Train A Vaulting Horse

Training a Vaulting Horse

(photo courtesy Jerry Yang)

A great vaulting horse is an asset to your club. Selecting and training an appropriate horse can be fun and exciting, and it also entails a lot of work. For this reason, the selection of a suitable horse is very important. Also remember — your club doesn’t need a horse in order to get started. Members can both practice and compete on a vaulting barrel while you look for a horse.

Selecting a Vaulting Horse

Great vaulting horses can be found in nearly every breed and among grade (mixed breed) horses. 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.
  • The horse must be willing to learn to accept one, two or three vaulters all doing “strange” things at once.
  • The horse must be able to be trained to remain steady and unflappable in all situations. 
  • The horse 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 secondary to temperament in the search for a suitable horse – a potential vaulting horse should not be rejected for conformation faults 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 height for the size and level of the vaulters: In general, vaulting horses range from 15.2 to 17 hands. However, shorter, stouter 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 Norwegian Fjord can carry small adults easily and are often no more than 14 hands.
  • A vaulting horse should also have a strong back that is broad, long, and well attached at the loins; a broad, flat croup; and 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 consistent pace. Note that this is the size of the 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. Many vaulters do not vault at the canter and some only vault at the walk.
  • Natural gaits which are comfortable for the vaulter are preferable.
  • The goal of training a vaulting horse is to train the horse to move calmly and rhythmically 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.

When you are first considering a horse, try the horse first at the halt with an experienced vaulter or a good rider. Here are some things a horse should ideally be able to accept without great hesitation or fear:

  • 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 the horse at trot, first being led and then lunged. Finally test the horse 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.
Training the Horse to Lunge

After selecting a horse that may be suitable, start 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.

Photo courtesy Andrea Selch

Proper training of the vaulting horse accomplishes these goals:


  • 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 lunger 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.

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 (you can also use a lead shank). Ask the horse to start, stop, and turn with you walking around the horse as he turns.

For the first lesson on the lunge line, fit the horse in a lunging cavesson 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. Only when the horse finds his balance on the circle, accepts the bit, and learns to become obedient, may the side reins be shortened. Visit this page for more information on vaulting equipment.

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 her 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 the horse until you can move the whip around the horse with the lash undone, and he shows no sign of uneasiness.

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 the horse 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. Follow 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 the horse toward the center of the circle.

Finally, have the assistant gradually move back away from the horse as it is encouraged to walk on alone. As soon as the horse is walking calmly on a small circle, ask the horse 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 the horse and make every effort to teach the horse to stop on the track of the circle, looking at you with the near eye only. Make the horse stand still until told to move forward again. Sometimes stopping the horse 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 the horse. In most cases this technique will make the horse remain on the circle. 

Always walk up to the horse when you finish or stop; never allow the horse to turn off the circle and come to the lunger because he can easily step on his lunge line or turn the other direction.

In conclusion, 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, buck, rear or display other dangerous habits. 


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. 


This page contains excerpts from the AVA’s Introduction to Equestrian Vaulting, revised in 2013 specifically for beginning coaches and clubs.