Vaulting - Horseback Gymnastics


FLYING WITH HORSES!!! Gymnastics on A Moving Horse

Photo by Rusty Griner

A good seat is difficult, standing even more so but Kerith Lemon knows that standing on ONE foot is what helps you win a silver medal. This horse is cantering. - Photo by Rusty Griner

Remember the last time you got nailed for riding the back of the couch, or for standing on the arm of the chair? Or for leaping piggy-back onto Dad unexpectedly? Well, keep reading, because next time you can say you are practicing your vaulting! And if your parents never heard of vaulting, tell them about it.

Vaulting, for the next time you get caught on the furniture, is gymnastics on horseback. Up to three people, in fact, can be on the horse at one time, doing acrobatics, like figure skaters on ice, or gymnasts on the beam, to music, while the horse moves. WOW! Doesn't that sound like fun? Of course, it takes a lot of training, for both vaulters and the horse, to be able to do this safely.

The sport of vaulting began centuries ago as a method of helping cavalry soldiers survive in battle, and to give them something to do when they weren't fighting. Since the introduction of machines in war, cavalry units are now mostly ceremonial.

Almost every culture that used horses had some sort of game playing which included types of vaulting exercises. Even the American Indians sharpened their riding skills with the challenge of doing tricky stuff on horseback. It is still common in Europe, such as the introductory lessons before classical riding.

Photo by Rusty Griner

Devon Maitozo shows perfect form in the first of the mounted compulsory exercises. Quiet upper body with seat and legs in perfect motion with the horse. Not spectacular but the MOST IMPORTANT of the exercises as this is what Judges see first. - Photo by Rusty Griner

In the United States, introduced in the 1960's, vaulting has since become quite popular as a club activity. And now, the United States is making its own vaulting history, as Devon Maitozo of Cupertino, California brought home the gold medal in the Men's Individual vaulting competition at the 1998 World Equestrian Games in Rome. He, the women's silver medalist, American Kerith Lemon, and the bronze-medal winning United States eight-person team, brought home the only U.S. medals.

Rome and the Games are a long way from home for those competitors, both in travel time and preparation time. It took years of work to get there, but everyone needs to start somewhere, and you can too. Here's what it takes to learn vaulting: good vaulting instructors and clinicians that know the rules of the sport; a trained (or trainable) horse; appropriate equipment for the horse (such as a vaulting surcingle - a thin, saddle-type pad with handles); and equipment for practicing on the ground, such as mats and a practice barrel. You will also need a reliable person to longe the horse in a circle.

First, at each practice, you will learn stretching, tumbling, and strengthening exercises on the mats, and on the ground. Then, using a stationary horse made from barrels, you start to work on the actual moves you will do later on the real horse. No more listening to Dad complaining about being a horse - get him to make one!

Photo by Carole Dwinell

All work is first tried on the practice barrel. This insures that hand holds, lifts and dismounts are solid before going onto the horse to do the moves. - Photo by Carol Dwinwll

The stationary horse is made from 55-gallon drums (a whole one and a half of one, welded together) with legs added, to make it 48 inches high. It is padded with thick carpeting, and covered with canvas or leather to avoid rug burn. Two rounded, padded, and curved handles, called "grips", are attached, and are used for balance and security while performing most of the exercises.

"The practice barrel is really great for getting things just right," says Black Point Vaulters' coach Carole Dwinell, "You have to practice those moves until you can do them in your sleep. If you had to only do it on the horse, your horse would get sour on vaulting real quick. Since the horse is the most important part of the team, that horse has to stay happy all, or at least most, of the time. He or she depends on the vaulters to do their moves confidently and in stride, so that there is a comfort zone that the horse can move in. For some reason, horses don't care for someone banging around up there, whether that person is riding or vaulting. I guess we wouldn't either."

Devon Maitozo started vaulting as a six year old and fell in love with the sport. It took him 17 years of hard work to be the World Men's Champion. It was a lifelong dream come true.

Jessica Fredericks, of the bronze-medal winning Woodside Team, is now a freshman in high school and has been vaulting for about seven years. Just going to Rome for the World Equestrian Games was "awesome" for her. She got a little sightseeing in, but for the most part, it was practice on their borrowed German horse "Kalinka".

Photo by Carole Dwinell

Practicing for a team bound for the World Games occurs at every occasion. Here the US's Woodside Team compete on their own horse at the Region II Championship Competition, just north of Sacramento, California. - Photo by Carol Dwinell

They got only five practices in, between getting the horse there, and going on for the first round of Compulsories, and doing her homework. Away from home for two weeks, she even did her schoolwork on the plane! Eleven hours of plane - each way. But it was worth it.

Her coach, Isabelle Bibbler, "is so incredible... [we] want to please her, she brings out the best in everyone. We do tons of focussing stuff, deep breathing, imagining doing your part [in the team Kür.] I'm the one up in the air, so it's especially important for me. If you're nervous about a part [in the routine], she helps the vaulters know that she wouldn't make them do anything that they couldn't do," Fredericks sums up.

She will be staying on the team next year, trying to qualify for the European Championships, doing some individual competition. When asked what she likes most about vaulting, she replied, "Great friendships. So much different than the ones at school. The team spends so much time together, we know more about each other because of the bond between us, the trust that has to be there when two people are lifting another person up in the air, all on top of a cantering horse."

Photo by Rusty Griner
There's standing up, sideways, on the neck. For the team representing the United States, upside down and in splits on top of a standing base was a winning move on their borrowed horse, Kalinka. - Photo by Rusty Griner

Kerith Lemon (22) agrees. Winner of the Women's Silver Medal for the third time, she says the same thing. When she first was introduced to vaulting as an alternative to expensive riding lessons, all the top vaulters where she went to see the sport "...just RAN up to me," Kerith says. "Come on to the barrel; you can try it." She recalls, "I mean, like there I was, maybe eight years old, and there was someone that was 26 on our team too. That's another thing that's unique about the sport of vaulting in the States, you're not divided up by age." It was the idea of doing things together, instead of just by herself up on a horse riding, that also appealed to her.


In the beginning, she worked with a team being a flyer, just like Jessica Fredericks is now. She competed at the first World Games in Stockholm in 1990 as part of the Timberline Team that was selected for that competition. They were the first USA Team to win a Bronze Medal. Now, entering the University of California, Berkeley campus, she plans on coaching and doing clinics in the immediate area in her spare time during the school year, all the while continuing her work toward a World Gold Medal. The dream is still there.

The clubs in the Northern California area that will benefit from Kerry's input are fortunate to have her as a resource. But there are clubs scattered all over the United States, and one only has to call the National Office or check out the website to get information on their location.

Photo by Rusty GrinerBecause the team has up to three vaulters on the horse at the same time, concentration is critical. - Photo by Rusty Griner

One of the nicest things about vaulting is the way the clubs support each other. If one club's horse has a problem at a competition, another club will loan them a horse. If a new club is starting up, a phone call will bring help from all over the United States, if a plane ticket is provided, or if it is within driving distance. Clubs get together for clinics and just fun days, and on the West Coast there is usually at least one competition a month during the January to October season. So....

Think horsey.. , think flexible. nimble. graceful. flowing. and get going!

"Hey, Dad!"

Next Month More on Vaulting

Natural Horse Magazine thanks Carol Dwinell for her help in preparing this article.