Vaulting is an impressive discipline that we often associate with top level athletes performing in the biggest championships around the world. Nevertheless, para vaulting is also a wonderful activity to help people. You will understand here why and how, thanks to Lizzie, a para vaulter & coach from the United Kingdom:

“I started vaulting in 2016 and now have 12 national titles in para vaulting, as well as a few from the RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) in dressage and showjumping. I coach able-bodied and RDA/para vaulters and riders which I love!”

Lizzie warming up on Puro at Contessa Vaulting Group

Why is the horse such a good therapist?

We all know the power horses have to help us to unwind after a stressful day or to build up our confidence: they make us physically and mentally fit and give us opportunities for social interaction as well as personal growth. As a rider, vaulter and coach involved with the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) in the UK, I’ve seen that for disabled people these are just some of the benefits of being with horses. There are plenty more – for example, the motion of a horse’s back while he walks is great for mobilising riders’ hips and backs, and horses are also far more motivating than a physiotherapist will ever be – I have disabled friends who have been riding for decades, which is pretty much unheard of with regular physio!

Eden hugging Stubbs after they won the under-10 category at the RDA National Championships 2019

The ways horses communicate can also have a miraculous effect on those for whom communication with people is difficult. For someone who struggles to be understood by people around them it is impossible to describe just how good it feels when a horse ‘listens’ to you and responds accordingly.

Horses don’t have to be vaulting horses to be therapeutic, of course. There are huge benefits to riding, carriage driving or simply being around horses on the ground. However, my experience is that vaulting has the potential to be more beneficial than any other equestrian activity. Here’s why…

Why vaulting is perfect for therapy

There are loads of advantages of vaulting for people with disabilities. For a start, an able-bodied and experienced person is in control of the horse, and vaulters have some nice big handles to hold onto! Beyond that, vaulting is far more adaptable than riding, so it can accommodate people who wouldn’t be able to do regular riding. For example, if someone has trouble sitting astride the horse we can get them to sit sideways or kneel instead. If the vaulter is very nervous or physically weak then we can put someone else up on the horse with them. For those with excessive fatigue, the short bursts of activity in a vaulting session can work really well. Vaulting is also brilliant for the visually impaired because someone else is steering the horse.

Eden vaulting on Puro

Another advantage is cost: vaulting lessons can be three or four times less expensive than riding because a whole group of vaulters can share one or two horses. Many people with disabilities already face extra expenses and, often, decreased earnings, so this makes vaulting viable both for riding schools and their disabled clients. Vaulting also has the potential to help people with all kinds of disabilities – see below!

Best of all, vaulting provides disabled people with a sense of accomplishment in celebrating the things that many able-bodied people would be too nervous to try. This is heartening to all, whether you’re a child or an adult and regardless of your disability, and is rare and therefore precious.

What kinds of disabilities can you cater for?

With the exception of a severe allergy to horses, pretty much anything! Here are some of the disabilities of vaulters I’ve worked or trained with:

  • Paraplegia following spinal cord injury
  • Quadriplegic cerebral palsy
  • Total visual impairment
  • Autism
  • Hearing impairment
  • Hemiplegia following stroke/brain injury
  • Scoliosis
  • Achondroplasia (dwarfism)
  • Epilepsy
  • ADHD
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Global Developmental Delay
  • Attachment disorders
  • Hypermobility
  • …The list goes on!

What do para vaulters do?

As with non-disabled vaulters, precisely what para vaulters ‘do’ depends on their own aspirations and abilities. At the most basic levels it’s similar to hippotherapy (although it is delivered by coaches rather than physiotherapists) and at the more advanced levels it’s a competitive sport in its own right – a topic that we’ll return to in future posts. The easiest answer is that para vaulters vault!

Barrel practice – Kodie flying on Kate’s shoulder, watched by Lizzie

The main difference between paras and able-bodied vaulters is that the paras will have at least one aspect of their training which is adversely affected by their disability. This may be their balance or co-ordination, or remembering or understanding technical details. It’s the job of the coach and athlete to try to work through or around those difficulties, just as any able-bodied athlete would.

In other words, what para vaulters do is “as much as they can”. The coach’s aim is generally to enable the disabled athlete to work to the same goals as any other.

“In addition to developing my own skills as a vaulter my aim is to raise the awareness of para vaulting and to grow it as a competitive sport internationally. You can find out more by following me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter (@TheParaVaulter)!” 

Kodie, Lizzie (underneath) and Eden, Helen – after individual and team competitions at the RDA National Championships 2019

Lizzie is definitely a great example of resilience! If you liked this blog post, stay tuned so you don’t miss the next articles from this serie about Para Vaulting. Next month, Lizzie will be be looking at precisely how the relationship between coach and vaulter she mentioned is developed.

We wrote about another strong young woman a few months ago called Jana Schrautemeier. She is practicing equine therapy after a severe accident. If you want to learn more about Jana’s story, read our article “Jana Schrautemeier: Once a vaulter, always a vaulter“.