Yoga is all the rage these days, but yoga on horseback? Talk about a sport of a different color.
The comparison is one equestrian vaulter KyLynn Warren likes to offer in order to make her little-known pastime more understandable to curious onlookers.
"The easiest way to describe vaulting is a combination of dance and gymnastics on the back of a moving horse," says Warren, head coach of the Oak Hills Vaulters.
Yes, the horse is moving while the riders do handstands, cartwheels and flips, she says, and all of that makes for some interesting reactions.
"It's so cool to be able to stand on a horse ... and see the look on people's faces, whether it's, 'She's crazy!' or 'That's amazing!'," says the 24-year-old from Spanish Fork.
Once you throw flashy costumes and upbeat music into this gymnastics-on-horseback mix, you've got the makings of a real vaulting show, the kind that Warren and her teammates will present beginning today, May 4, at the Utah Renaissance Festival and Fantasy Faire in Marriott-Slaterville.
This is the Oak Hills Vaulters' third year at the fair, and organizer Sue Bodily says the team from Salem, south of Provo, leaves audiences amazed. The riders perform at noon and 2 p.m. daily, alternating shows with the burly jousters known as The Knights of Mayhem.
"We've got Beauty and The Beast," quips Bodily, who says that both horse-powered events are popular with the estimated 10,000 visitors to the fair.
Three times the fun
The most spectacular stunt the vaulters perform is likely the "Stand on Stand," says Warren. One rider is seated on the horse and steadies the legs of a second rider, who is standing. A third rider then stands on the shoulders of the second rider.
That means there are riders stacked 10 to 12 feet in the air -- atop a horse, Warren says.
Seeing such a move often brings up a common question: "Is vaulting dangerous?" Warren says the sport is taught in a safe and controlled environment, with spotters for the riders.
And even though vaulting may look similar to trick riding, it's different in that the horses are attached to a "lounge" line and controlled by a trainer, Warren says, which "makes our job a lot easier."
Also, Warren adds, the first thing every vaulter learns is the proper way to handle a fall because, "It's going to happen, whether you're riding a horse on your butt or your feet -- you're going to fall off someday."
Vaulting is often used as a first step in learning to ride, Warren explains, because it stresses safety and develops trust and confidence between rider and horse.
New job for Guinness
The group performing at the Utah Renaissance Festival and Fantasy Faire is nine members strong, with one 9-year-old girl, several teenagers and three riders over the age of 20.
This year's show focuses on an ancient Spanish theme, Warren says, with music ranging from the movie "Zorro" to some flamenco, salsa and even zumba tunes.
The riders wear full flamenco skirts for part of the performance and also smaller skirts with leotards.
"Spandex definitely makes it easier to move around in, but it's not required," Warren says.
The equine members of the team are Leonitis, 16, and Guinness of Mayhem, 10 -- both of whom are part Percheron, a type of large draft horse. The third four-footed performer is Pedro, 12, a "trick pony" whose antics include sitting up, lying down and bowing.
For a horse to be good at vaulting, it must have the right disposition and be able to tolerate distractions like music, applause and small children running about, Warren says.
Guinness used to perform with The Knights of Mayhem but switched "careers" to join Warren's vaulting team, known as the Gymnastics on Horseback Association, or GOHA.
"This horse was very unhappy with jousting," Warren says, but now, in working with the vaulters, "He runs up to the kids when they come and he's just happy as can be."
Ties to history
Vaulting doesn't hurt the horses, which weigh from 1,200 to 1,800 pounds, Warren says. Having a rider on their back who is just 10 percent of their body weight is "like having a 10-pound cat on your back," she explains.
The riders don't perform bareback, but do their stunts on a thick foam pad strapped on the horse's back.
Warren says she enjoys performing at the Utah Renaissance Festival and Fantasy Faire because of the event's focus on history.
"They really did vaulting in that era, it's not like we're making it up," she says.
Knights and noblemen studied vaulting to improve their balance on horseback and to learn to work in harmony with the horse, she says. The art was even part of battle in the ancient Roman cavalry, she says. "They would stand up on their horse so they could get a better look at their enemy."
Vaulting was introduced in the United States in 1956, with Utah being one of the first places a club was formed, Warren says. The sport used to be part of the Olympics but is now featured in the World Equestrian Games.
Warren says vaulting is beautiful and graceful and something anyone of any age can try, not just "tall, slender girls" in leotards.
When she talks to people about the sport, she says she always emphasizes, "You ought to get on and try."
Did you know?
Just like equestrian vaulters rely on a horse to execute their stunts, gymnastic vaulters also perform their maneuvers on an apparatus known as a “vaulting horse.”
Modern gymnastic vaulting, which is now performed on a table, traces its origins to equestrian vaulting, although the focus is on the gymnastics minus — “unfortunately” — the actual horse, according to the website of the American Vaulting Association.
For centuries, cavalry troops have studied vaulting to improve their performance on horseback and they began by training with a wooden horse, the website says. Today, equestrian vaulters begin learning the movements they will do on a real horse by first using a vaulting barrel or practice horse.