The para vaulter: "First, you get very acquainted with the ground"

This month, Lizzie gives us a run down of what's what in the para-vaulting world with this handy Q&A piece.

What is vaulting?

Practising a shoulder stand on the barrel horse

Practising a shoulder stand on the barrel horse

Basically, gymnastics/dance on horseback. You can perform individually, in pairs or in teams.

What’s the horsey side?

Lots of people wonder about this. As a vaulter, your aim really is to influence the horse as little as possible (so no heavy landings or bashing them with your feet!).

However, since it's an equestrian sport, the horse gets a score too. This is based on the quality of their paces and their ‘Vault Ability’, which includes the skill of the lunger, who's in complete control of the horse.

An individual vaulting competition is a really three-person affair: you, the horse and your lunger.

Are vaulters riders or what?

We’re hybrids! An article I once read said that vaulters are gymnasts before they're riders, and that sounds about right.

Vaulting is the only equestrian discipline that splits the human athletes into male and female, reflecting the athleticism required (ahem).

What kind of prior experience do most beginners have?

It varies. Of the vaulters I’ve met, about half were riders when they started and half weren’t, and it doesn’t really make a difference to the quality of vaulter you become.

While familiarity with horses (especially big ones!) is useful, the ability to ride well isn’t necessarily helpful: you tend to ‘ride’ (influence) the canter in basic seat instead of just absorbing it, and all the rules you thought you knew (toes up, heels down; don’t go behind the horse) are turned on their head.

Flexibility will help!

Flexibility will help!

On the other hand, the confidence you get from vaulting is really helpful for riding!

What is definitely helpful is a degree of flexibility, through gymnastics, dance or yoga or even from martial arts.

Co-ordination is helpful but I cope without it! Obviously, an element of courage (sane recklessness) is pretty helpful too.

Why don’t you wear helmets?

Because you’re safer without one – honestly.

Having had various unscheduled dismounts in vaulting and riding, I’ve only ever hit my head in a riding fall. In vaulting, you’re far more likely to land on your feet!

Helmets in vaulting are actually dangerous.

They unbalance you and make various moves tricky, such as rolls and shoulder stands. If you’re working with a partner, a helmet becomes quite a potent weapon!

Additionally, the fact that helmets are designed so that the straps don’t break means that if you were to get caught on a bit of equipment you would be dangling by your neck from a cantering horse – not fun.

What special kit do you need?

Happily, vaulting kit is cheaper than riding kit! A pair of vaulting shoes typically costs about £5-£15.

Apart from the shoes – which must be soft-soled, like ballet shoes – you don’t need anything special.

Leggings are better than jodhpurs because they’re easier to move in, and any old top will do provided you can move freely and it’s not loose.

Layers need to be thin and close-fitting, and in winter you can go the full 'Fame' look with leg warmers!

What about a horse?

Very few vaulters have their own vaulting horse – it’s part of what makes it a relatively affordable sport – so go on the BEV website and find a club to join.

Please don’t let anyone who isn’t a vaulting expert train your own horse for it!

What happens in a training session?

First, you get very acquainted with the ground – not because you’ve fallen off already, but because you need to do a decent physical warm-up that'll involve sitting, lying and rolling in whatever delightful poo-laced surface your arena boasts.

The warm-up includes stretching, and the opportunity to show off your forward splits (both ways) and box splits.

With Nett Wight, one of Cambridge Vaulting Club’s brilliant lungers, at the British Championships

With Nett Wight, one of Cambridge Vaulting Club’s brilliant lungers, at the British Championships

Once you’re suitably exhausted you can practise your moves on the barrel horse and do ‘run-ins’ (what it sounds like) to the horse. Normally this whole process takes us about half an hour.

On the horse, we practise some basic moves in trot to warm up the horse a bit more and to get us concentrating!

The rest of the session sees us taking turns on the horse in walk and canter and spending plenty of time practising on the barrel and doing ‘conditioning’ (stretching, core work, handstands, etc.) on the ground.

Any tips for a beginner?

Smile and breathe!

Get photos for bragging rights.

Listen carefully to instructions. You’ll regret it if you don’t!

Observe and obey the rules of entering and leaving ‘the circle’. Lungers have enough to worry about without stray vaulters wandering in front of a cantering horse!

Enjoy it, though. It's meant to be fun!

Be brave. The ground isn’t that hard. Even when you fly backwards off a 17.2hh horse in canter. I should know…

Next time: How to make sense of a vaulting competition