Equestrian vaulting is most often described as gymnastics and dance on horseback, and like these disciplines, it is an art and not a competitive sport. It is open to males and females. It is one of ten competitive equestrian events recognized by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports, along with: dressage, combined driving, endurance riding, eventing, horseball, paraequestrian, reining, and show jumping, and tent pegging. Therapeutic or Interactive Vaulting is also used as form of treatment for children and adults who may have balance, attention, gross motor skill, or social deficits.
Vaulting has many enthusiasts worldwide, but particularly in Germany, where it is often practiced as part of basic equestrian training. The German vaulting squads are highly ranked and very competitive on the world stage. Vaulting is also especially well established in France (where it is known as Voltige), Sweden, the UK, and the Netherlands. Enthusiasm for the sport is also growing in Brazil, Australia, and in the United States. American vaulters have been successful competing internationally and the US has produced several world champions and highly ranked vaulting teams.
China and South Africa also have vaulting clubs.
In competitive vaulting, vaulters compete as individuals, pairs or pas-de-deux, and teams. Beginning vaulters will compete at the walk (and in the US at the trot) but copper-, bronze-, silver-, and gold-medal level vaulters perform on the horse at a canter. The vaulting horse, which has been carefully trained, moves in a 15-metre circle and is controlled by a lunger Vaulting competitions consist of compulsory exercises and choreographed freestyle exercises done to music. There are six compulsories exercises—basic seat, flag, mill, scissors, stand, and flank, in addition to the mount and dismount. Each exercise is scored on a scale from 0-10. Horses also receive a score and are judged on the quality of their gait.
Vaulters also compete in freestyle (previously known as Kur). The components of a freestyle vaulting routine MAY include mounts and dismounts, handstands, kneeling and standing and aerial moves such flips. Teams will also carry, lift, and even toss another vaulter in the air. Judging is based on technique, performance, form, difficulty, balance, security, and consideration of the horse—the horse as well as the vaulter earns a score.
Vaulting horses are not saddled, but they do wear a surcingle (or a roller) and a thick back pad. The surcingle has special handles which aid the vaulter in performing certain moves as well as leather loops called cossack stirrups. The horse wears a bridle and side reins. The lunge line is usually attached to the inside bit ring.
Vaulting horses typically move on the left rein (counterclockwise), but in certain kinds of competitions the horse will canter in the other direction. Two-phase classes of competition also work the horse to the right. While many European teams do not work to the right, many American vaulting clubs work to the right believing this benefits the horse and the vaulter.
The premier Vaulting competitions are the biannual World and Continental Championships and the World Equestrian Games (WEG) held every four years. In the United States, the American Vaulting Association organizes and sponsors national, regional and local events every year, such as Falconwood Springfest in Covington, Georgia.
Vaulting events were included in the 1920 Olympics.
Some trace the origins of vaulting to Roman games, including acrobatic displays on cantering horses. Others see roots in the bull dancers of ancient Crete. In either case, people have been performing acrobatic and dance-like movements on the backs of moving horses for more than 2,000 years. The first known depiction of vaulting was from stone painting, dated at around 1500 BC, of Scandinavian riders standing on horses.
Renaissance and Middle Ages history include numerous references to vaulting or similar activities, and it seems apparent that present-day gymnastics performed on the “vaulting horse” was developed from vaulting – allowing concentration on the gymnastics without the horse. The present name of the sport comes from the French “La Voltige,” which it acquired during the Renaissance, when it was a form of riding drill and agility exercise for knights and noblemen, and also used as a symbol of status.
Vaulting was later used to help cavalry troops increase their abilities on the horse, and the troops would begin by working on a wooden horse before advancing to a live, moving mount. Modern vaulting was developed in post-war Germany as part of set of exercises for improving general riding. Cavalry officers introduced the sport at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp as “Artistic Riding,” although the sport was not continued in the Games. Vaulting is still much more popular in Europe, where it is still included in dressage training, than it is in other parts of the world, though vaulting is a growing sport in Brazil, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
In 1983, vaulting became one of the disciplines recognized by the Fédération équestre internationale (FEI), and the first FEI World Vaulting Championships were held in Switzerland in 1986. It was later demonstrated as a sport at the 1996 Atlanta Games and at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, USA. More recently, the popular equestrian show Cavalia and other similar shows have introduced vaulting to many new audiences worldwide.
Vaulters perform various movements on the back of the horse. Novice and beginning vaulters may perform at the walk or the trot while higher level vaulters perform at the canter. There are six compulsory exercises in the individual competition that must be performed without dismounting:
Movement Description 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 From the astride position, the vaulter swings into a handstand. At the apex, the vaulter’s body should be turned to the longeur 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. The return scissors is then performed, so that 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 From the astride position, the legs are swung forward to create momentum, before swinging backward, and rolling onto the stomach in an arch, 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 moves from the side seat with a straighten of the legs, keeping the legs together, bringing her body over the horse’s back, and pushes off the handgrips, landing to the outside of the circle facing forward. The vaulter is judged on form, landing, and elevation. You need to be able to eventually swing your entire body over the horse.
The compulsories are performed in succession in the above order, without pause or dismounts. In addition, the mount onto the horse is also scored. At the walk, the Ground Jump is omitted.
In the team competition, each vaulter performs the required movements, one following the other. Each team member will do the first three moves and then dismount, and after everyone has done the first three, the team will get back on one by one and finish out the last three moves.
United States and the AVA
American vaulting can be traced to 1956, when Elizabeth Searle first saw the sport during a visit to Europe. Seeing a potential application for her pony club in California’s Santa Cruz County, she obtained a 16mm film of the basic exercises, and took it back to the US.
Later, in 1966, the American Vaulting Association was founded by Searle and J. Ashton Moore, and in 1969, held the first official AVA competition at the Santa Cruz County fairgrounds in Watsonville, California. In 1974, US vaulters participating in the first international exchange in Stuttgart, Germany.
AVA members demonstrated vaulting at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and again at the Atlanta Olympic games in 1996.
Today the AVA has more than 1,000 members in 100 AVA clubs and affiliates from Hawaii to Massachusetts, and Washington to Florida. Originally focused solely on competitive vaulting, the AVA today has programs for all types of vaulters, from recreational and pony club vaulters to therapeutic vaulters, from beginner to world championship levels.
In addition to competition, vaulting is also a form of artistry and entertainment. Cavalia, the blockbuster equestrian theatrical show from Canada, includes a vaulting section.
Beyond Cavalia, vaulting is also used on a therapeutic level in some instances. People with disabilities can often benefit from interacting with the horse and team members, and by doing simple movements with the help of “spotters.” Also, vaulting is often seen on a recreational level, through vaulting “demonstrations,” and occasionally in local parades. For photographs and other information concerning vaulting in the United States, see the official American Vaulting Association’s website: