This article was produced in association with the FEI
Handstands, scissor kicks, somersaults, back-flips… gymnastic movements like these are tricky enough when performed on an exercise mat. Imagine the extra physical challenge, then, if you have to execute them on the back of a cantering horse.
This is the equestrian sport known as vaulting. A mixture of dance and gymnastics, it sees highly skilled athletes performing specially choreographed moves on the back of a horse while it canters around an arena.
Vaulters compete as individuals, or as pairs (known as pas de deux), or as squads of six (with three on the horse at a time). Meanwhile another team member (known as the lunger) guides the horse on a long rein from the centre of the arena.
Like gymnasts, the athletes wear tight-fitting and colourful clothing to allow them ease of movement as they carry out their stunts, and to give their performances a certain artistic flair. Like figure skating, there is musical accompaniment to the routine, as well as an artistic theme. At last year’s FEI Vaulting World Cup™ final, in Dortmund, for example, the winning pair in the pas de deux competition took the French novel Le Petit Prince as their inspiration, while their German rivals opted for a Swan Lake theme. In the singles event the themes included Sherlock Holmes, zombies and wolves.
Top vaulters come from all walks of life. Former world number one Kristina Boe, for example, is a doctor, while Lorenzo Lupacchini, one half of the winning team in last year’s pas de deux at the FEI Vaulting World Cup™, is studying to be a dentist, and Jannik Heiland, currently sixth in the FEI world rankings, is an aviation engineer. German vaulters Regina Burgmayr and Erik Oese work in project management and teaching, respectively. Since vaulting is ideally suited to smaller athletes, many vaulters are children, some as young as six years old.
Bettina de Rham is vaulting director at equestrian sport’s governing body, the International Equestrian Federation, or FEI. “It’s a sport of the people,” she says. “Even the top athletes have day jobs. The demographic is therefore very wide.”
De Rham points out how several vaulters train with Canadian theatrical troupe Cirque du Soleil. All of them require amazing fitness and skill to succeed in this equestrian discipline.
“The top athletes are constantly pushing the boundaries of the sport, performing highly sophisticated gymnastic exercises,” she says. “They need massive strength, flexibility and artistic flair. The key to success is a lot of hard work and dedication along with artistic talent and gymnastic ability.”
She stresses how vaulting is a great foundation for all equestrian disciplines. “In many countries around the world, young people start equestrian sport by doing basic vaulting training, to learn balance, how to be in harmony with a horse, and how to understand how a horse moves.”
But there’s an artistic side to vaulting, too. “The performances are inspiring, emotional, full of drama, comedy and vitality,” De Rham adds. She explains how recent vaulting competitions included routines inspired by the Hollywood films Pirates of the Caribbean and The Great Gatsby, as well as pop star Michael Jackson’s song Blue Gangsta.
There’s an incredibly rich heritage to vaulting. Historians trace its origins back over 2,000 years to ancient Crete where performers used to dance on the back of bulls. During the early years of the Roman Republic, acrobatics on horseback were often practised as a sport.
In the Middle Ages, vaulting was considered an important part of education for knights and nobles. In later centuries it was used for training cavalry since the skills involved enabled mounted soldiers to evade projectiles and retrieve fallen comrades.
At the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, the sport made a fleeting appearance under the banner of artistic riding. However, it wasn’t until after the Second World War that it became an established sport.
Modern vaulting was developed in post-war Germany both to introduce children to equestrian sports and as a form of exercise to improve general horse-riding. By the 1960s it had spread to neighbouring countries across Europe and to the United States.
Finally, in 1983, vaulting became an FEI discipline, governed by the International Equestrian Federation. Three years later the first FEI World Championships took place in the Swiss town of Bulle. The sport also featured as a demonstration sport at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Nowadays you’ll find over 120 FEI vaulting competitions staged all over the world. According to a 2016 report, there are just under 1,900 athletes and around 600 horses involved, making this the fastest-growing of all the FEI disciplines. Five per cent of the world’s 37 million active riders participate in vaulting.
The most prestigious competition is the FEI Vaulting World Cup™ series, comprising the best vaulting events on the planet. The most recent season, which finished in late March this year, featured six qualifying rounds in Madrid, Paris, Salzburg, Mechelen, Leipzig and Offenburg, and culminated in a final in Dortmund.
Other major FEI vaulting events take place at the FEI World Equestrian Games™, the FEI World Championships, and the FEI Vaulting European Championships.
The FEI estimates there are 323 million fans of equestrian sport worldwide, with 17 per cent of them taking an interest in vaulting. The biggest audiences are in Germany, which has a 27-per-cent share of the market, followed by USA (17 per cent), UK (13 per cent), France (seven per cent) and Switzerland (five per cent).
According to FEI research, 80 per cent of vaulting fans are female, 20 per cent male; 36 per cent occupy the 18 to 24-year-old age bracket, and 24 per cent are in the 25 to 34-year-old age bracket, making this a very popular sport with young spectators.
Further research shows that vaulting fans are “creative and business-minded”, attend art exhibitions, and are involved in their local communities and in conservation projects.
The FEI has plans to boost interest in vaulting by targeting more male fans, especially in the 25 to 34-year-old age bracket. Latin America is seen as a great potential fanbase, especially Mexico and Brazil.
De Rham emphasises the growing popularity of this discipline as a family sport. “For children, young adults and their parents, this is a really engaging activity,” she says. “It requires fitness, time, dedication and artistic flair.”
But ultimately, she explains, vaulting is all about the spectacle. “Competitions are awe-inspiring, really amazing to watch,” she adds. “For the crowds, it’s interactive. There is energy and vitality, there is loud music. This is full-on entertainment as well as sport.”