Equestrian vaulting was on the top of my list of riding disciplines that I wanted to learn, while traveling the United States in search for the ultimate riding experience. I had no idea what I was in for when I contacted Sara Nicolson of the Poway Valley Vaulters, at the Rolling Hills Stable in Poway, CA…
I was welcomed with open arms by the students and coaches, Bonnie Bruce and Sara Nicholson, when I arrived for my first vaulting lesson. Quickly realizing, their philosophy is about having fun while developing coordination, balance and strength as you work in harmony with your equine partner. The Poway Valley Vaulters offers an atmosphere that is very laid back and community focused. Everyone participating in the lesson is responsible for setting up and breaking down all equipment involved in that day’s lesson as well as grooming and caring for the horse that will be their vaulting partner that day.
Once the two barrels and mats are set up, Sara Nicholson, led the group with stretching exercises to warm up everyone muscles before tackling the gymnastic moves on top of the barrels. I watched as each student mounted the barrel. I quickly realized that this was completely foreign to me, as I stood there in tights and sneakers (not riding pants and boots) and my transitional leg up.
Although, there are many ways to mount in equestrian vaulting, we practiced the simple leg up mount, where the rider is facing the horse’s head with their body parallel to the horse’s back while your partner counts to three lifting your bend left leg, guiding you on top of your mount. In this particular mounting style the rider focuses on their right leg going straight up to the sky, perpendicular to the horse’s back, then gently sitting up straight in perfect posture on top of you mount (horse or barrel). This is no easy task and requires a lot of upper body strength, coordination and balance.
As the rest of the students practiced their individual and partner routines on the barrel, Sara, took me aside and explained the origins of vaulting, benefits and the different styles and movements required in vaulting competitions. In individual competitions there are six compulsory exercises that must be performed without dismounting: basic seat, flag, mill, click or scissors, stand and flank. The compulsories are performed in succession without pause or dismounts.
Sara explained each compulsory movement starting with the basic seat moving through all six exercises. As I practiced each movement I became more and more comfortable and was eventually able to move to some freestyle movements that included hand stands, kneeling, standing and aerial moves such as flips. As this begin my first lesson, I chose to stick with the easier movements such as kneeling and standing. I was very comfortable with each compulsory movement, as well as standing and kneeling. I got the courage to do a front roll, however I was on a non-moving barrel.
After about 90 minutes of practicing on the barrel, I was ready to mount an actual moving horse. I am not one to get nervous especially around horses, but right before mounting the horse my palms began sweating and butterflies filled my stomach with anxiety. Once, I was mounted (leg up while the horse is moving) all my fears went away and I got comfort in knowing that I was on the back of a beautiful horse that has done this for years.
I practiced each compulsory movement at the walk and eventually working my way into the trot, holding each movement for 4 seconds, in succession without pausing. I started with the basic seat, which I sat astride with my arms held to the side raised to ear level. My legs were wrapped around the horse’s barrel, soles facing rearward, with toes down and feet arched. Totally different from the heels down approach that I am so costumed to.
After the basic seat I quickly hopped to my knees and extended my right leg straight out behind me, holding it slightly above my head, parallel to the horse’s spine. My other leg was had equal pressure distributed through my shin and foot. I learned that to avoid digging your knee into the horse’s back your weight should be on the back on your ankle. Once, my legs were in the correct position I raised my left arm stretching it forward, also parallel to the horse’s spine.
After the flag, I moved into the basic seat to begin the mill movement. The mill starts from the astride position, bringing my right leg over the horse’s neck, while my hand grips were released and retaken as I brought my leg over. I brought my left leg in a full arc over the croup of the horse, again with a change of grips, before my right leg followed it, and the left leg moves over the neck to complete the full turn. The mill brought flashbacks of me on my pony as a young rider completing “around the world” at the walk, trot and canter during my lounge line lessons. Who knew many years later I would be doing the same thing.
The click was the most difficult for me out of all six compulsory movements. From the basic seat position, I swung on my left leg over the horse’s neck, seating sideways, and then swinging my right leg over the horse’s croup so I was sitting backwards on the horse. While grasping the surcingle handles I quietly swung my leg forward giving me momentum to left my entire body off the horse’s back while my leg swing together, clicking my heals like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. This movement requires an immense amount of upper body strength that by the time the lesson was over my arms were shaking from fatigue.
The stand was next in succession and I wanted to complete this at the walk, but to be safe Sara and Bonnie provided me with a spotter, since I had never stood on a horse before. From the basic seat position I moved to my shins and immediately onto both feet, I released my hand grips and held the hands of my spotter. Once I felt comfortable I began to straighten up with both my knees bent, with my tail bone tucked for balance. After a couple of strides at the walk I was able to let go of my spotter’s hands and held my hands straight out as in the basic seat. I was amazed that I was able to hold my standing position for 4 seconds at the walk.
The final movement the flank, is also the dismount in vaulting. From the basic seat, I swung my legs forward to create momentum, then swinging my legs backward, and rolling onto my stomach in an arch of the surcingle, with a full extension of my legs raise up behind me, the goal to nearly reach a handstand. When coming down, I brought my legs to the right side of the horse, pushing off the surcingle, landing on my feet on the outside of the lounging horse with a huge smile.
My experience at Poway Valley Vaulters was fun and educational. I appreciate the staff and students for making me feel as though I was part of the team for the day and allowing me to drop in on their class. This experience created a passion for learning more about vaulting and about all the benefits vaulting has to offer to equestrian, non-equestrian and therapeutic riders.
A big thank you to Wil Fernandez for the wonderful photography.