Whose Vault is this?

I am going to devote the next few posts to the sport and art of vaulting. If my becoming an equestrian has been a little surprising, my participation in vaulting borders on the bizarre. I can say, however, that I am still alive, unharmed, and it was a lot of fun.

Before coming to Karin’s Horse Connection, I knew a little bit about vaulting from an article I did on the sport a few years ago. The American Vaulting Association actually put it in their newsletter, so I guess it was okay with them. I thought the article might serve as a good introduction to the vaulting related posts that will follow next week.

Here it is:

Who’s Vault is this?

While browsing the web recently, I came across a remarkable photograph. It showed three children dressed in tights, riding triple on a horse. Not only were they riding triple, they were every which-way. One youngster sat backwards and another was standing up. The third kid – the crazy one – was upside down and on top of the one sitting backwards. She wasn’t even bothering to hang on with both hands.

Where were these kids’ parents? This is the kind of show-off monkey business I forbid my daughters to do when they were still under my roof. It was tough enough watching them jump cross poles. Doing a handstand on top of a moving horse was completely out of the question.

According to the caption, the insane children were engaged in sport/art called vaulting. I’ve heard of vaulting before. At least the word. But I assumed it involved jumping over things. As in “pole” vaulting.

Webster supports me in this. “To bound vigorously,” he says. Oxford agrees. Both dictionaries mention a “burial chamber” and that could be relevant. But there is nothing about doing back flips off a real horse.

I called my now-grown daughter, Hiliary, to see if she could offer some insight to this madness. And to make sure she wasn’t doing anything unsafe.

“It’s a sport, Dad. Like gymnastics on a horse.”

“Gymnastics on a horse? Who the hell thought that was a good idea?”

“I think it first came from Germany. But we’ve been doing it here for a long time. It’s kinda cool to watch.”

Ah, the Germans. Nietzsche, Wagner and vaulting. Now I get it.

“You haven’t done this sort of thing, have you Hiliary?”

“No – never. It’s not something you can just go out in the backyard and start doing. You have to go to a trainer or join club or something. I know that there’s a national organization. Try going to www.americanvaulting.org

I went to www.americanvaulting.org.  Hiliary and I surveyed the website together over the phone. A father-daughter conversation utilizing 21st Century technology. Oh, brave new world.

I clicked on the photo album page link.

“Hiliary, check out the photos.  Don’t you think some of them are kinda young?”

“Yeah, they’re young. It’s the same for regular gymnastics.”

“Okay, now click on the awards link.  Do you see where most of the kids are from?”

“Yeah… looks like California.”

“That’s right. Young people from California.”

Now things were really starting to make sense. This is not the sort of thing we do in Michigan. Performing fancy tricks on top of a moving horse just wouldn’t go well with huntin’, fishin’ and cursing at professional sports teams. But in California, well…

“Actually, Dad, they have chapters all over the country. There’s one about twenty miles from here.”

“Hiliary, these people are out of their minds. Why stop at handstands? Why not just go ahead and start a hockey game up there?”

“It’s not that dangerous. They do all kinds of things to make it safe.”

“Such as?”

“Such as a longeur controls the horse, not the performers. And it’s not like the horses are running all over the place while the vaulters are doing this stuff. It’s a very controlled environment.”


“And they use a special saddle. I don’t think they even call it a saddle. And they use specially trained horses. This isn’t something you can do on a trail horse with a western saddle.”

“Yeah, Waders would freak out. I can see him looking back at you wondering what the heck you’re doing up there. Still, in some of the pictures they’re fifteen feet up in the air. And they don’t hang on.”

“That’s true. But the people in those pictures have something very important going for them.”

“What’s that?”

“They know what they’re doing.”

“I could see how that might help.”

“They’re FEI level athletes. They’ve been taught by FEI level trainers. At the lower levels it’s almost a lead-line sort of thing. And vaulting at any level teaches things that make regular riding safer.”

“Like what?”

“Like balance and rhythm. And it builds confidence by teaching riders to control their own bodies. A horse will notice that.”

Okay. I give up. Vaulting is safer than softball or bike riding or joy riding in grocery carts. And apparently horses like it too. I can understand that. Anything that gets these crazy kids to control themselves has got to be a good thing.

A Short Ride

“Remember the horse is very sensitive.  If they can feel a fly, they can certainly feel you.”

Toward the end of my first lesson Karin, decided a little time in the saddle might be good for me. Or maybe she thought fifteen minutes of being led around in circles by an awkward greenhorn was enough for Caspian. It’s never a good idea to allow something that big to get too bored. She threw a saddle pad across his back, followed by the vaulting saddle.

“You can use this one today. Don’t worry, I won’t make you do any handstands.”

I wouldn’t even try that trick on flat ground. But I was happy about using the vaulting saddle. I had my eye on that puppy the moment I walked into the barn. I liked the handles.

“Karin, I brought my bike helmet.  Should I use it?”  I was anxious to demonstrate my interest in safety awareness. Teachers like that.

Karin smiled and said the helmet had to be the Standard Regulation Officially Endorsed Sanctioned Licensed Certified kind. My bike helmet did not qualify.

Good advice from Karin's wall

“You can use one of mine. If you can make it fit.”

Ah, yes, the “Dork Helmet”.  I used to tease the girls about how they looked in theirs. Probably shouldn’t have done that. I wasn’t sure if it was my size, but I strapped it on anyway.

The first thing I noticed when I got on Caspian was how darn wide he was. This is why everyone said I was going to be sore.  I thought back to my old cowboy and Indian toys, how bowlegged and absurd the riders looked when they weren’t mounted.  How you had to swing their entire bodies back and forth to simulate walking. It’s hard to take someone seriously when they walk like that.

At first, Karin led us around the arena. They were having Riding Camp at the barn that day and a small knot of kids began to gather to watch the middle aged guy in his dork helmet take his pony ride.  At least I was on the biggest horse in the barn.

After a couple of short loops, Karin released Caspian and we were flying solo. Well, not flying exactly.

“It’s the same as when you led him on the ground.  Shift your body weight and combine it with the inflection in your voice to communicate what you want. The reigns should only account for twenty-five percent of how you cue him.”

I did my best. Caspian responded to my cues like an old pro, no doubt sensing my inexperience and trying to help any way he could. I probably exaggerated my body shifts a bit too much, actually feeling like I might slip off one side or the other.  I think the kids would have enjoyed that.

Riding Camp was about to start so I only had about five minutes in the saddle.  Enough to know that there is an art to this riding thing.

My next lesson is June 30, 8 a.m.  I have no idea what is going to happen.