Magic of Equestrian Vaulting (part 6)




     Someone watching vaulting for the first time will be amazed.  How are young athletes able to perform moves like they do?  It must involve magic.

     Magic and vaulting do have something in common.  That is the creation of illusions of grandeur.  When on horseback doing a variety of moves that seem to defy gravity, the vaulter is really in complete control.  Many kür moves illustrate the phenomenon that vaulting activities are not as risky as they appear.   

     Vaulting is a living demonstration on how to overcome obstacles and safely manage risk.  Fear and risk levels are always lower that the observer suspects.  It takes years and hours of practice time to develop a vaulter’s mastery with the key performance elements.  Rhythm, balance, strength and flexibility are essential traits for a good vaulter.

     The first key is a coordinated rhythm between the vaulter and the horse they are on.  Without being in sync, any performance would not proceed well.  Even to an unsophisticated eye, the uncoordinated vaulter seems awkward on top the horse.

      What the spectator of vaulting may not realize is that years and years and hundreds of hours of practice and special preparation have taken place prior to a performance.  A coach provides individual training.  The process is calculated as more difficult moves are taken only after the pupil has mastered other techniques.

     Other dynamic qualities that make vaulting interesting are the mixture with athletic skills of horse breeding and handling mastery, coordination and tempo, intellect and knowledge, aesthetics and artistic composition. 


     Many essential abilities include balance, rhythm, strength and flexibility performing static and dynamic exercises. This sport also demands attributes like patience, persistence, commitment, and teamwork.

     Vaulters demonstrate their ability to conform to an exacting standard of required compulsory exercises.  The mount, mill, scissors, stand, and flank are dynamic compulsories and the basic seat and flag are static exercises scored on a scale of 0 to 10.  Ten being excellent and a six is satisfactory.  Whether vaulting is done at the trot, walk or canter, in most cases, these routines are performed to music.

     At vaulting competitions called fests, the scoring procedure is similar to that of gymnastics or figure skating.[1]  The judge watches and a scribe records the scores and comments.  For recognized competitions, a vaulter or team must compete in both compulsory and kür exercises for an overall event.  Each of the compulsory and kür exercises in the individual competition receives a score from 0 to 10 with up to two decimal points.  Kür scores are multiplied by their Degree of Difficulty (DoD).  The scores are then added up and divided by 7 for a score.  For events involving a horse, another score is factored in for the general impression before totaling the score.

     In team competitions, only the twenty-five kür exercises with the highest DoD are scored.[2]  The Horse/General Impression score is based approximately 90% on the horse performance and 10% on general impression.  Judges are looking for good carriage, cadence and submission, constant regular diameter and straightness of the horse on the circle, evidence of overloading, or any questionable laboring of the horse.  General impression points could be lost if not all members of the team perform in the kür, verbal instructions are given to vaulters, assistance is given a vaulter onto the horse, or if teammates go out of order during compulsories.

     The non-compulsory movements are known as kürs.  These are timed freestyle exhibitions of a vaulter’s artistic interpretation and overall athleticism.  Vaulters are evaluated based on the content, DoD, composition, horse, and performance.  These flowing series of dynamic movements and static exercises are performed to instrumental music.

      Composition takes into account many things, for instance:

  • Artistic merit                     
  • Variety
  • Creativity                            
  • Pace of static exercises
  • Music interpretation       
  • Use of dynamic exercises
  • Choreographics                 
  • Progression between exercises
  • Use of space                        
  • Overall development of routine
  • Changes on neck               
  • Moves on croup, inside and outside

     Performance is evaluated on the basis of each vaulting exercise and in its entirety.  Several elements of performance include the following:

  1. Mechanics              
  2. Essence                    
  3. Form                        
  4. Consideration of the horse
  5. Security                  
  6. Balance                    
  7. Not Falling              
  8. Scope

            The kür is the creative part of competitive vaulting.  Vaulters and their coaches collaborate to design one-minute individual or five-minute team exercises.  It is truly an artform combining equine science, music, aesthetics, athleticism, and intellect.

     It takes years of training the horse and people involved.  Despite all preparations, precautions, and practice, the horse’s unpredictability heightens drama of this interesting and challenging sport. 

     Consider the mismatch of size, power and energy between the draft horse versus people in the ring.  Take for instance the mass and inertia of a huge six-foot horse weighing over 2,000 pounds running around with small children, some shorter that 4 feet and thinner than 80 pounds, and add to that doing aerobatic routines in the same arena.

     Someone could make a casual suggestion that protective headgear should be required.  Vaulting is much different from football and even equestrian jumping events.  A helmet wouldn’t prevent an incident and in some cases could contribute to an injury itself. 

     During all equestrian activities, about 6,000 head injuries occur each year in the U.S.  A recent study of vaulting clubs indicated only two head injuries during a five-year period. [3]

     Safety is integrated into the sport of vaulting.  There are three main reasons why head injuries rarely occur and helmets are not necessary[4]:


–         Youngster is not in control of the horse; The longuer is

–         Safety is not based on the youngster’s judgement

–         Control of the horse is ground-based

–         Activity is limited to a 20-meter circle

–         Special footing used for human and equine comfort and safety


–         Vaulters are trained to land safely with knees bent and rolling contact with the ground

–         Participants are able to make a wide variety of movements all over the horse

–         One’s confidence and skills increases

–         Vaulters are better able to deal with “surprises”


–         Horses are primarily chosen for their “bomb-proof” personality

–         Nervous or difficult horses are not used

–         Focus of the sport is on working with the horse

–         Not how fast or how high

–         All elements (horse, vaulter, longeur, facility, and equipment) work together


       The longeur’s handling and training of the vaulting horse is crucial to success. There are no stop buttons, deceleration throttle bars, sidereins or other means for the longeur or rider to attempt to slow down the immense horse; But two surcingle handles behind the neck to grab and “hold onto for dear life”. 

     A longeur’s direction of their horse is phenomenal.  A longeur controls the huge, powerful horse by means of subtle commands like their voice, subtle whip movements, body language and gestures.  A single longe line made of woven nylon of the seven and a half yards long fastened to a snaffle bit and a whip, which almost never is used to actually hit, are the only physical tools the longeur has to manage a horse that could go out-of-control.

     Harnessing the gross potential power the horse is very important.  Fortunately, horse selection and years of training favors the development of advantageous attributes.  Just as a coach spends much time with the vaulter; the longeur develops a relationship with the vaulting horse.  In the USA, only geldings or mares are selected to be trained.

     Look again at the apparent mismatch of horsepower in the arena. Amazingly, safety prevails! 

English Shire Dawn Dailey with Kelley Holly

[1] Dwinell, Carole, “A Bit About Vaulting”, Vaulting World, June 1993.

[2] American Vaulting Association, AVA Rule Book, 1998-99.

[3] Faulkner, Robert, M.D., “Vaulting Safety and the Use of Protective Headgear”, American Medical Equestrian Association News, Volume VI, May 1996.

[4] Rose, Marianne, “Three Points of Vaulting Safety or Why We Don’t Use Protective Headgear”, Vaulting World, June 1997.


copyright MMXI – Max’s Scout Services & Communications


Vaulting Champion Horse at the 2010 World Equestrian Games


About Max's Scout Services and Communications of the Americas, LLC


Posted on January 24, 2011, in Sport and Recreation. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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