Monday, June 06, 2011

Equine vaulting arrives in Wisconsin

What it takes is some balance, good upper body strength, practice and absolutely no fear. At least that's Jeanne Wellman's take on the sport of equine vaulting.

Wellman has facilitated a small but growing troupe of equine vaulters at Four B Farm near Sun Prairie for the past several years.

This year the group was invited to perform at Midwest Horse Fair in April in Madison.

"You can think of it as gymnastics on horseback," Wellman said of equine vaulting. "Vaulting has been popular in Europe for centuries and is believed to have started in Germany."

Wellman and her daughter Dedra have assembled a team of eight young riders ages 8 to 18, two gentle Percheron geldings of her own, a couple of people to lunge the horses, and Anika Wassmer Radtke, a genuine German vaulting coach.

The team includes Kaela Tjugum, Valeria Walton, Dedra Wellman, Shelby Lewandowski, Mackenzie Bloemer, Kassidy Burtard, Ginny Klecker, and Anya Hintz, all from nearby communities.

"There really aren't very many people around here who have even heard of vaulting. Five years ago when we started I think we were the only ones in Wisconsin doing vaulting. Now there are a couple of more groups started," Wellman said.

The right type of horse is required for vaulting too. Not every horse has the temperament or aptitude to have people running around, jumping and doing tricks. More than one horse is also a good idea because the animal is lunged around in a circle for the entire performance, so breaks are necessary.

Team members begin by practicing on a stationary horse that resembles a gymnastics vaulting horse.
The Victory Vaulters fondly call their stationary practice horse Woody, as it's a homemade training apparatus made from wood.

Once team members have gone through their moves a few times on the stationary horse it's time to move to the real thing. Mounting is usually done by running alongside the walking or trotting horse and swinging up, grabbing a handle on a "surcingle" that's cinched around the horse, similar to a saddle.

"We do everything by the American Vaulting Association standards and we'll start to compete some this summer," Wellman said. "There haven't been that many opportunities to compete around here until recently."

Watching people doing somersaults, standing, kneeling, hand-standing, hanging and cartwheels - to mention a few of the possible exercises on the back of a horse - is one thing. Actually jumping on a 17.4-hand horse and doing a trick is another.

"That's the no-fear part," Wellman said. "But vaulting is one of the safest of all equine sports. Each move is practiced, each rider is trained on how to bail out, and the horse is always on a lunge line."
Like with any athletic sport, the vaulters go through a warm-up and stretching period before practice begins. Good habits and conditioning make vaulting possible in the first place and keep the activity safer.

"Vaulting is a good sport for adults and kids," Wellman said. "We need people of all shapes and sizes. It's good to have some bigger, stronger people for the base and smaller people for the lifts."

Exposure at Midwest Horse Fair, a couple of charitable events and word of mouth has helped equine vaulting gain some local traction. During practice a young lady showed up at the barn asking about the sport and who to talk with.

"You found us," Wellman said.

After some warm-up and a little practice on Woody, the newcomer found herself standing on the back of a Percheron for the first time. Equine vaulting gained a new enthusiast.

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