Vaulting is an equestrian discipline that is as much sport as it is art. In a vaulting competition, riders perform gymnastic movements while on horseback either individually, in pairs or in teams. These acrobatic movements require a great deal of skill, agility, strength and balance. The horse must be supple, obedient and graceful.
In vaulting, the horse canters around a circle 20m wide and controlled by a lunger. The competition is made up of two components: compulsories and freestyle. During the compulsories portion of the competition, riders are required to perform seven movements on the horse. These gymnastic-style movements are to ensure each performer and horse are in unison and each has the foundational movements mastered.
In Australian competitive vaulting, compulsories are categorized in A,B,C compulsories, as well as D and E. Each varies slightly in the degree of skill necessary. In W compulsories, rider and horse will perform the movements at a walking speed. When the speed increases to a canter, the compulsories are E-class.
E class compulsories are the mount, basic seat, flag, mill, swing, kneel and vault off. The mount should be artistic and graceful, and is scored in the competition. In the mount, the rider will vault onto the horse with extended arms. The basic seat is the first and easiest vaulting movement. In the basic seat, the rider holds his/her arms out straight, palms down and fingers together. The rider uses his/her legs to grip the horse during this movement.
The next movement is the flag. In the flag movement, the rider puts the inside knee on the saddle and extends the outside leg straight back, while holding the grips. The rider then also extends the inside arm. During the mill movement, the rider brings his/her right leg around the horse’s neck to the inside seat, followed by the left leg. The right leg then goes over the hindquarters of the horse, followed by the left. This movement occurs four times until the rider has returned to the front of the horse.
In the swing, or scissors movement, the rider swings up the legs in order to achieve a handstand position. The rider then returns to the horse, facing the backwards position, which requires the rider to change positions while in the swing movement.
In the kneel exercise, the rider will kneel on the horse with legs and feet flat against the horse and arms out at the sides, level with the shoulders. At higher levels of competition, the kneel is replaced with the stand. During the stand, the rider stands on the horse’s back, keeping arms close to the body. The rider goes from the astride position to both feet on the saddle, knees bent. The rider then lets go of the grips and raises his/her body to a standing position.
During the vault off, the rider first performs the flank movement. In the flank movement, the rider swings his/her legs forward and, gaining momentum, swings the legs backwards, bring the stomach flat above the horse before bending at the waist and returning to a side-saddle position. From his position, the rider vaults off the side of the horse in the final compulsory movement. Typically, each compulsory should last 4 paces of the canter.
In the freestyle portion of a vaulting competition, vaulters perform movements set to a musical score. Each rider chooses the music and choreographs the exercises. The exercises are based off of the compulsories but are given a more create twist, including dance movements and aerial performances.
In individual vaulting, the rider performs gymnastic movements and dance movements along to the music. The pas-de-deux competition features two riders performing in unison with each other. In team vaulting, a team of seven people make up the freestyle exercise. These participants then perform the movements and dances on horseback, with as many as three people on the horse at a time. During freestyle, movements are spectacular, with team members performing aerial dismounts including flips and twists. Utilizing small members, some team mates are even tossed into the air, or held high above the head of a member performing the stand movement. Team members are able to assist each other in flipping either on or off of the horse. When the last remaining team member dismounts from the horse the performance is complete.
Vaulting in a team is especially helpful for young people. Participants learn the importance of working on a team and relying on their teammates, especially the horse. The special relationship between a horse and rider is also very impacting for any person, young or old. Vaulters are able to perform competitively from amateur clubs all the way up to the FEI international level.
The origins of vaulting date back as far as the Roman olympic games. Artistic riding has been portrayed in Scandinavia, as well as ancient Crete. Wherever its specific origins, artistic riding existed in many places around the world and with different stylistic and utilitarian varieties. The middle ages used vaulting to train knights and later on, calvary troops used them in their training. Over time, this training tool and artistic expression turn into a sport, now recognized by the FEI.
Attire for vaulting is different than that of most equestrian sports. While other sports feature the classic boots, collared shirt, jacket, helmet and riding pants or western wear for the western-inspired events, vaulting costumes are more similar to gymnastics. Most performers wear unitards and gymnastics shoes. Uniforms should be form fitting to avoid interfere and should fit the music and style of the performance. In the case of team vaulting, each team member’s uniform should be in harmony with each other.
In vaulting, scoring is based upon difficulty, execution, technique, balance and consideration of the horse. The compulsory movements are scored on a scale of one to ten while the freestyle is an overall score. In vaulting, unison and harmony are very important aspects, between each participating vaulter and the horse. 20% of the scoring is based upon the horse itself.
Because the horse plays such a crucial role in vaulting competitions, choosing a horse for vaulting competitions is of the upmost importance. Horses that make good vaulting horses generally have a very good temperament and not irritated by riders jumping on and off, and constant changing of weight. The horse should have strong legs and be able to carry a large amount of weight. A shorter and thicker neck will also help with the maneuvers. The horse must also be very physically fit and able to continue cantering in a circle for an extended period of time without tiring.
Vaulting riders need to be physically fit as well, and able to lift their own weight. Vaulters must have gymnastic ability, including flexibility, arm and leg strength and balance. The element of dance requires a degree of grace in the vaulters. Gymnast-style athletes are generally the most successful at vaulting.
Vaulting is an artistic expression, a fine equestrian discipline and a highly elevated sport. From amateur to international competitions, this fine sporting event is fun to either participate in or watch. Spectators will enjoy the aerial movements, precise balance and unison of rider and horse, making this equestrian sport one of the fastest growing across the world.