Selecting and Training a Vaulting Horse
This chapter is an excerpt from the AVA's Introduction to Equestrian Vaulting, revised in 2013 specifically for beginning coaches and clubs. If you are an AVA member, you may download Introduction to Equestrian Vaulting, found in the Resources section of the Members Only AVA website.
- Selection of a Suitable Horse - Initial Evaluation
- It takes a lot of work to train a vaulting horse, so make sure your efforts are not wasted on an unsuitable horse.
- Good vaulting horses can be found in nearly every breed and among grade (mixed breed) horses. The horse must be a gelding or mare and at least six years of age to attend a recognized vaulting competition.
- The most important points to evaluate when selecting a vaulting horse are
temperament, conformation, gaits, and training, in that order.
- Irreproachable character and good temperament in the presence of children are essential characteristics. A horse who enjoys interacting with people or has a good-natured "baby sitter" outlook is a treasure.
- He must be willing to learn to accept one, two, or three vaulters all doing "strange" things at once
- He must be able to be trained to remain steady and unflappable in all situations.
- He must be able to be trained to be responsive and obedient to the lunger's commands and willing to work so as not to repeatedly break gait.
- There are a number of horses that do not have the balance, consistency or stamina to sustain work at the canter even if they are willing, but who may work quite satisfactorily at the trot.
- Conformation is so secondary to temperament in the search for a suitable horse that a potential vaulting horse should not be rejected for faults of conformation unless they are so extreme as to interfere with the safety of the vaulters or to cause the horse to become unsound or uncomfortable.
- A good vaulting prospect should be thoroughly examined by a veterinarian for soundness and evaluated for conformation to establish if there are any problems, which would make the horse unsuitable for vaulting.
- Suitable size for the size and level of the vaulters: in general, vaulting horses range from 15.2 to 17 hands. However, shorter stout horses in the 15 to 16 hand range are preferable for beginners because boosting and spotting is easier yet they can carry a heavier vaulter. Except for use with very small children, horses under 14.2 hands are normally not used although stout breeds such as the Norweigian Fjord can carry small adults easily and are often no more than 14 hands.
- A vaulting horse should also have: a strong back, broad, long, and well attached at the loins; a broad, flat croup; good vision in both eyes. This is ideal but not essential.
- The horse must lunge on an even 15-meter circle at a slow and consistant pace. Note that this is the size circle used in competitions. Although a 13-meter circle gives the lunger more control, smaller circles are harder on a horse at the canter due the extra forces on his joints and muscles.
- The horse must have a slow, evenly paced walk, trot or canter that is always under control. Most camps do not vault at the canter and some only vault at the walk.
- Natural gaits which are comfortable for the vaulter are perferable.
- The goal of training a vaulting horse is to train the horse to move calmly and rythmically on the circle at the required gait.
- Any previous training the horse may have had should be carefully considered.
- Horses that are already trained for riding and are experienced around children are preferable.
- Those horses that have been lunged or driven in long lines will be most easily trained to go on the vaulting circle.
- The Suitable Horse - Advanced Evaluation
- Try him first at the halt with an experienced vaulter or a good rider. (Refer to Chapter 2, Safe Horsemanship.)
- Give the vaulter a leg-up from both sides.
- With a surcingle, have the vaulter safely perform every sort of exercise that occurs to you. Have the vaulter kneel, stand, mill, lay, pat, poke, and prod all parts of the horse's body. The vaulter should be encouraged to swing both arms and legs, but at all times must be careful not to hit the horse, or to make any sudden moves which would scare the horse. Throughout all, the vaulter must be secure on the horse.
- If the horse accepts all this activity on his back, you can begin a vaulting program quite satisfactorily with work at the walk with spotters.
- Next, have the horse led at the walk and repeat the exercises performed at the halt. Do the compulsory exercises (excluding the mount) and include all kinds of dismounts from every position.
- If the horse still accepts the vaulting work and already knows how to lunge, proceed
cautiously to test him at trot, first being led and then lunged. Finally test him at canter.
- Be advised. What the horse accepts readily at halt and walk, he may object to at trot or canter.
- Be certain that the vaulter who is testing the horse is good enough to dismount quickly from any position if it becomes necessary.
- Do not expect the horse to be perfect. He may have to be trained slowly to accept some of the work.
- Finally, have the vaulters do any number of inventive exercises in doubles, at walk and trot, in order to determine what the horse's reaction will be.
- If it is determined the horse is a suitable prospect, then training can begin, review Chapter 2, Safe Horsemanship.
In order to assure the safety of the vaulters and comfort of the horse, only correct vaulting equipment, properly adjusted, should be used. Necessary equipment includes: a snaffle bridle, side reins, a vaulting surcingle, a thick pad, a lunge line and a lunge whip.
- Snaffle Bridle
- It is very important that vaulting horses not be lunged in halters. It is not possible to exert proper control in a halter nor to achieve correct head and neck position in a halter
- Use an English type bridle with a plain cavesson (noseband), a cavesson with a flash or with a dropped noseband and remove the reins.
- Make sure the bridle fits properly.
- Many camp horses are customarily fitted with hackamore bits to prevent beginners from yanking or pulling on their mouths by accident. However, these horses will readily accept a smooth snaffle mouthpiece without noticeable resistance. The same is true for western horses ordinarily ridden with curb bits.
- Selection of the mouthpiece depends on the sensitivity and preference of each horse.
- A smooth snaffle bit of average thickness is a good starting point to transition a horse from a different bit. Examples of mild snaffles: eggbutt, D- ring, rubber, or hollow mouth are good choices.
- A horse with a sensitive mouth may require a heavier or copper coated mouth piece. Gradual adjustments should be made to find the right mouthpiece for your horse.
- Never use a twisted wire snaffle or other severe bit. If the horse's mouth should suddenly be hurt by a severe bit, he might react with unwanted behavior that would create an unsafe situation for the vaulter. If you are unsure about the severity of a particular bit, make sure you consult a professional.
- The bit must be the correct width for the size of the horse's mouth:
- If it is too narrow, the rings will pinch the corners of the mouth.
- If it is too wide, it will be pulled sideways by the lunge line into an incorrect position in the mouth.
- Adjust the bit so that there are two wrinkles in the corners of the mouth.
- A bit fitted too low does not allow for good control and may start undesirable habits.
- A bit fitted too high will pinch or chafe the corners of the mouth causing great discomfort for the horse and eventually creating sores.
- If at all possible each horse should have its own bridle and side reins, thus lessening the chances of improper fit and saving time.
- Side Reins
- Side reins with or without rubber rings are suitable; however, do not use the side reins which have elastic webbing as that type stretches too much and unequally.
- For the trained horse, side reins should be of equal length and adjusted so that his face approaches the vertical when he is moving. This position will vary with the amount of experience the horse has and its way of going.
- It is imperative that the side reins be adjusted very loosely at first and gradually tightened over a period of weeks or months into their final position which should never be uncomfortable for the horse at the performed gatit.
- The horse's head should never be behind the vertical at the performed gait. A horse which is behind the vertical (over flexed) is not in balanced, is not comfortable and could be unsafe.
- Cranking horses in on side reins without proper preparation can cause some horses to throw themselves over backwards.
- Under no circumstances should vaulters be allowed near the horse until it accepts the side reins with no trace of resistance at all gaits.
- During this warm up attach the side reins to the rings on the surcingle.
- Do not let side reins hang loose or flip them over the horse's neck.
- Remember during rest periods to always unfasten the side reins, being careful to
re-snap them to the surcingle rings.
- The lunge line should be made of flat cotton or nylon material, neither too heavy nor too light so that the lunger may maintain a steady, elastic contact with the horse.
- Never use a rope of any kind. It is too apt to tangle and cause injuries.
- Make sure the line is kept flat and free of twists so that the lunger can have the best possible feel of the horse's mouth.
- The lunge line is customarily snapped into the near side ring of the snaffle bit.
- However, there are times when it is useful to put the line through the near bit ring to the bit ring on the other side and over the horse's head, then snap it to the far side bit ring.
- This method is used when greater control is needed.
- Care must be exercised that this method does not create
a "gag" effect. For more information, see 3.3, Techniques
for Training the Horse to Longe.
The whip shaft should be 6 to 10 feet with a lash long enough to reach the horse. The light weight telescoping whips are ideal and an inexpensive alternative can be made from fishing poles without line guides.
- A vaulting surcingle is necessary for vaulting on horseback.
- Surcingles are commercially available.
- They are manufactured with handles in various styles and sizes.
- They also come with or without loops called Cossack straps. Surcingles with two Cossack straps (one on each side) provide vaulters with the means to perform a number of freestyle exercises.
- The surcingle should be placed on the horse's back with the side rein attachment rings facing towards the horse's head. The girth will rest in the groove immediately behind the front legs.
- fter warm up, before vaulters begin work on the horse, check to see that the surcingle is placed correctly on the horse. It should be tight enough to stay in place without pinching, chafing, or turning the hair in the wrong direction.
- Contact, location and padding are especially important in tightening a surcingle in preparation for actual vaulting on the circle:
- Contact, location and padding are especially important in tightening a surcingle in preparation for actual vaulting on the circle:
- This contact can happen easily as wear occurs on the surcingle back pads and they crush down.
- Many newer surcingles have adjustable trees and padding. If the surcingle cannot be adjusted correctly to clear the horse's whithers, extra padding of foam or wool under the surcingle can be used to raise the surcingle off the horse's withers. This padding should extend several inches beyond the surcingle's front and back or it will slide out frequently. For foam padding, a trough can be carved out with an electric carving knife or narrow strips of padding clued onto the under pad to prevent sliding. The under padding should be covered with a sleeve of absorbent washable material. A fabric with some stretch is much easier to take on and off!
- The surcingle should be checked to make sure there is enough clean padding to prevent chafing anywhere in the girth area.
- Some surcingles require woolskin or foam girth covers to prevent chafing.
- Some horses have elbows that point inward and which may cause a sore by striking the top of an unpadded surcingle. Woolskin sleeves may be used to correct this problem.
- Contact, location and padding are especially important in tightening a surcingle in preparation for actual vaulting on the circle:
- If the surcingle "heels over" toward the lunger after vaulting has been in progress for a while, never reset the surcingle or push the surcingle back into correct position without loosening it first. To do so drags the back pads across the most sensitive part of the withers and can cause soreness to develop.
- The horse's back should be well padded, especially for beginning
- Back pads for vaulting typically measure 100cm by 90cm and are made of dense felt (maximum 2 inches thick) or a dense synsthetic foam material or a combination of both.
- Large western pads can work if they are thick and provide a firm platform for the vaulter.
- If properly fashioned, a removable terry cloth (or other absorbent cloth) cover over the pad provides soft contact for the vaulters and is easy to remove and clean. The cloth cover may also prevent heat buildup when using pads made of synthetic materials.
- The back pad should be adjusted so that it extends 6" to 8" forward of the surcingle to give padding for exercises and basing from on the neck but extending no more than eight inches. The pad should be far enough back to protect the horse's back and upper loin area but not extending past the point of the croup. Newer vaulting pads are made of thick felt and contoured at the whithers and beveled on the sides so as to conform to the horse. If your horse has high whithers, a slit in the pad at the whithers can help alleviate pressure points there. Some have found auto
upholstery shops that can create back pads at a fraction of the cost of the imported European made vaulting pads.
- The care and cleaning of tack is a part of good horsemanship.
- All vaulting equipment should be attended to after each use by whomever is in charge
- The leather equipment (surcingle, bridle, side reins, and galloping boots) should be kept clean, oiled as required, and maintained in good repair.
- It is important to check for signs of wear, especially in the stitching, each day before vaulters begin work on the horse.
- Sweat will rot the stitches if not cleaned off with a damp sponge after each use.
- Back pads, girth covers, and bandages must be laundered so that the accumulated sweat does not cause sores. Be certain to rinse them well because any soap, which remains in the material and mixes with the wet sweat, will irritate the horse's skin.
- Clean the bit carefully, making sure there are no remains of dried saliva or food, which could irritate the corners of the horse's mouth the next time the bit is used.
- Care should be exercised when putting the vaulting equipment
- The equipment should be stored in a cool place out of the sun and dampness.
- The surcingle should be kept on a saddle tree, never
hung up or laid flat.
- Never lay the surcingle down on the handles. The leather covers on the handles damage easily and are expensive to repair.
- Never leave the surcingle lying on the horse's back with the girth unfastened for more than a moment. One good shake and a step forward will almost guarantee a repair bill.
- Never tie your horse to a post or tree unattended where the horse could rub the surcingle which can result in broken or torn handles and a scuffed surcingle!
- The lunge line should be folded so that it will be free of tangles when let out the next time.
- The lunge whip should never be left lying in the vaulting circle. A horse stepping on it spells the end of its usefulness. After vaulting practice, the knots should be untied from the lash, the popper checked for wear, and the whip done up neatly and stored in a vertical position or hung up. This care gives it a better chance of survival without damage, and it is ready for the next time.
- After selecting a horse that may be suitable, that horse should receive lunge line training. The horse should stay out on the circle, listen to the lunger's commands and have a steady gait before being asked to accept vaulters.
- Remember, when he begins real work on the vaulting circle,
he will have to:
- Travel in a perfect circle around the lunger to the left and right;
- Maintain a constant gait;
- Stop and start on command;
- Tolerate vaulters' mistakes without misbehavior;
- Be attentive and obedient to the longeur, even with vaulters constantly moving between them.
- The techniques given here are for use with a horse that is already gentle and obedient under saddle.
- Since no two horses are the same, these suggestions must
be adapted to the responses of each particular animal. They
are offered only as guidelines.
- For the first lesson on the lunge line, fit the horse in a lunging cavasson or snaffle bridle and vaulting surcingle.
- Be attentive that the girth remains tight to avoid sores on the horse and for the safety of the vaulters.
- Adjust the length of the side reins you have chosen so they are the same length and allow the horse a natural head carriage at the walk. Snap them up on the surcingle to begin the work.
- When the horse finds his balance on the circle, accepts the bit and learns to become obedient, the side reins may be shortened.
- Getting started
- If possible select a quiet, fenced area in which to train the horse. A round pen is an ideal place to start.
- Before you attempt to lunge the horse, make sure he leads well and comfortably with the lunge line snapped in place. (May use a lead shank.) Ask him to start, stop, and turn with you walking around him as he turns.
- The next step is to acquaint the horse with the lunge whip.
- At no time should the vaulting horse fear the mere sight of the whip. This fear can lead to accidents.
- For starting a horse completely green to lunging, it is preferable to use a lunge whip that is a few feet shorter than the standard one used on the 13-meter circle. It is also preferable to use a smaller circle so the horse is closer to the lunger.
- Hold the horse by his lead shank with your left hand, and stand a short distance away from the left front shoulder facing toward the horse's barrel.
- If you have an assistant, have him hand you the lunge whip in a vertical position with the lash done up. If you have no assistant, pick up the whip slowly, being careful to keep your eyes on the horse's eye at all times.
- With a slow but deliberate motion, point to and rub the horse on the left shoulder with the handle of the whip.
- If he shows no anxiety, proceed up over the withers, down the back, and over the hindquarters, gradually moving the whip away and toward the horse with a more pronounced motion but at no time in a threatening gesture.
- If the horse is very nervous, for whatever reason, continue reassuring him until you can move the whip around him with the lash undone, and he shows no sign of uneasiness.
- Use of voice commands
- Since vaulting horses must work on remote control, the use of the voice is of great importance.
- The horse learns to recognize the different intonations of your voice as much as the words you use, so try to always use the same intonation for the same command.
- The verbal commands you will need to teach are:
- A tongue click to start the horse out or to move him on faster in the same gait.
- "brrr" (a raspberry sound) or "Whoa" for stop; "brrrr" is preferred as it is not used in conversation, and you don't want to confuse the horse by something the vaulter might say.
- "Walk" and "trot" in separate stages each with a specific intonation:
- "Hup" for canter;
- "Oust" or "out" for when the horse cuts in.
- Give a voice command once only, then reinforce calmly but firmly with the whip.
- At this point you are ready to put the horse on the circle.
- The lunger will benefit from wearing gloves and should hold the lunge line so that it cannot coil around a hand if the horse should make any sudden moves.
- Also the lunger must not let loops drag on the ground where his feet, or those of the horse, could be entangled.
- Attach the lunge line to the bit and have the assistant begin walking with the horse in a left-handed circle.
- At first walk parallel to and a few feet away from the assistant's left side.
- llow the horse with the lunge whip and use the lunge line to guide the horse on the circle as he walks.
- Little by little lengthen the lunge line, keeping the whip pointed at the horse, and step away from him toward the center of the circle.
- Finally, have the assistant gradually move back away from the horse as he is encouraged to walk on alone.
- As soon as the horse is walking calmly on a small circle,
ask him to stop, using the voice command "brrrr" followed instantly
by a gentle tug on the lunge line.
- If not trained to the lunge line, he will probably turn his hindquarters outward and try to face you.
- Move toward him and make every effort to teach him to stop on the track of the circle, looking at you with the near eye only. Make him stand still until told to move forward again. Sometimes stopping him next to a wall is helpful.
- Repeat the starting, walking, and stopping until this training step is mastered without hesitation.
- At this point you may start using the side reins.
- The assistant will no longer be needed when the horse goes forward from a cluck and accepts a tap of the whip with a generous but not violent forward response, and stops instantly to the voice command given in a loud voice.
- Follow starting, walking and stopping with "trrrot," and teach the transition from trot to walk into trot again.
- Master a comfortable stop from either gait. Though the response should be immediate, it should not be so abrupt as to throw vaulters forward onto the neck.
- Do not start trying to canter until the horse is absolutely calm and cooperative at the trot.
- Enlarge the circle without losing control as soon as possible. It is hard for a horse to work on a small circle.
- The horse should keep the lunge line stretched, maintaining a steady, light contact.
- If the horse tries to come into the circle, point the whip at his nose and walk toward him. In most cases this technique will make him remain on the circle.
- Always walk up to the horse when you finish or stop; never allow him to turn
off the circle and come to the lunger because he can easily step on his lunge line or turn the other direction.
- Getting started
- Training a seasoned horse to something new should not differ much from teaching a completely green horse. Twenty minutes is usually enough at one time.
- The attention span will vary with different horses, but if the training is to be hurried through necessity, it is far better to work in two sessions, AM and PM, than one long one.
- Do not pursue the project with a horse who cannot be quickly discouraged from trying to kick.
- Practice, repeat, play it by ear. Reward with much patting - frequently.
- Remember, prevention of injury should be the goal of every vaulting instructor, and the correct training of the horse is vital to this end.
- Care of the Horse
It is not the purpose of this manual to give detailed instructions on animal husbandry or veterinary medicine. Suffice to say that a vaulting horse must be given the same conscientious care as any other working horse.
- In any equestrian sport, first priority must be given to the well being of the horse, for without the horse nothing can be accomplished. Anyone who has the responsibility for a horse's care should learn as much as possible about how to keep the horse in top condition, both physically and mentally, and how to identify problems if they should appear.
- Overall sensitivity to your horse's well being can help you and your horse enjoy a long, safe and pleasant career in vaulting.
- Basic care must include:
- Twice a year vaccinations
- Regular worming
- Regular hoof care
- Twice a year vet checks for general health including the teeth
- Daily grooming and hoof cleaning (best time to check for any heat, soreness, bumps, cuts, etc.)
- Regular exercise
- Good nutrition
- Be sure to have salt and water available at all times.
- Daily cleaning of stall or paddock. (Dirty living conditions
will lead to health problems, especially with parasites
- Special Considerations for the Vaulting Horse
- Uneven physical stress
- a. Vaulting horses for beginning and even for advanced vaulters are often worked to the left much more than to the right. The horse is apt to suffer physical damage as a result of this uneven stress.
- To prevent damage to the horse, work the horse to the
right as often as he is worked to the left.
- Make it a rule to warm up and cool out the horse by going to the right.
- When training a vaulting horse, or just conditioning on the longe, always work in both directions.
- Advanced vaulters can vault to the right when working on the compulsories.
- Additional work under saddle is required to physically condition the horse off the vaulting circle. Such work will help to keep the horse's mental attitude fresh as well.
- Care of the back
- A vaulting horse's back must be protected from "pounding," especially from inexperienced vaulters. Training your vaulting horse under saddle and on the lunge-line develops and strengthens his back and prevents soreness.
- It is of utmost importance that the back be checked
every day for soreness or strain.
- Press with some force on both sides of the horse's backbone from the withers to the loins with the heel of your hand.
- Soreness is present if the horse hollows his back or moves away from the pressure.
- Measures must taken to completely eliminate any soreness.
- Increasing the padding, massaging with a linament wash, or hosing down with cold water (hydrotherapy) can all help.
- Encourage the horse to stretch the back without vaulters or riders.
- Of course, laying the horse off until the soreness is gone is the best treatment. Then the muscles should be strengthened before returning to work.
- Care of the legs and feet
- There are many things that can be done to help assure the soundness of the vaulting horse's legs and feet.
- Wrapping the legs with polo wraps or medicine boots can help prevent strains.
- Using galloping or splint boots and bell boots can help
prevent the injuries which may occur from the horse interfering
- The instructor's judgement will determine whether these protections are really needed.
- If bandages are used, the instructor must be careful to wrap the legs correctly so as not to cause tendon problems.
- Hydrotherapy can be a great aid in maintaining tightness and strength in the legs. Cold water can be sprayed with some force on the legs below the knees and hocks after every workout. Linament may be used to increase blood circulation.
- Observe the horse's way of going throughout each workout
for any signs of distress, and check his legs and feet
after every session for any signs of excessive heat.
- Extra warmth in the joints or hoof indicates some kind of inflammation and should be treated with hydrotherapy and/or rest.
- This heat is usually the first sign of a developing problem which, if detected early, may be prevented.
- Seeking help from your local veterinarian should always be considered if any questionable condition develops.
- A vaulting horse can work barefooted if it has naturally tough feet and the working surface is kept soft.
- A barefooted horse is less likely to cause injury if it steps on or kicks a vaulter.
- However, shoes, at least on the front feet, may be necessary if the horse's feet do not hold up.
- Maintenance of body condition
- Vaulting horses should have a bit too much rather than too little flesh.
- Using a horse that is in poor condition is not fair to either the horse or the vaulters. The damage is two fold. On a thin horse the vaulters get painful bruises from exposed sharp bones. A thin horse has no fat to pad its back.
- If a thin horse must be used, the padding should be doubled and the horse's diet improved. WARNING: Consult your veterinarian for a diet which will increase the horse's weight quickly without causing it to founder from over-eating. He can also determine when the horse is ready to begin work.
- On the other hand, many horses tend to be naturally round and can suffer the problems associated with being overweight, such as additional strain on legs and feet and on heart and lungs when asked for strenuous work.
- As with any athlete, a good vaulting horse should be kept in top condition with strong, supple muscles, neither too fat nor too thin. This ideal is the result of proper diet and exercise.
- Maintenance of a good attitude
- To maintain the vaulting horse's good attitude vaulting should be only part of his weekly workout routine. Trainers need to ride their vaulting horses the rest of the time and find additional activities for the horse.
- Frequent rest periods during the vaulting session will help to keep him happy and in the right frame of mind.
- Praising the horse constantly and really "fussing" over him can never be overdone. Carrots or other treats at the end of a session can keep your horse looking forward to the next time.
- Care during rest periods
- After every 15 - 20 minutes of steady work on the circle, the horse should be allowed to stretch and relax. These rest periods should be even more frequent with a green horse.
- The side reins should be unsnapped from the bit and hooked onto the surcingle; the surcingle should be loosened a few holes and the back pad raised off the back for a short time to allow air to the area under the pad.
- Check any boots or working bandages which you may be using for sand or dirt which can accumulate on the inside. If it is a hot day, remove boots or bandages for a few minutes to avoid scalding the skin.
- Be sure to walk the horse until its breathing returns to normal.
- Uneven physical stress
INTRODUCTION TO EQUESTRIAN VAULTING
© American Vaulting Association 2013
Published by the American Vaulting Association
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