Where the Horseshoe Meets the Road –
The Value of Vaulting
– TJ Wierenga
(originally published in Southwest Horse Trader magazine, 2006)
Equestrian vaulting. The term conjurs up mental images of sleek gymnasts performing dangerous maneuvers on the backs of galloping horses. How then, can you equate the sport of vaulting with a team of over-50 ladies who have been known to show up for practice dressed in overalls? Granted, the overalls costume was a gag for April Fool’s Day, but nonetheless…
The American Vaulting Association (AVA) calls vaulting “a unique and growing sport that combines gymnastics and dance on a moving horse. It’s a wonderful way to develop coordination, balance, strength, and creativity while working in harmony with your equine partner.” And in fact, vaulting is so safe that AVA sponsors a National Council for Therapeutic Vaulting program, in which “special needs vaulters—including children, teens and adults with diagnoses ranging from cognitive problems caused by developmental disabilities, to physical challenges ranging from blindness to amputation—learn to better themselves both physically and mentally” through the unique sport.
Pat Walters is a lady in the “over 50” age group who rides out of Lewisville, TX. A rider since she was a young child, Pat is also a Therapeutic and Centered Riding Instructor who began vaulting to help with her own balance. “I was in training in dressage at Meg Fletcher’s (the coach of the Welsh Rabbit Vaulting Club in Burleson, TX) and she suggested that I do a couple lessons on the vaulting horse… since I am a Centered Riding instructor I thought this would be a great way to also center myself. Well, it not only helped me with balance and centering, but vaulting also gave me a huge sense of accomplishment. When I was done with my lesson I felt as if there was nothing that I couldn’t deal with that day. It was so much fun, what a great way to de-stress! I smile the rest of the day!”
The AVA notes that vaulting is the safest of all equestrian sports, and in fact is safer than riding bicycles or any team sport such as baseball, softball or soccer. This is credited to the “Three Points of Vaulting Safety” observations which include a controlled environment, safety training, and the nature of the sport and horse. A great deal of research has been done on the causes of equestrian-related injuries, and it has been found that rider loss of control, riding environment/suitability of the horse, and rider knowledge about safety are cited as major risk factors with 60 percent of injuries caused by the rider losing control of the horse and 80+ percent of rider injury attributed directly to falls. Vaulting as a sport directly addresses each of these risk factors and builds upon a foundation of having first taught riders how to proceed safely before beginning any maneuver, no matter how simple or advanced, and in fact the AVA points out that there is less risk for a head injury (for persons under the age of 15) in vaulting than there is in incidents involving shopping carts! Of course, for riders over the age of 15, shopping carts involve more risk for wallet injury than head injury.
In fact, the nature of vaulting, with so much emphasis on safety and rider awareness, improves riding safety in all other areas of equestrian activities as well. “I first seriously considered vaulting while watching some cross country jumping,” said Meg Fletcher. “A horse tried to jump over the water rather than into it, displacing the rider. The only thing attached to anything was the rider’s left foot in her stirrup – she was completely off the left side and obviously headed for the ground. And yet – she shoved her left foot down, threw her right leg over, picked up her reins and galloped on.” This common vaulting maneuver-turned-save really got Meg to thinking about safety. “I thought how terrific it would be to finish the course rather than hit the ground, and started saving for a (vaulting) surcingle right away.”
With a degree in Equestrian Science, dressage experience with Bodo Hangen from the German Olympic team, eventing with Jo Struby, and as the Educational Director for the Fort Worth Pony Club, Meg found herself with a wide equestrian background and an ever-increasing interest in the sport of vaulting. “I have been consistently surprised that vaulting is not more popular. It is more fun to watch, cheaper by far than riding lessons, and the safest equestrian sport on record! If nothing else, vaulting is a great workout that is so much fun you forget that it’s work. My grown-up vaulters are having a blast while improving strength, flexibility, balance and confidence.”
Vaulters begin learning their craft on a practice barrel, something like a mechanical bull. However, the barrel does not move, and vaulters learn basic procedures like mounting, dismounting, “the flag” and “the stand” from the safety of a stand-still. Once distances and maneuvers are trained, riders can begin working on one of the typically large, wide-backed and notably patient vaulting horses – generally warmbloods.
Vaulting is a team sport and the team consists of the horse, the vaulter, and the “lunguer” or lunge-line holder. Vaulters may also compete as a pair or on a team. The lunguer (generally the coach) maintains control of the horse, which must proceed in a stable, dependable speed at all times.
A typical day begins with gearing up the horse, then warming up the vaulters. “We see who this week can get their leg up past a certain area,” Pat explains. “Linda does the best leg stretches. We listen to moans and groans and laugh as we try to do things younger people do without thinking. We all take turns playing the wheelbarrow crawl, now that’s a funny one, most of us just start laughing. We talk about what happened during the week as we stretch and just get bonded again through our love of the sport, family, kids, jobs, and latest jokes.”
The first maneuver learned by vaulters, and practiced daily, is the mount. “We practice getting our leg up and our head down at first. When you get on a vaulting horse you MUST swing your leg up while at the same time throwing your head down. Now at our age the “throwing your head down thing” is a weird and scaring movement. But it gets the body up and onto the horse. Amazing, but it works!” Pat says.
Linda Smithee is another lady in the Welsh Rabbit Vaulting Club. She has over ten years experience in equitherapy, and over two years learning dressage and centered riding. She became involved in vaulting when she says “I was looking for something energetic for my two sons (age 9 and 10 at that time), and introduced them to vaulting. It really was a lot of fun and a challenge.” After watching awhile, Linda found herself drawn to the sport. When asked about her best memories of it, she laughs, “Leaving the back of the horse with my body still intact! Actually each experience is a great memory. If I had to pick just one thing I would say, standing on the back of a moving horse is phenomenal!”
To find a vaulting club near you, check out the AVA website (www.AmericanVaulting.org) or do a web search on “vaulting” in the local area in which you reside. Pat notes that vaulting is one of the least expensive equine sports you will find anywhere, as vaulting lessons tend to be inexpensive and equipment for the vaulter includes only comfortable, stretchy pants and soft tennis shoes or ballet shoes with rubber bottoms.
Linda encourages people to “forget your age, and any experience you may have with horses. If you would like to get in shape and have lots of fun, then vaulting is for you!” Pat adds “the act of vaulting you find yourself not only connected to the horse, the rhythm of movement, and the fellowship of friends, but you find yourself connected with you. So you smile, you laugh, you dare yourself, you grow!”
The Welsh Rabbit Vaulting Club’s “Ladies Over 50” group members joke that they have allowed at least one participant in her 40’s, with a waiver for her youth. The April Fool’s Day gag mentioned in the first paragraph really did happen, when Pat Walters and Linda Smithee decided to liven up the day with farmer apparel. “We were quite a picture,” Pat grins, “We looked like two hillbilly chicks on a large horse.” Despite the gags, Coach Meg brags with pleasure on her team, and in particular her “Ladies Over 50” participants. “These women make me so proud… they are awesome! I hope we actually make it to Regionals next year, but even if we don’t, I know vaulting will still be a positive influence in their lives.”