Equestrian vaulting is a sport that incorporates gymnastics performance with equestrianism. Athletes perform complex gymnastic routines on the back of a moving horse, demonstrating balance, strength, and harmony with their equine partner.

Depictions of vaulting date back to ancient times and were a component of historic military training in the Greek and Roman empires.

Today, vaulting is an internationally recognized equestrian sport. Spectators can see vaulting performances at large equestrian competitions, including the World Equestrian Games.

This guide covers the artistic and spectacular world of equestrian vaulting, including everything you need to know about the rules, competition formats, levels, and management of vaulting horses.

What is Equestrian Vaulting?

Equestrian vaulting is a gymnastics competition performed on horseback. Vaulting athletes use a specialized piece of riding equipment called a vaulting surcingle to support their arms during inverted movements on horseback.

Vaulting athletes demonstrate high levels of flexibility, strength, balance, and harmony with the horse during their performances.

History

Equestrian vaulting is an ancient sport, with depictions of people standing on horses painted on stone dating back to the Pre-Romanic Ice Period. [1]

The Classical Olympics held in Greece also included a form of equestrian vaulting, called “Artistic Riding“. [1] Roman and Greek soldiers also incorporated vaulting into their military training regimens.

Modern vaulting was developed to introduce children in postwar Germany to equestrian sports. [1] As an organized sport, vaulting brought together the challenge of gymnastics and the power of the horse.

In 1983, equestrian vaulting became an official international equestrian sport sanctioned by the Féderation Équestre Internationale (FEI).

Vaulting Sport Organizations

Similar to other equestrian sports, organizations at a local, regional, national, and international level regulate vaulting competitions. The major governing body for equestrian vaulting at an international level is the Fédération Équestre Internationale.

FEI

The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) is the official governing body for all international horse sports. The FEI also organizes the World Equestrian Games, one of the most prestigious competitions for vaulting.

Vaulting is one of seven disciplines governed by the FEI at the international level. The other FEI disciplines include:

National Organizations

National organizations that regulate vaulting in North America include Equestrian Canada (EC) and the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). Other organizations involved in vaulting sport in these countries include VaultCanada and Equestrian Vaulting USA.

Vaulting Competitions

During a vaulting competition, vaulting athletes perform complex gymnastic routines on the back of a horse, who is controlled by the lunger.

There are three types of equestrian vaulting competitions:

  • Individual: a single performer on one horse
  • Pas-de-Deux: two performers on one horse
  • Squad: six performers on one horse

Each competition consists of two to three performances. The first performance is always the Compulsory Test. The second performance may be either a Freestyle or Technical Test. Competitions running three performances include all three types.

Compulsory Tests

The Compulsory Test is a performance where the athlete(s) demonstrate specific exercises required for their vaulting level. [2] For Pas-de-deux or Squad events, all members of the vaulting group must perform all the compulsories. [2]

Common components of the compulsory test include: [2][3]

  • Vault on: the athlete uses the surcingle handles to vault onto the horse, performing a vertical handstand above the surcingle before lowering themselves into a typical riding position
  • Basic seat: the traditional riding position, with the athlete sitting just behind the vaulting surcingle
  • Flag: the athlete kneels on the horse’s back, then extends one leg and one arm outwards
  • Stand: the athlete stands on the horse’s back, facing the horse’s head
  • Mill or half mill: the athlete begins sitting in a basic seat, then swings one leg over the horse to face sideways, then swings again to face backwards. A full mill involves a second iteration of this maneuver, bringing the athlete back into a basic seat
  • Scissors forwards and backwards: the athlete swings their body upwards into a handstand, then lowers themselves with their legs extended. As they lower their body, they twist so that they are now sitting in the opposite direction from where they started

Athletes must demonstrate these positions for set number of strides. For example, the static exercises, such as Flag and Stand, must be shown for at least 4 of the horse’s strides. [2]

Freestyle Tests

Freestyle tests demonstrate a variety of maneuvers set to music. The duration of freestyle tests varies depending on the type of competition: [2]

  • Individuals: 1 minute
  • Pairs: 2 minutes
  • Squads: 3.5 minutes

During Squad competitions, no more than 3 vaulters can be on the horse at any one time. [2] Additionally, each vaulter must complete at least one exercise during the performance. [2]

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Technical Tests

Technical Tests are a component of some Individual competitions. During these performances, athletes must demonstrate five required technical exercises. [2] They can also add in other maneuvers to make a cohesive and harmonious performance. [2] These performances are usually set to music and have a maximum time of 1 minute. [2]

Each of the required technical exercises focuses on a specific motor skill category. The current Technical Exercises are: [3]

  • Stand Backward: athletes stand backwards on the back of the horse with a steady arm position. This exercise tests the athlete’s balance.
  • Cartwheel from Neck to Back: the athletes use the handles on the vaulting surcingle to cartwheel from the horse’s neck into a standing position on the horse’s back. This tests the athlete’s timing and coordination.
  • Lower Arm Stand Sideways: the athlete uses the vaulting surcingle as a base to perform a “lower arm stand”, where the athlete uses their lower arms to hold their body in a vertical position. The athlete positions their shoulders parallel to the horse’s spine, with their front or back facing the lunger. This tests the athlete’s strength.
  • Mount to Reverse Shoulder Stand: in this maneuver, the athlete mounts the horse using the vaulting surcingle, then immediately maneuvers into a shoulder stand on the opposite side of the horse. In a shoulder stand, the athlete uses one shoulder to support their body in a vertical position. This maneuver tests the athlete’s jumping force.
  • Stand Split Backward: the athlete stands facing the horse’s tail, then raises one leg into a vertical position while placing their hands flat on the horse’s back. This tests the athlete’s suppleness and ability to absorb the movement of the horse.

Vaulting Scoring

Every test receives four scores, which equally contribute to the final score. The evaluated components of the test depend on the type of test performed: [2]

  • Compulsory Test: 1 Horse Score, 3 Exercise Scores
  • Freestyle Test: 1 Horse Score, 2 Technique Scores, 1 Artistic Score
  • Technical Test: 1 Horse Score, 2 Exercise Scores, 1 Artistic Score

Judges grade each component out of 10, with a 10 being excellent. The athlete(s) with the highest combined total score after all of the applicable Tests for their division wins. [2]

Horse Scores

Horse Scores evaluate the quality of the horse’s movements and their level of training. [2]

Horses should have a forward canter with clear impulsion from the hindquarters and a high level of collection. [3] The horse should perform a consistent circle without falling in or leaning on the lunger’s lunge line. [3]

Judges evaluate the horse using the Training Scale, with scores for rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and collection. [3]

The judges also evaluate the horse’s “Vault Ability“, or their suitability as a vaulting horse. [3] This includes the horse’s willingness and obedience, tempo, and balance on the circle. [3]

Finally, the quality of lunging also receives a score. The horse and lunger should demonstrate collaboration and communication throughout the performance. [3] Abrupt maneuvers or obvious use of aids by the lunger may result in deductions. [3]

Exercise Scores

Judges score the exercises performed by the athletes based on five general criteria: [3]

  • Harmony with the horse
  • Body control and posture
  • Quality of movement
  • Balance
  • Flexibility

Judges use the FEI scoring guidelines to evaluate the athlete(s) performance. These guidelines extensively detail possible deductions and the scoring of each maneuver in equestrian vaulting. [3]

All the required exercises during a test receive a score from the judges. In the Technical Test, any non-required maneuvers performed by the athletes receive a separate Exercise Score.

Technique Score

The technique score evaluates the performance’s degree of difficulty. [2] Judges use the Code of Points to determine the performance’s complexity. [2]

In this Code, each exercise has a listed Degree of Difficulty score. Judges add together the Degree of Difficulty scores for top 10-25 most difficult exercises performed by the athletes to produce the final Technique Score. [3]

In some cases, judges may increase the listed Degree of Difficulty for a maneuver if the athletes perform a variation that adds complexity or technicality to the exercise. [3]

Artistic Score

Judges evaluate the artistry of the performance in the Artistic Score. Athletes may earn points for the variety of exercises performed, a variety of positions, timing with the music, and interpretation of the music. [2]

Vaulting Levels

There are several levels of vaulting available, ranging from beginners to international competition. The main levels for national competitions are: [4]

  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Advanced

With subcategories based on the horse’s speed: [4]

  • Walk
  • Trot
  • Canter

Depending on the number of entries, the show organizers may separate each level into age brackets based on the age of the rider: [2]

  • Senior: age 16+
  • Young Vaulter: age 16 – 21
  • Junior: age 14 – 18
  • Child: age 12 – 14

The FEI ranks international vaulting competitions using the Star system. In this system, higher Star levels represent higher levels of competition. The highest level of international competition is the CVIO 4*. [2]

Vaulting Equipment

Compared to other equestrian sports, vaulting horses wear relatively little equipment. This maximizes the space on the horse’s back for athletes to perform gymnastic maneuvers.

Horse Equipment

Vaulting horses wear specialized equipment to prevent pain or injury from the vaulting performance. [2] Their equipment also helps support the athletes and provides them with handholds to perform maneuvers. [2]

The basic tack for a vaulting horse is a bridle (or lunging cavesson) and a surcingle. [2] The bridle provides an attachment point for the lunge line and connects the horse to the lunger. Some teams use side reins that run from the surcingle, through the horse’s bit, and back to the surcingle to adjust the horse’s natural head and body position during the performance. [2]

The vaulting surcingle has two solid handles that athletes use during their performance. [2] Teams use a back pad underneath the surcingle to reduce the impact of vaulter movements on the horse’s back. These back pads conform to the shape of the horse’s back and extend from the horse’s shoulder to their hips. [2]

Athlete and Lunger Attire

Vaulters wear gymnastics costumes that are often themed to the music they perform to. Costumes must be formfitting and not restrict the movement of the vaulter, other vaulters, or the horse. [2] Athletes wear soft-soled shoes specific for vaulting to prevent pain or injury when standing on the horse. [2]

Vaulters do not wear helmets, which is unusual compared to many other equestrian sports. [5] Equestrian helmets have straps that do not stretch or break and may become caught on the vaulting surcingle or other vaulters during a performance. [5] For these reasons, vaulters do not wear helmets unless they are riding the horse in a traditional manner. [5]

The lungers wear clothing that is cohesive with the vaulters and the theme of the performance. [2] They also carry a lunging whip used to direct the horse during the performance. [2]

Vaulting Horses

There are very few limitations on what kinds of horses can perform in vaulting. To compete in international performances, horses must be at least 7 years of age. [2] Otherwise, all breeds and sizes of horse are welcome in the vaulting arena, provided they have the strength to support the athletes. [6]

A calm and laid-back attitude is also beneficial, as vaulting competitions can be extremely noisy and busy events that may upset anxious horses. [6]

Managing Vaulting Horses

Although much of the focus in vaulting is on the athletes, the health and wellness of the horse is critical to producing a harmonious and fluid performance.

Vaulting teams consider their horses’ veterinary care, farriery, exercise and training programs, and other aspects of management to ensure that the horse is at their peak performance during a vaulting competition.

This includes consultation with industry professionals, such as equine nutritionists, to build a suitable management plan for each individual horse.

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References

  1. F.A.Q.. VaultCanada. 2024.
  2. Vaulting Rules 2024. Fédération Equestre Internationale. 2024.
  3. 2024 Vaulting Guideline. Fédération Equestre Internationale. 2024.
  4. Section L: Vaulting – Rules of Equestrian Canada. Equestrian Canada. 2024.
  5. Helmets and Vaulting. VaultCanada. 2024.
  6. Kruizinga, D. How to Start with a Vaulting Horse from Scratch. Vaulting World. 2020.