A major reason for the popularity of vaulting in South Africa is affordability: a team comprises seven riders, one handler and only one horse. This makes it far more economical and easy to manage as only one horse has to be transported to a show.
In an international vaulting competition, the visiting team’s horse is supplied by the hosts, avoiding the considerable cost of transporting a horse across borders.
In fact, during the first international vaulting event – the Inter-Africa Cup held in 2006, in Swaziland – both the visiting team and the local team used the same horse and equipment. This event initiated a series of local and international competitions that culminated in South Africa sending a vaulting team to compete in the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in both 2010 and 2014.
Vaulting was recognised as an FEI sport in 1983 and is best described as gymnastics on horseback. An age-old discipline, it was used to entertain crowds in Ancient Rome, was expected of the Cossacks in Russia, and formed part of the training for cavalry officers in Germany.
Modern vaulting is both an individual and team sport. There are separate individual competitions for men and women, but teams can consist of both male and female vaulters. The vaulting horse is lunged in a 15m circle on the left rein by the longeur (handler).
Individual and team events
In the individual competition, the vaulter enters the arena while the horse is moving, mirrors the horse’s movement for a few steps, then leaps onto the horse’s back to perform a series of gymnastic movements in time to music. At the end of one minute, the vaulter dismounts gracefully while the horse is in motion.
In the team event, the team members enter the arena together and mount while the horse is in motion, with two or more riders simultaneously performing gymnastics to music for four minutes. Novice exercises are performed at the walk and trot and are suitable for young children. Advanced vaulters compete at the canter.
There are seven basic gymnastic exercises, but in freestyle classes these are supplemented with innovative ways of mounting and dismounting, as well as handstands, leaps and tumbling. Vaulting horses must be strong and sensible, maintaining an even, slow gait and easily supporting the combined weight of up to six riders at a time.
A vaulting horse does not wear a saddle. Instead, it is fitted with a thick back pad and surcingle. The latter has two handles and two Cossack stirrups used by the vaulter when mounting and doing gymnastics. The bridle is usually fitted with side-reins and a snaffle bit, with the lunge rein attached to the inside ring of the snaffle. A long whip is used by the longeur to control the gait of the horse.
The facilities are easily built and could be used for school shows in a rural area or for team-building.Only one or two suitable horses with the necessary training are required.