Joanne Eccles is Britain’s most successful vaulter. She won individual gold at the 2010 and 2014 World Equestrian Games, while at the latter she also captured bronze in the pas de deux alongside her sister, Hannah. Joanne helps to run the Wee County Vaulters club in her native Scotland Here, she explains how to follow in her footsteps. As told to Julie Harding.
If you (or your little ones) love horses but also seem to spend half your life cartwheeling around the garden or doing handstands up against the sitting room wall, then you may be missing your vocation. Why not team the two and try vaulting?
Vaulting is brilliant because it brings people of all ages together — you might have a 17-year-old working with 10-year-old and getting on like a house on fire. In what other sport or walk of life would that be true? They communicate, look after each other, gain confidence and all the time they are learning about horses.
The new British Equestrian Vaulting (BEV) website is the perfect place to begin if you are interested in this friendly sport. The website will explain how you can become involved; it lists all the clubs available to beginners and experienced vaulters alike up and down the country, as well as rules, results, rankings and events taking place. You will need to become a member of BEV if you are vaulting with a British Equestrian Vaulting club to ensure that you have insurance cover.
Alternatively, a number of clubs are linked to the British Equestrian Vaulting Facebook page. Once you start contacting people you will see how keen everyone is to help. Although the vaulting community is quite small, this is a growth sport and new clubs are starting up all the time so you should be able to find one that is close to where you live.
Vaulting costs a lot less than you think — it can start from as little as £9 for an hour-and-a-half session. At my club, the Wee County Vaulters, that would include a beginner being able to vault on two or three horses. The costs rise slightly as you gain experience. There is also no need for a huge financial outlay on kit. The only essential requirement is rubber bottomed soft sole gym shoes — which are very like ballet shoes — but a lot of clubs will be able to loan you a pair for your first couple of sessions. A pair of stretchy leggings and a T-shirt will also suffice when you are starting out.
Most clubs offer sessions throughout the week for beginners and more experienced vaulters alike. If you are a beginner, you will probably find that your local club will let you have a go with no commitment involved.
There are no hard and fast rules about the speed at which people progress, some take to it really quickly and want to compete, while others are happy to vault as a hobby one night a week.
New vaulters begin on a static horse — a drum on four legs. They learn to get on, off, to stand and where to hold on before they progress to the real thing.
Anyone worried that they will be starting off at a high speed, needn’t fret as beginners do moves in walk to gain confidence.
Slowly, over time, they will be able to progress to canter, as well as build up a partnership with the horse and their lunger, along with other vaulters at the club. A lot of work is done in teams, usually with six vaulters of the same level working together.
The average age for taking up vaulting is eight, although I once had a four-year-old come for a try. Some clubs run tiny tots classes, and I’ve had adults taking it up, although children do find it easier to learn. However, there are plenty of other ways for adults to get involved, including learning to lunge and coach.
Clubs will be able to pair the right horse to the right rider. In our case, we use Baroque (Brock), who is 21, for anyone new or someone who is trying out something for the first time, while WH Bentley (Henry), 22, can be a bit of a diva in walk, so we save him for the more experienced vaulters. Vaulting is always done in the safe environment of the school.
The ideal size for a vaulting horse is 16.3hh, but some are as big as 18.1hh. The most important thing is that they have the right temperament for the job and that they are accepting of a rider standing and moving about on their back.
It’s great if you know a bit about horses when you begin, but you don’t have to be able to ride, just as you don’t have to be an experienced gymnast either.
I tend to find that children with a background in gymnastics progress faster in the early stages, but as they begin working in canter, where more interaction with the horse is needed, they often stall a bit. This is when the children who are riders come into their own as they are already used to controlling a horse.
Vaulting helps riders with both balance and confidence. There is a reason that German riding clubs make children vault before they ride.
I’ve seen children who have had falls and whose confidence is at a low ebb positively thrive when they take up vaulting.
One pupil came with the intention of improving her jumping and her mother was convinced that it helped massively with her ‘stickability’ when things went wrong.
And once you start vaulting you don’t have to stand still. There is so much scope to progress up through the levels and if you join a large club you may even find yourself en route to a competition abroad.
Images from top to bottom: Joanne Eccles and W H Bentley at the World Equestrian Games in Caen in 2014 by Daniel Kaiser – im|press|ions; Eccles executes a one arm handstand on W H Bentley to win gold in the Vaulting women free programme at the World Equestrian games in Caen by Arnd Bronkhorst / Pool Pic; Joanne Eccles wins the individual women’s title in the 2014 FEI Vaulting World Cup™ in Paris, by Eric Malherbe; all images courtesy of the FEI