by Cassidy Nunn –
If you’ve never heard of the sport of vaulting, you’re likely not alone. But this sport of gymnastics and dance movements on horseback—yes, you read that correctly—has become incredibly popular out on the Peninsula thanks to a lot of hard work by Stella French and her team at Manestream Vaulters.
The equestrian sport, which is believed to date back thousands of years to Roman games on horseback, and which has been seen performed in circuses across the world, is open to both men and women and is a recognized equestrian discipline by the FEI. Vaulting involves up to three gymnasts performing gymnastic and dance movements on top of the back of a moving horse who is on the end of a long lunge line. The horse circles around the person in the middle “lungeing” the horse at either the walk, trot or canter, depending on the level, while the gymnast goes through a routine of specific movements on the back of the horse. It’s incredible to watch, especially as the levels become increasingly more difficult and fast paced.
Coach Stella began riding lessons early on in life, working towards one of her badges in Brownies, but the horse bug ended up biting her and she quickly became hooked on the sport. She continued riding throughout her high school years and managed to keep her own horses while completing her undergrad degree in Recreation Administration at Malaspina College in Nanaimo. Stella was introduced to vaulting at a summer camp she worked at between university years, and went on to complete her vaulting certification process shortly after moving to Victoria 20 years ago.
She started Manestream Vaulting in Metchosin 18 years ago with a borrowed Fjord horse and one class of six students. Word of Stella’s vaulting program quickly spread and to this day, she’s never had to advertise. Currently, the program is running at its maximum capacity of 45 students, with a waitlist being taken. There are nine classes a week, from beginner to advanced, with a second coach working on the weekends when Stella is busy taking her students to shows and clinics.
You may think that a background in gymnastics must be a prerequisite for vaulting, but surprisingly it’s not. “Maybe 50% of the young ones have done an intro to gymnastics; even less have horse experience,” says Stella. Instead, she teaches the foundations of gymnastics and occasionally a gymnastics coach is brought in for upper level training or for fine tuning certain movements. Most participants will only spend 10 minutes on the horse in any given lesson—instead they begin on the ground and on the vaulting barrel to warm up and work on movements before taking it onto the horse. “The big point of that is to prevent injury for both horse and vaulter,” says Stella.
The horses are at the heart of it all and having the right horse for this job is very important. According to Stella, a good vaulting horse must have the “willingness to be a team player.” They need to be able to keep themselves going on the circle at a steady pace without changing tempo too quickly or having any spooks which might upset the gymnasts’ balance. Draft horses are often chosen as vaulting horses for their (mostly) even temperament and the width of their backs provides more surface area to work on which helps the vaulters balance. At the upper levels the horse must be able to canter for a solid four minutes with three vaulters on their back, so their fitness levels are very important.
“They are pretty fit animals,” Stella says and adds that she does a lot of cross training work with her vaulting horses, taking them for hill rides and some dressage training under saddle as well. Sam I Am, one of Stella’s main vaulting horses, is a rescued 11-year-old Clydesdale and has been a part of the Manestream team for the past five years. “These horses have found me,” she says, as many of them have been rescued or come to her via word of mouth.
The Manestream Vaulters perform every year at the Saanich Fair, as well as other fairs and events in the region, and the team travels to Heritage Park in Chilliwack for the bigger competitions. Be sure to check them out next spring when they’ll be back out competing and doing demonstrations!