Vaulting is in fact gymnastics on horseback, initially established as a circus act. Its origins come from the years of the Roman empire, when acrobats performed exercises on the back of a cantering horse. Some also consider that vaulting even comes from the Minoan years in Crete, where the sacred sport of tavrokath’apsia -or bull-leaping- was performed by youngsters.
Vaulting joined the FEI-recognized equestrian sports in 1983 and the first FEI World Vaulting Championship was organized in 1986, in Bulle, Switzerland.
Vaulting is performed by individuals, pairs or teams and there is also therapeutic vaulting, for people with disabilities. Unlike other equestrian disciplines, male and female athletes compete separately. According to the FEI rules, athletes have to perform a series of compulsory exercises, to be rated within a scale of 1-10, while horses’ performance is marked as well, judging from the quality of their movement and their character. The horse is guided on a long rein by a lunger standing on the ground who ensures that a steady canter is maintained on a circle with a minimum diameter of 15 metres.
The compulsory exercises are the following and have to be performed without interruptions or dismounts:
Vault On: The vault-on leads to the frontways seat on the horse. After jumping on both feet, the right leg swings up immediately, as high as possible, lifting the pelvis higher than the head, while the left leg remains stretched down. The shoulders and hips are parallel to the shoulder axis of the horse. When the pelvis is at the highest possible point, the vaulter lowers the stretched right leg and lands softly, erect and centred in the seat astride with the upper body vertical.
Basic Seat: An astride position (the vaulter sits on the horse as a rider would), with the arms held to the side and the hands raised to ear level. Hands should be held with closed fingers and palms facing downward, with the fingers arching slightly upward. Legs are wrapped around the horse’s barrel, soles facing rearward, with toes down and feet arched. Vaulter holds this position for four full strides.
Flag: From the astride position, the vaulter hops to his or her knees and extends the right leg straight out behind, holding it slightly above his or her head so the leg is parallel to the horse’s spine. The other leg should have pressure distributed through the shin and foot, most weight should be on the back of the ankle, to avoid digging the knee into the horse’s back. The left arm is then stretched straight forward, at a height nearly that of the right leg. The hand should be held as it is in basic seat (palm down, fingers together). The right foot should be arched and the sole should face skyward. This movement should be held for four full strides after the arm and leg are raised.
Mill: From the astride position, the vaulter brings the right leg over the horse’s neck. The grips must be ungrasped and retaken as the leg is brought over. The left leg is then brought in a full arc over the croup, again with a change of grips, before the right leg follows it, and the left leg moves over the neck to complete the full turn of the vaulter. The vaulter performs each leg movement in four strides each, completing the Mill movement in sixteen full strides. During the leg passes, the legs should be held perfectly straight, with the toes pointed. When the legs are on the same side of the horse, they should be pressed together.
Scissors 1st part: From the astride position, the vaulter swings into a handstand. At the apex, the vaulter’s body should be turned to the lunger and the inner leg should be crossed over the outer leg. The vaulter than comes down and lands so that she is facing backward on the horse, toward the tail.
Scissors 2nd part: From seat rearways on the horse the vaulter swings up with the outside leg over the inside leg, and lands facing forward once again. If the vaulter lands hard on the horse’s back, they are severely penalized. Scissors is judged on the elevation of the movement.
Stand: The vaulter moves from the astride position onto the shins and immediately onto both feet, and releases the grips. The vaulter then straightens up with both knees bent, the buttocks tucked forward, and the hands held as they are in basic seat. The vaulter must hold the position for four full strides.
Flank 1st part: From the astride position, the legs are swung forward to create momentum, before swinging backward, and rolling onto the stomach with a straight body, with a full extension of the legs so that the vaulter nearly reaches a handstand. At the apex, the vaulter jackknifes her body and turns the body to the inside, before sliding down into a side seat. The vaulter is judged on form, landing, and elevation.
Swing off: From seat astride, the vaulter swings to handstand position with closed legs, arms extended to attain maximum elevation. At maximum arm extension, the vaulter pushes against the grips, and as a result of shoulder repulsion, attains additional elevation and maximum flight, landing to the inside of the horse, facing forward, on both feet.
Due to its demanding nature, vaulting requires an outstanding physical condition from the vaulter, a harmonious relationship with the horse, and first-class teamwork.