STANWOOD — Riding a horse with stirrups and a saddle is hard enough, but imagine standing upright on a horse’s back, perhaps on one foot. Or balancing on someone’s shoulders. Or even being turned upside down.
Welcome to the acrobatic and sometimes precarious world of equestrian vaulting, one of several sports involving horses and daring riders. Though sometimes confused with the Olympic sport of show jumping, where riders guide horses over a series of fences and other barriers, vaulting involves athletes performing gymnastic skills on a tethered horse that’s doing continuous circles around an arena.
If it sounds tricky, it is. But it’s also popular and becoming more so, with a handful of vaulting clubs in and around Snohomish County. Among them, the Warm Beach Vaulters, who had several teams place well at last month’s American Vaulting Association National Championships in Watsonville, Calif.
The club, under the tutelage of coach Patti Skipton — her unofficial job title, according to the sign on her office door, is “Horsemanship Know-it-all” — is in its third year and has around 40 members. Some members participate recreationally, but more than half do so competitively.
Vaulters compete at various levels based on skill and experience, not age — although there is a Tiny Tots level for riders as young as 3. Skipton’s club has members from 4 to 23.
Those drawn to the sport are “generally horse lovers and maybe thrill seekers,” she said. “And they’re all real athletic. That’s probably more important than having had any gymnastics or horsemanship (experience).”
Vaulting is contested at various speeds, depending on the skill level — horses can either be moving at a walk, trot or canter. Also, vaulters can compete individually, in pairs, or as teams, with up to three riders on horseback at once.
The sport is open to all comers, but girls generally outnumber boys. Skipton’s club, for instance, has just four boys.
“I think girls are always more horse crazy, for one thing,” said Skipton, whose son once competed in vaulting. “It’s pretty similar to gymnastics, and in gymnastics the girls also outnumber the boys. And there are a lot of other sport options available for boys.”
Kimberley Barnes, 17, of Arlington has been with the club from the beginning, and says she enjoys “being with horses and learning how to move with the horses. But also, having fun, of course. Just building skills in all sorts of areas, like flexibility, strength, balance and speed.”
Likewise, 13-year-old Gator Jaynes of Snohomish said she loves “the rush you get when you get on (the horse). It’s so exciting. And then the friendships that you make.”
Some of the club members, like Barnes, grew up around horses. Others, like Jaynes, did not, but decided to try the sport because it looked challenging and fun.
Barnes and Jaynes are members of the Warm Beach Vaulters B team, the club’s top team, which placed third at the recent national championships. The club’s Trot team won a national title, while several individuals had top-five finishes.
Nationals, said Barnes, “was amazingly fun. It’s fun to see other teams compete. … Being able to perform what we’ve worked so hard at is probably the best part of competitions.”
Still, she added, “I think practices are more enjoyable for me because it’s more relaxed. You get to try new things.”
Though once an Olympic sport, vaulting was dropped many years ago. Skipton hopes to see it return and backers of the sport, she said, “are working towards the steps to have that happen.”
Vaulting is most popular in Europe, particularly Germany, but is growing in popularity in the United States. California is probably the hotbed, but there are also top clubs elsewhere on the West Coast along with the Southwest, the Midwest and the East Coast.
Skipton’s club “has grown so fast I’m always kind of scrambling to keep up with everything,” she said.
The Warm Beach Vaulters train on the grounds of the Warm Beach Christian Camps and Conference Center, and the club offers more than just fun times on horses.
“We have a lot of spiritual emphasis in our club,” Skipton said. “We promote (the athletes) having a relationship with the Lord. They pray for each other. … They’re building confidence in themselves, and in their relationship with God and with each other.”
Most vaulters have fears to overcome — “Being upside down, that’s a biggie with a lot of people,” Skipton said — but there are also feelings of accomplishment, even for absolute beginners.
“When you go out on the first day and get on your knees, put your arms out and balance while the horse is trotting, you just did something that none of your friends have ever done,” she said.