, how it works and what makes it so popular.

ImageVaulting requires one, two, or three people to perform “dynamic and static gymnastic elements” while on a cantering horse, which is controlled from the ground by a longeur holding a longe line. These “elements” can include artistic mounts and dismounts, shoulder stands and handstands on the horse, as well as lifting another vaulter, and kneeling and standing exercises. Vaulting takes incredible physical strength on the part of the vaulter and while vaulters don’t have to be gymnasts it often helps. Vaulting also requires a great relationship between the vaulter and their horse to be successful.

In competition, vaulters are judged on the quality of their movements, the horse is judged on the steadiness of his gait and the longeur is judged by how well they control and motivate the horse in a 15-20 meter circle. For those that don’t wish to perform in competition, vaulting can be a fun and exciting activity that helps build balance, control and confidence.

Vaulting has also been proven to be useful in the therapeutic treatment of paraplegics, amputees and people with disabilities. According to the American Vaulting Association, the sport builds up the core strength of the lower back and hips and can take pressure and pain off amputated limbs. Vaulting also provides physical freedom and builds confidence in the vaulter.

Historically, vaulting has been practiced by different cultures across continents for many years, but was most notably recognized as the equestrian discipline of Artistic Riding at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp. At the games, Artistic Riding was demonstrated by cavalry officers, who had used the “wooden horse”—the precursor to vaulting—as a means of preliminary rider training.

Vaulting has been practiced in America since the 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1983 that the Federation Equestre Internationale, known as the FEI, officially recognized the sport as an equestrian discipline, along with jumping, dressage, eventing, reining, para-equestrian and youth.

According to the American Vaulting Association, or the AVA, vaulting is suitable for all ages and abilities and being able to ride is not a prerequisite for taking up the sport. In fact, some feel that vaulting can help make non-riders more accomplished when they do finally get into the saddle.

Vaulters don’t learn the sport on horseback, instead they learn on fixed barrels that are fitted with leather handles and leather loops. Time spent on the vaulting barrel allows vaulters to get their balance and learn their moves thoroughly before they have to perform on top of a moving animal. When they do graduate to horses, the horse is equipped with a vaulting surcingle, which is used in place of a saddle. The surcingle has two large leather handles and two leather loops, called Cossack straps, for the feet, rather like stirrups. Beneath the surcingle is a foam pad, which keeps the horse comfortable. Vaulters wear slippers and leotards when they compete, which makes for minimal friction and maximum movability.

Concerns about the safety of the sport are often at the forefront of prospective vaulters’ minds because vaulters don’t wear helmets and can often be found upside down on a cantering horse. As with any sport involving a 1,000-pound animal, there are inherent risks, but none more so than any other equine-related sport. Pam Fleurant of Renaissance Farm Vaulters explains “helmets can reduce the field of vision and can throw the vaulter off balance. They can also cause head and neck injuries because the straps are prone to getting caught on [a piece of equipment].” The FEI and the AVA also have requirements and procedures in place to ensure that the vaulter, the horse and the longeur are as safe as they can be.

The American Vaulting Association has its own “Three Points of Vaulting Safety,” which was created based on research into the main factors that contribute to rider injury: rider loss of control, riding environment/suitability of the horse and rider knowledge about safety. According to the AVA, “60 percent of injuries are caused by the rider losing control of the horse and 80+ percent of rider injuries are attributed directly to falls.”

As a direct result of this research, there are safety procedures in place designed to minimize each of the three points. The vaulter cannot lose control of the horse, for example, because the horse is under the direct control of an experienced longeur, who stands on the ground and keeps the horse in a 20-meter circle within an enclosed area.

The vaulting  environment and suitability of the horse are also both very closely managed. As already mentioned, arenas are enclosed and have soft footing, and because vaulting horses are a very important part of the team, they are carefully chosen. Horses must be at least six years old and either a mare or a gelding. They must also have an excellent temperament and an even gait. “It takes three to four years to train a vaulting horse.” says Pam, “Horses have to be able to handle vaulters jumping on, over and off their backs. They have to be sturdy, gentle and quiet.” The requirements made by the AVA and the training vaulting horses undergo reduces the risk of spooking, shying and bolting during competition.

Educating vaulters about their own and their horse’s safety also plays an important role in reducing accidents, and time spent on the vaulting barrel practicing compulsory and freestyle moves increases vaulter confidence and ability and prevents unnecessary accidents. Repeated practice of the vault-off means that vaulters are prepared to dismount quickly and safely should an emergency arise.

For those who do choose to compete, the format for competitions is the same across the country. Each vaulting competition is held in two rounds: compulsory and freestyle. Competitors must perform a number of specific tasks in the compulsory round, before they move on to the freestyle round, performed to music, which, according to the FEI “allows vaulters the artistic freedom of building both dynamic and static exercises around the Compulsory exercises in which they can show their artistic capabilities.” In team events, six vaulters, the longeur and the horse must compete in a six-minute compulsory first round and a four-minute freestyle round. Only three people can compete at once and at least two vaulters must be on contact with the horse to be judged.

Vaulting is a growing sport in local clubs and for international competitors. The sport is represented at regional and international competitions including the World Equestrian Games, which will next take place in Kentucky in 2010, the World Championships, which are held in the same year as the Olypmics, and the Continental Championships, which are held every two years. America has produced some well-known names in the sport, including Kerith Lemon, who was the silver medalist in the women’s division three consecutive times (1998, 1996, 1994), and was a bronze medalist twice. Lemon retired from competitive vaulting in 2000, and now gives clinics across the country. At the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany, USA’s Megan Benjamin became the first non-German woman in 20 years to win the Women’s World Vaulting Championship.

Vaulting has a variety of different applications: It can be a fun and exciting sport, a challenging competitive venture or a fantastic therapeutic tool. In competition, a truly successful team requires synergy between the vaulter, the horse and the longeur. For Pam, vaulting is more than just a sport. “The benefits of vaulting for young children through teenage years are great. Vaulting promotes self-esteem, self-confidence, coordination, balance, discipline and teamwork and is one sport that challenges teenagers and gives them a sense of belonging to a unique group.”

If you would like to find out more about vaulting, or would like to give the sport a try, contact local clubs or visit the American Vaulting Association at www.american