Horse Vaulting: Breaking Down the Basics

Updated March 16, 2022
World vaulting championship

Equestrian vaulting is performing elegant dance or gymnastic moves on the back of a moving horse. Whether you're vaulting for competition or recreation, this sport increases balance, coordination, and self-confidence for participants of all abilities.

Basics of Vaulting

A vaulting team includes a horse on a long lead called a longe line, a longueur, and at least one vaulter. Vaulters compete as individuals, pairs, or in teams. Teams may be mixed, with both males and females competing together.

Vaulters perform in an enclosed arena with soft footing. The team member called the longueur, sometimes referred to as the lunger, stands in the middle of the arena and holds the long lead, or longe line, attached to the horse. The horse moves in a circle around the longueur at a walk, trot, or canter, depending on the level of competition. The longueur is always in control of the horse, making vaulting much safer than trick riding.

Vaulters perform their routines to music. They wear tight, stretchy uniforms with no loose pieces that could get caught and cause injuries. Their hair is neat to avoid entanglement. Footwear is a soft-soled leather shoe similar to ballet slippers.

Appropriate Horses

Erick Martonovich horse vault performance

Vaulting horses may be any breed or size, but wide-based or draft breeds are most common. Popular breeds used include the American Quarter Horse, Morgan, Thoroughbred, and Appaloosa. Although a horse must be strong physically to succeed in vaulting, their temperament is an equally important factor. A vaulting horse's personality must be calm and kind, and their movements must be consistent. The American Vaulting Association (AVA) specifies that horses must be at least 6 years old, and stallions are not allowed.

Necessary Equipment

There is a variety of equipment required for the sport.

  • Vaulting surcingle - A vaulting surcingle is a wide leather strap that sits just behind the horse's withers. It has two handles, called grips, and two leather straps, called cossacks, and several metal D-rings around the outside. The vaulter uses the grips and cossacks while performing gymnastic moves, and the longueur attaches side reins to the D-rings. The vaulting surcingle sits just behind the withers, and the girth falls in the groove behind the horse's front legs.
  • Bridle - The horse wears a leather bridle and a smooth snaffle bit.
  • Side Reins - One end of the side reins attaches to the bit and the other to the D-rings on the surcingle. The side reins help the horse keep his body straight and balanced while he moves in a circle around the longueur.
  • Longe Line - The longe line is made of cotton or nylon and has a snap on one end that attaches to the horse's snaffle bit on the near side. Most longe lines are 10 meters long, allowing the horse to move in a 20-meter circle. In vaulting competition, the horse moves in a 15-meter circle, so the longueur holds the longe line at 7.5 meters rather than at the end.
  • Longe Whip - The longe whip is 6 to 10 feet long and has a lash on the end. The lash must be long enough to reach the horse as the longueur stands in the middle of the circle.
  • Optional Equipment - The AVA allows the use of these equipment pieces in competition:
    • Wraps or bandages to protect the horse's legs
    • Breastplate to keep the surcingle from sliding back
    • Felt back pad no more than 2 inches thick
    • Earmuffs or earplugs for the horse

Vaulting Competitions

Vaulting is an international sport sanctioned by International Equestrian Federation (FEI). Top-level competitions are part of the FEI World Equestrian Games and FEI World Cup competitions.

The AVA is the governing agency for the sport in the United States. The association has a calendar of competitions on its website. It also has forms for those interested in organizing competitions.

Compulsory Portion of a Competition

In competition, vaulters compete in compulsory and freestyle classes. In the compulsory portion, all vaulters perform the same movements in the same order.

Freestyle Vaulting

Freestyle is more artistic, and vaulters choreograph their own unique series of movements to display their talents.

Getting Started

The AVA has 141 sanctioned clubs located across the United States and maintains a current list with trainer contact information on its website. Potential vaulters do not need to know how to ride a horse to learn the sport. Beginners first learn movements on a stationary barrel before progressing to a moving horse. New vaulters begin at a walk and then progress to performing at a trot and canter.

Prerequisites

While anyone can vault, there are a few prerequisites potential vaulters should keep in mind.

  • Vaulters need to be physically fit. Most training sessions start with stretching and short runs to prevent injuries.
  • Athletic leggings and tight-fitting tops are the ideal clothing choices for practice sessions. Dress in layers for practice in cold weather.
  • Although vaulters practice in soft-soled shoes, remember to bring boots to practice sessions. Vaulters are often responsible for caring for team horses before or after practice.
  • Vaulting requires trust. Vaulters have to trust their teammates while performing movements together on moving horses, and they must also trust the longueur to keep the horse at a steady pace.
  • Unlike riding a horse, vaulters point their toes rather than keeping their heels down.

Cost

The cost of horse vaulting is relatively low for participants. You will likely have to pay for lessons. However, you won't be responsible for providing your own supplies. Teams own the horses and equipment rather than the vaulters, so the vaulters can participate in horse care without the expense of actually boarding the horse.

Horse Vaulting Safety

Some people may express concern surrounding the safety of horse vaulting, but many equestrians believe vaulting is safer than any other horse sport. Teams take precautions to ensure the safety of vaulters and the horses involved. These are defined by the AVA as the "Three Points of Vaulting Safety," which include safety training, creating a controlled environment, and selecting a suitable horse based on their nature.

Everyone Is Welcome

Whether participating for recreation or competition, vaulting welcomes people of all abilities. This is the ideal sport for those who are passionate about gymnastics, dance, and horses. It is truly the perfect combination of horse sport and art form.

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Horse Vaulting: Breaking Down the Basics