By Rich Myhre
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
(Link to full article- http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20080916/SPORTS/709169856/1094/SPORTS14)
2003/2004 National Gold Men's Champion Blake Dahlgren.
Photo: Eric Jewett