Photo courtesy Andrea Selch
Vaulters and their horses need a variety of equipment to perform successfully and safely. As always, the comfort of the horse is of the greatest priority. To start, your club will need:
Other items to consider include:
Having properly fitted equipment will better ensure the proper training and safety of both horse and vaulter.
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 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 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 gait. 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 balance, 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 the 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, but care must be exercised that this method does not create a “gag” effect.
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.
The whip is meant to act as an extension of the lunger’s arm, not as a tool to harm or scare the horse. Vaulting horses should be trained carefully and never be fearful of the whip, for this is poor horsemanship and it can also endanger vaulters.
A vaulting surcingle is necessary for vaulting on horseback and are commercially available. They are manufactured with handles in various styles and sizes and 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. After 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. Many newer surcingles have adjustable trees and padding. If the surcingle cannot be adjusted correctly to clear the horse’s withers, 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.
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 vaulters.
Back pads for vaulting typically measure 100cm by 90cm and are made of dense felt (maximum 2″ 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 8″. The pad should be far enough back to protect the horse’s back and upper loin area but not extend past the point of the croup.
Newer vaulting pads are made of thick felt, contoured at the withers, and beveled on the sides so as to conform to the horse. If your horse has high withers, a slit in the pad at the withers 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.
Photo courtesy Jerry Yang
The care and cleaning of tack is a part of good horsemanship. All vaulting equipment should be attended to after each use by the person 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 away. 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. Also, 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. Also, 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.
This page contains excerpts from the AVA’s Introduction to Equestrian Vaulting, revised in 2013 specifically for beginning coaches and clubs.