World Equestrian Games: Vaulting

Sep 15, 2010 - 4:52 PM
Germany, always a vaulting powerhouse, won team gold at the World Equestrian Games in 2002. Photo by Kit Houghton/FEI.

Of all the sports at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, I’m most excited to see vaulting. While I have either competed in or covered all of the other disciplines, I’ve never actually witnessed vaulting at a world-class level. Years ago I attempted to vault at summer camp, and I mastered standing and flying re-mounts, but my career as a vaulter was fairly short-lived.

A few theories exist about the roots of vaulting.

Stone paintings from 1500 B.C. depict horses with people standing on them in southern Scandinavia.

During that same time period, artwork from ancient Crete shows riders performing acrobatics on the back of bulls, a sport known as bull leaping.

Athletes participated in “artistic riding” in the ancient Olympic Games in Greece, and vaulting was part of the Roman games.

Vaulting also has military origins, as soldiers in ancient Greece practiced these skills to hone balance as they rode with weapons in their hands. Wherever vaulting truly originated from, the sport of dancing on the backs of horses has been practiced for thousands of years.

During the Middle Ages, knights and nobleman had to vault as part of their education.  The sport, much like most equestrian endeavors at the time, was used as a way to show off wealth and demonstrate good taste. The name, vaulting, actually came from a French term, “La Voltige.”

When it came to the military, anyone who pursued a position in the cavalry had to master vaulting before he went on to more advanced equestrian education. They used a wooden horse for training purposes, much the same way that today’s vaulters use a vaulting barrel to practice their routines.

Believe it or not, vaulting was included in the Olympic Games for the one and only time (thus far) in Antwerpen, Belgium, in 1920. Belgium captured the team gold medal over France and Sweden—the only countries to send teams.

The sport as we know it today developed in Germany after World War II as a way to introduce children to riding. Vaulting spread all over Europe and came to the United States in 1956 after Elizabeth Searle saw the sport in action during a visit abroad. She encouraged her Pony Club in Santa Cruz County, Calif., to start vaulting, and it continued to spread from there. Searle and J. Ashton Moore founded the American Vaulting Association in 1966 to promote vaulting in the United States.

Vaulting reached international status in 1983 when the Fédération Equestre Internationale recognized it. The first European Championships took place in 1984 in Austria, and the first FEI World Championships began in 1986 in Switzerland.

Vaulting is also used as a form of hippotherapy, and benefits children and adults with physical and mental disabilities.

Vaulting is often described as “gymnastics on a moving horse.” A longer keeps the horse cantering on a circle that is a minimum of 15 meters. The horse wears a specially designed roller with two large handles on each side of the withers. The roller is used to keep a back pad in place on the horse, and the handles allow the athletes to perform all sorts of tricks while mounted.

In competition, vaulters can compete as individuals, in pairs (pas de deux) or as a team. Vaulting competitions include two rounds composed of compulsory and freestyle tests, both of which are performed to music. In the individual championships, athletes must also perform a technical test, which consists of five exercises from different categories of motor skills. These tests are created the year prior to World Championships, and they are used for the two years following the championships.

Compulsory tests must display seven designated exercises that are scored from 1 to 10. Freestyle tests give the vaulters freedom to develop their own artistic performance.

Compulsory Exercises

1. Mount: The vaulter starts from the center of the circle and runs out along the longe line to the horse’s shoulders. The vaulter reaches up and takes the handles, then jumps forward onto both feet, using the horse’s motion to add energy to the jump-off. The head is lowered and the outside leg is raised as high as possible, lifting the hips above the head. When the hips reach their highest point, the vaulter lowers the stretched outer leg and sits on the horse’s back.

2. Basic Seat: The vaulter sits on the horse as a rider normally would with the arms held out to the side and hands raised to ear level. The position must be held for four full strides.

3. Flag: From the basic seat, the vaulter hops to her knees and extends her right leg straight out behind, holding it slightly above her head so the leg is parallel to the horse’s spine. The opposite arm is held out, mirroring her leg. This is held for four strides after arm and leg are raised.

4. Mill: From the astride position, the vaulter brings the right leg over the horse’s neck, followed by the left leg over the croup, right leg over the croup, and left leg over the neck, performing a 360 degree turn. The vaulter has to let go of the grips to adjust his hands during each movement. Each leg movement is performed over four strides, making the entire Mill 16 strides.

5. Scissors: From the astride position, the vaulter swings into a handstand. At the apex, the vaulter’s body should be turned to the longer and the inner leg should be crossed over the outer leg. The vaulter than comes down and lands so that she is facing backwards. The return scissors is then performed.

6. Stand: The vaulter moves from the astride position, to the shins, and then to both feet, releasing the grips.  She remains standing for four full strides.

7. Flank (Dismount): From the astride position, the vaulter swings her legs forward, then backward, and rolling onto the stomach in an arch while fully extending the legs—almost in a handstand. At the apex, the vaulter turns to the inside, before sliding down into a side seat. The vaulter brings her body over the horse’s back and pushes off the handgrips, landing to the outside of the circle facing forward.

Judging vaulting is based on the athlete’s technique, form, difficulty, balance, security and consideration of the horse. The horse, longer and vaulter are all an essential part of the vaulter’s performance. The horse’s temperament, character and balance are taken into consideration, and his way of going counts for 20 percent of the overall score. In the team competition, only three athletes are allowed on the horse at one time.

Interestingly enough, vaulting is the only sport in the WEG that does not have an age restriction in its team championship. The youngest competitors at the WEG will be in the vaulting competition, with some athletes reaching only the age of 10 before October.

The vaulting competition takes place from Wednesday, Oct. 6 – Saturday, Oct. 9. I know I’ll be ringside!

One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it’s occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: “History was written on the back of a horse,” she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.

Curious about anything in particular? Have a question or an interesting topic? Please e-mail Coree, she’d love to hear from you!

Category: Blog Entry

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