The finesse and ability of world-class pommel horse gymnasts is impressive, but imagine the skill needed to do similar gymnastics routines on a horse that is moving. That is the world of equestrian vaulting, the sport of doing gymnastics and dance on horseback.
A vaulting team is made up of the rider or riders, the horse and the handler or lunger. The lunger uses a lunge line to guide the horse in a circle at the selected gait as the rider performs on the horse’s back.
FreeFall Vaulters, coached by Laura Fraser and Anita Fraser of Ellsworth, have been leaping and dancing on their horses since 2010. The club currently has five active competitive members who practice at a stable in Forest Lake, Minn.
As the vaulting horse walks, trots or canters around the lunger, the vaulter performs maneuvers such as standing on the horse’s back, riding backward, doing seated turns, kneeling poses, shoulder stands, flying dismounts and leaping remounts. They are aided in performing the movements by a handle surcingle. The surcingle is a pad with tube-like handholds cinched to the horse.
Vaulters can compete as individuals, doubles known as Pas de Deux, or as a team of between four to six vaulters. FFV mostly focuses on individual and Pas de Deux competition.
“There are two main phases to competition, compulsories and freestyle,” Anita said. “Compulsories are required exercises; all vaulters perform the same exercises and they are judged on form and harmony with the horse. Freestyle is a vaulter’s program to music. It is different for each vaulter. The vaulter is judged on musical interpretation, the difficulty and variety of moves performed and harmony with the horse.”
The individual freestyle is one minute long; the Pas de Deux is two minutes and the team performances are four minutes in length.
The horse used in vaulting doesn’t need to be a special breed, but it does need to have the disposition to accept the vaulting movements. It also needs to be at least six years old and in good shape and have some basic dressage training.
“The most important thing we look for in a horse is temperament,” Anita said. “It must be calm, happy to work, good around kids and not spooky. Smooth, rhythmic gaits must also be learned before vaulting. Both mares and geldings are used; stallions are not allowed.”
Past vaulting FFV vaulting horses have been Rosalie, a 16-hand warmblood cross, and Rex, a 16.2-hand Percheron/Quarter horse cross. Rex passed away four years ago and Rosalie has been retired.
“Our current vaulting horse is Jigsaw, a 17.1-hand paint,” Anita said. “He has been used in our club for four years. He is also part of the riding lesson program at Shadow Creek Stables where we currently practice in Forest Lake, Minn.”
Starting in March or April, FreeFall Vaulters compete in four to six competitions per year throughout the Midwest. Their season generally ends in October.
Those wanting to give vaulting a try do not need previous gymnastics, dance or even equestrian experience, although many of those who have some of those experiences expand their talents by getting into vaulting. Before leaping on to a moving horse, vaulters learn and practice the exercises on the stationary vaulting barrel.
“The most important things vaulters learn are balance, confidence and teamwork,” Anita said. “Vaulting is also great for building strength, encouraging creativity and building responsibility. These skills are beneficial to many other sports, including riding.”
Vaulting has been found to be a beneficial part of therapeutic riding and youth and adult riding programs.
The Frasers recently attended the American Vaulting Association’s Education Symposium March 1-4 in Las Vegas. The association observed its 50th anniversary with 13 clinicians from around the world presenting educational sessions for vaulters, coaches, lungers and parents.
The clinicians worked with vaulters to improve skills and the sessions for coaches included information about teaching various movements, the aspects judges look for and sport psychology. Lungers learned horse training exercises, horse biomechanics and participated in practical sessions.
Vaulting on the backs of animals traces its origins to ancient Crete where acrobats performed bull leaping. The Romans adapted the sport to cantering horses for their annual games. Many of the skills were taught to Medieval knights as part of their military training.
Modern vaulting developed in post-World War II Germany as a technique to introduce young riders to horseback riding. Vaulting was introduced to the U.S. in 1956 by Elizabeth Searle, and with J. Ashton Moore, they founded the American Vaulting Association in 1968. The association is the governing body for the sport and has been recognized by the FEI (the International Equestrian Federation) since 1982.
Vaulting was an Olympic event for one year in 1928 with military cavalry teams competing. Vaulting teams gave demonstrations during the 1984 and 1996 Olympiads.