Photo by Patrick Weberman

Vaulting. It’s one of those equestrian sports I’d filed alongside jousting in the ‘weird and alternative’ category. I didn’t know anyone who vaulted and until a few months ago I’d assumed the only people who did it were part of the circus or one of those other travelling shows like Cavalia.

But, as I found out, the sport is accessible to regular people and you don’t have to be an acrobat or gymnast to try some of the ‘moves.’

In February, I met with Alysha Filer, a vaulting instructor based out of Brantford, Ontario, who has been competing and giving vaulting lessons since she was a teenager. For an hour she guided me through the basic ‘compulsory exercises’ in vaulting.

As with all of her students, she first started me on the barrel – a piece of equipment that resembles the pommel horse gymnasts use. She taught me how to mount smoothly, swing my legs around the barrel gracefully and pose in the ‘flag’ position.

After 15 minutes of this, Alysha deemed I was ready for the real deal, so she got me up on Peaches, a 12-year-old Belgian Quarter Horse mare with a big broad back seemingly made for vaulting. Over the next 45 minutes I practiced the moves I’d practiced on the barrel and even got up enough guts to try standing on Peaches as she walked.

I always assumed standing on a moving horse was difficult, but considering I could only do it for two or three walking steps before losing my balance, I have a newfound respect for every trick rider out there who acts like it’s no big deal to stand on a horse while it’s cantering around. Pro tip for standing on a horse: Keep your chest up and don’t tip forward.

Other things I learned:
1. Vaulting requires incredible flexibility and strength: While anyone can try this sport, to really be capable of the moves, you need to have a strong core and upper body. Alysha told me that many vaulters practice walking handstands to build their strength, balance and coordination.

2. Vaulting is growing in popularity with the general public. Alysha says that clubs are popping up all the time and attributes this to the World Equestrian Games held in Kentucky in 2010. WEG featured elite vaulting competition, something many North Americans had previously never watched live. “Many people I know travelled down to watch the vaulting and were so inspired by it and where this sport can take you,” said Alysha.

3. Vaulters don’t wear helmets. There’s an explanation on the Vault Canada site: “The straps of a helmet are designed and tested to not stretch or break which makes them a hanging hazard in a vaulting environment…” Its explanation also notes helmets could cause severe neck injuries in vaulters, but concludes “all persons riding a horse, instead of vaulting, must wear a helmet since riding occurs near walls and other hard objects, and not on a consistent circle.”

It was a fascinating introduction to a part of the horse world I knew nothing about. While I think I lack the coordination, flexibility and strength to be a vaulter, I was happy I tried it, if for no other reason than to get a sweet photo of me standing on a horse.

Check out this video from my experience:

See the May/June issue of Horse Canada magazine for more details.