Ancient Sport Rises in Lakebay

Emerald City Vaulters Poised to Make Another Championship Run

by Brian McLean

Erin Tinney, 11, is lifted up by fellow vaulters as the three practice their moves atop Lady while Wendy Ware, one of the coaches of the Northwind Vaulters of Portland, keeps the horse along her circular path. The vaulters convened at Dreamswept Farm in the Key Peninsula last week for a practice camp.

It took more than a decade for Tamea Denault to build Dreamswept Farm in Lakebay.

Eleven and a half years, to be precise.

"There was nothing here when I moved here," the 36-year-old Denault said. "I lived in my truck for the first six months. It was cold that winter, too!"

From then on, every so often, Denault would work on what she now knows as her home.

"I did it one post at a time," she said. "Every time I had money that wasn't going toward bills, I would buy a post. When I had a stack of posts and a roll of fence line, it was enough to do one section."

Those sections turned into a full-fledged farm, where Denault now raises horses and coaches the Emerald City Vaulters. They are a group of girls who know no fear, or at least they don't show it while executing choreographed gymnastics routines on top of a moving horse.

The age range of team members might surprise some. Children start vaulting as young as 4, and Denault said she's even coached mothers and grandmothers in the sport.

"It'll take a little bit of practice, but anybody can vault," she said.

Especially the ones in the program, including 11-year-old Julie Robinson.

She's one of the smallest on the team, but her size doesn't stop her from trotting alongside the horse, pulling herself up onto its back, and going through a routine of graceful poses with classical music blaring in the background.

"Last year they called me the daredevil," said Robinson, who has been vaulting for almost five years.

"That's because she wouldn't stop practicing when nobody was spotting her," added Nikko Tanaka, an assistant coach and the oldest vaulter at 24.

Robinson smiled and said, "I like scaring my coaches."

Apparently, she does it often.

"If you asked her to do a back-handspring off the horse, even though she's never done one on the ground, she'd try it," Denault said.

Demonstration Sport

Denault said vaulting is an ancient sport, going back several millennia to a Minoan culture on the island of Crete whose in habitants used to vault over the horns of a bull. She said Alexander the Great taught his warriors to jump onto their horses from the ground. He also taught them to shoot while riding backward, she said.

"Then you have the ancient Roman cavalry that learned the vaulting technique," she said. "They could jump off their horse while being shot at, run alongside next to the horse, and then jump back on, using the horse as a moving block.

"It was considered a military sport."

Vaulting, with a high emphasis on performance and difficulty, is now a demonstration sport in the Olympics. Denault said the sport has been in the United States since the 1960s, when the American Vaulting Association was formed.

National Champions

The Emerald City Vaulters are the longest-running vaulting club in the state, having formed in March, 1991. They won the trot team national championship in 2001 at Denault's alma mater, Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.

It was a six-day drive with 14-hour driving days, and Denault was the only person behind the wheel, but the Mary Poppins theme brought home the top spot in the country.

The team will again compete on a national level next month when they go to the Equestrian National Vaulting Championship on Aug. 7-10 at the National Western Complex in Denver, Colo.

Robinson was part of the national championship team, and so was Jamie Clark, who didn't even know what vaulting was when she joined the program four years ago.

"I was taking riding lessons and I saw some people doing something that was really cool looking on a horse," Clark said. "My mom heard this, and the next thing I know, I was signed up for something called vaulting."

Clark, 14, said she only recently got to the point of being comfortable on the horse while going through her routine.

"I'm rather gymnastically illiterate," she said. "When I came to vaulting, I had no flexibility. I was terrified of horses. I wasn't very social. I didn't have any muscle."

Clark said she almost quit on a couple of occasions because of the difficulty vaulting presented to her.

"But I stuck with it, and now I'm a totally different person," she said. "Once I got the mindset that, 'I can, I can,' then everything started changing."

Bronze Medals

Vaulting is judged in two ways: Compulsories, which are a set of seven required exercises, and a kur, which is a freestyle competition judged on the artistic quality and difficulty of the performance.

Clark said the general rule for difficulty rating is the number of contact points that a rider has with the horse. One point of contact, for example, would generate a higher score, because it's a more difficult move to execute.

Each rider must pass certain tests in order to qualify for a specified level of competition. All of the Emerald City Vaulters have passed their bronze medal tests; some did it with greater ease than others.

Erin Piehl, 16, didn't have the best of luck the night before her bronze medal test, however.

Playing a game on a teammate's trampoline last April--"We were trying to dodge the bird poop," she said--Piehl tripped and fell over the outer railing and broke her arm in two places.

She wouldn't know about the fractures until two days after her test, when she finally went to the emergency room after earning her medal.

"Nobody told me she had hurt her arm until after the medal test," Denault said, shaking her head.

But she added that injuries are very rare. In her 11 ½ years or running Dreamswept Farm, Denault said she's seen only two broken arms directly related to vaulting.

Erin Tinney, 11, of the Northwind Vaulters of Portland and Shannon Balkhama, 16, of the Redwing Vaulters of Redmond, show their appreciation to Lady Mae after practicing with her in the ring.

Erin Piehl, 16, laughs at the marks on 14-year-old Jamie Clark's back after the two participated in a human pyramid at Dreamswept Farm Friday afternoon.

The team members have spotters and ride two specially trained horses: Lady Mae, a Clydesdale-Quarter Horse mix, and Yellow Storm, an American Bashkir Curly, which is the type of horse Denault breeds.

Kelsie Nettlebeck, a 10-year-old who has been vaulting for 4 ½ years, said injuries don't happen often.

"Only if someone is really messy, or if the person holding them up is really messy," she said.

Reason for Competing

Piehl, who has been riding horses for 12 years and vaulting for the past three, said she's excited about going to Denver for the nationals.

"It's fun going and competing and winning, and then coming back and telling everyone about it," she said. "They don't know vaulting, so you just kind of show off."

She said the most difficult part of the sport for her is posture--"Because I'm a teenager and I like to slouch."

Through it all, the vaulters are part of a team. Denault, who also volunteers with Peninsula Mounted Search and Rescue for the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, said they have scholarships for those who are underprivileged or have special needs.

"Even when they perform individually, it's a team sport," she said. "That's what's really wonderful about vaulting."

Tanaka, the assistant coach who is also a vaulting student, said she continues to work with the vaulters because of the feeling she draws from it.

"It's right here," she said, pointing to a group of girls who were dancing to the beat of the boom box. "The smiles, the energy, watching the kids succeed.

"It's very exciting."

Want to Vault?

Practices for the Emerald City Vaulters are held at Dreamswept Farm, 5821 Key Peninsula Highway N., in Lakebay.

The summer schedule runs from June through August and the winter schedule is from September through May. The cost for the canter program is $60 per month, and the walk-and-trot program is $40 per month.

Vaulting Skills

Members of the Emerald City Vaulters perform choreographed gymnastics routines while riding a moving horse. It is recognized internationally as a competitive sport and is one of the few sports where men and women can compete on the same team.

Similar to figure skating, participants are judged in two ways: Compulsories, which are a set of seven required exercises, and kur, which is a freestyle competition judged on artistry, difficulty of moves, and music interpretation.

Vaulters may compete on the horse or the barrel as individuals, pairs (called paus de deux) or as a team consisting of eight people with up to three on the horse at once.

Vaulters learn balance, coordination, and flexibility while gaining strength, confidence, and knowledge of teamwork and taking care of the team horse.

From The Peninsula Gateway, July 9, 2003