The para vaulter: What it's like at a vaulting competition

Ever wondered what a vaulting competition is like? Lizzie is here to explain everything you need to know. 

Welcome to your first vaulting competition! Well, you'll need to use a bit of imagination…

Cambridge Vaulting Club competitors salute the judge

Cambridge Vaulting Club competitors salute the judge

Start out by picturing something a bit like a circus tent: that’s going to be your arena.

The horses work in a 15m circle with a bit of extra space around the edge before the seating for spectators and judges.

It’s usually an indoor venue with some decent speakers scattered around for the music.

Alexis Kemp-Reynolds lungeing Galaxy

Alexis Kemp-Reynolds lungeing Galaxy

Enter the vaulters 

You’re unlikely to miss the arrival of the vaulters: it’s accompanied by music, rhythmical applause and cheering.

The horse comes in at a trot and the vaulter(s) run in behind – or, in my case, limp in as quickly as possible without falling over.

Lunger and vaulters salute, then the vaulters take their place at the edge of the circle while the lunger trots the horse to demonstrate that they’re sound.

Katie Mickler-Campbell performing Novice compulsories

Katie Mickler-Campbell performing Novice compulsories

Let the games begin

A little bell rings and the first vaulter steps forward. When they raise their arm, the music starts.

In most events you'll see vaulters performing two routines: compulsory and freestyle.

At the highest international level there's also a ‘technical’ test (a mix of specified and own-choice moves) and at the lowest BEV (British Equestrian Vaulting) level there's no compulsory test.

Compulsories are set moves performed to music in canter and scored out of 10.

They test the vaulter’s ability to perform basic moves – not necessarily basic because they’re easy, but because they form a basis for lots of freestyle moves.

Freestyle routines are a bit more interesting and give the vaulter the opportunity to show off their creativity and their favourite skills.

At international level, freestyles are performed in canter, but at BEV and RDA events it's possible to perform in walk or even on a barrel horse.

One of my first attempts at an arabesque in canter!

One of my first attempts at an arabesque in canter!

A freestyle routine should have a coherent theme – your music, gestures, moves and costume must all gel.

Until you get to FEI** level there’s no difficulty mark, but, while limiting yourself to the easiest moves might be good for an execution score, the routine will be a bit stale and dull – and what’s life without a little danger?!

World-class vaulters can perform some extraordinary stunts, but even as a beginner you can attempt some pretty cool stuff.

The backbone of any good amateur routine is the small arsenal of moves that look amazingly difficult but are actually pretty easy.

You won’t fool the judges, of course, but when your non-vaulting friends see you doing something like an arabesque on the horse’s back you will earn instant respect!

Competing on Boris (Romantic) at the British Championships

Competing on Boris (Romantic) at the British Championships

 How are scores decided?

Here are some tips for judging your first freestyle…

  1. Fluidity: do the moves follow on from each other seamlessly, or is there a lot of shuffling of feet or hands?

    Do they hold static moves for a few strides? Do they move calmly between moves or rush as if jabbed with a cattleprod?
  2. Variety: do they face forwards, backwards, to the inside, and to the outside? Do they go up high and down low?

    Do they use the handles, the stirrups, the neck and the rump as well as the back? Do they go upside down or lie on their side?

    Do they show unusual moves or are they sticking to the more basic or familiar ones? The more variety and originality you can see, the more marks you can award!
  3. Convincing performance: are they acting up to their theme or is it just music in the background?

    Do they present the character’s emotion(s) clearly or do they just look bored, deep in concentration, or terrified?

    Do they keep their head up or do they keep looking down between moves to see where to place hands and feet?
  4. Execution – how well are they doing the moves? You don’t need to be an expert to get an idea of their balance and confidence, or if they demonstrate good flexibility and strength.

    Also important: they must demonstrate harmony with the horse. Thwacking the poor creature, Thelwell-like, is discouraged.
  5. Consider the horse and lunger. Is the stride free and even? Does the horse look comfortable?

    Is he staying out on his circle? Is the lunger able to stand in one place?
  6. Deductions are made for falls (including wobbles), heavy landings on the horse, going over the time or not holding static poses for long enough (at least three strides). 
Cambridge vaulters and Sandie keeping an eye on the competition!

Cambridge vaulters and Sandie keeping an eye on the competition!

By now you should be an armchair expert and more than capable of judging some routines – there are plenty to practise with on YouTube.

Unfortunately, you may find it takes a bit more time and experience to reach the same decisions as the BEV/FEI judges…

Anyway, hopefully you’re a bit more aware of what we do than you were five minutes ago, and watching some vaulting online or in the flesh will make a little bit more sense!