It Takes a Special Horse

A Paint Named Picasso Is Tailor-Made for the Sport of Vaulting

Story and Photographs by Rebecca Overton

"Picasso," whose registered name is The Investigator, is a versatile horse whose accomplishments include jumping (inset), polocrosse, and dressage. Here, Nicole Allen (on top) and Megan Grove, perform an arabesque flag combination at the trot.

His registered name is The Investigator, but it doesn't really suit him. The 19-year-old buckskin overo is more of an observer who likes to stand back and study what's going on.

The first time his owner's mother saw the horse, she nicknamed him "Picasso" after the famous Spanish painter, because of the gelding's splashy Paint markings.

"The name fit him perfectly," said his owner, Danelle Grove of Cedarville, California.

Picasso, it was.

Picasso is bright and fastidious, a versatile gentleman who has herded cattle, jumped 3-foot 7-inch fences, and thundered across rigorous eventing courses. He has performed intricate maneuvers in dressage, ridden in fox hunts and polocrosse, and been used as a pack horse for wilderness hiking trips.

Picasso has another feather in his cap as a member of a select group of horses who participate in the centuries-old activity of vaulting. Part sport, part art form, the discipline involves athletes performing gymnastics and dance movements on the back of a horse.

The movements, which are choreographed to music, are performed while the horse is longed in a circle. As in figure-skating competitions, teams compete in compulsories and freestyle (Kur) classes, and members perform as individuals, pairs (Pas de Deux), and as a group.

Teams consist of eight vaulters, a longeur, and a horse. The American Vaulting Association, (AVA), a nonprofit corporation based in Fairfield, Ohio, promotes the sport and regulates competitions among its regional clubs.

Vaulters range in age from 6 years old to adults. The sport provides people who don't own a horse the opportunity to perform with one. Everyone on a team must groom and help care for the horse--the most important member of the team.

From Battle to Sports

Picasso is the star of the Canyon View Vaulters, a team whose members live near Chico, California, located in the vast agricultural region in the northern part of the state. The area is particularly known for walnuts and almonds produced from trees in irrigated fields that stretch to the horizon. Occasionally, a butte breaks up the broad, flat landscape.

Canyon View Vaulters evolved from a pony club in which Danelle Grove and her daughters were members. Danelle is a passionate horsewoman whose oldest daughter, Megan, coaches the Canyon View Vaulters with Kristin Franko, another member.

Megan and her sister, Kristin, began to vault several years ago in the Durham-Chico Pony Club. Danelle, a property appraiser for the Tehama County Assessor's Office, served as district commissioner of the club for four years.

Her husband, John, is in the hay business. The couple also have a son, Trace, who is in the Marines.

Danelle and her daughters met Neil Schwartz, a Chico University professor who was a member of the first American vaulting team to compete in Europe. Neil and other members of the first National Exchange Team competed in Germany in 1974.

At 21 years old, Neil was the team's oldest member. He loaned a vaulting surcingle--a wide, canvas-covered piece of leather with handles that fits on a horse like a saddle--to the club.

"Neil provided us with a start and taught us the fundamentals," said Megan. "Eventually, we split off to become a vaulting club and joined AVA in 1996 so we could compete."

The girls and their mother became part of a discipline that dates back to the Greek and Roman empires. Vaulting was invented as a way to mount and dismount a horse before saddles and stirrups were invented.

Used for cavalry training, vaulting was a skill required to survive in battle, where it was used to evade enemies and retrieve fallen comrades. As the skills were refined, contests were held, and vaulting, or artistic riding, was born.

Riders competed in the discipline in the classical Olympic Games. During the Middle Ages, knights performed elaborate exercises on horseback in armor. During the Renaissance, vaulting became part of a nobleman's education and derived its name from the French words, "La Voltige."

Vaulting competitions continued to be held through the years. Records of the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, note that cavalry officers competed in it.

Modern vaulting was developed in postwar Germany as a way to introduce children to equestrian sports. In 1950, a national vaulting school for horses, coaches, and riders was established in Hohenhameln, Germany.

When American dressage judge Elizabeth Friedlander Searle saw a vaulting demonstration at the 1956 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, she thought the skills it required would help members of her Santa Cruz (California) Pony Club. Purchasing a grainy, 16-millimeter film of basic vaulting exercises to use as a guide, she brought the sport to the United States.

AVA was established in 1966, and regional clubs were created around the country. The sport, which is particularly popular in Northern California, has over 1,000 members in more than 100 clubs in the U.S.

In 1983, vaulting became one of six equestrian disciplines recognized by the International Equestrian Federation. Today, vaulters from around the globe vie for championships at the World Equestrian Gamess

What Does It Take?

It takes a special kind of horse to compete in vaulting. Temperamental equines need not apply.

Many breeds of horse can be used, but an individual must meet four criteria: he must be at least 6 years old; have a calm, reliable disposition; be fit and have smooth, consistent gaits.

It is helpful for a horse to have a wide back that provides ample room for vaulters to stand on. The animal must also be able to tolerate constant movement on its back and the occasional jab of hands and knees.

Vaulting is performed while a horse is longed in a circle. Danelle Grove, Picasso's owner (above), is longeur of the Canyon View Vaulters.

Vaulting's movements combine gymnastics and dance. Felicia Minto (top left) does a shoulder stand; Melinda Gross (center) polishes a kur. Felicia (top right) mounts Picasso to perform a Bielman side hang (bottom).

Vaulters are always changing positions and shifting their weight in every direction, so the horse must be able to accept this physically and mentally.

A vaulting horse must have regular workouts to stay fit and be longed in both directions.

"This protects the horse so he won't become one-sided," Danelle said.

Many vaulting horses are also trained in dressage to help them stay in shape and maintain balanced gaits and movement.

"Dressage helps the horse with its tempo," explained Danelle.

"A vaulting horse needs to be very even-paced because when the kids are on its back, any change can throw them off-balance. The more steady and rhythmic a horse is, the easier it is for the vaulters."

Vaulting movements are performed at the trot and canter, so a horse needs to have gaits that are smooth at both. Canyon View Vaulters has another hose, owned by Justine Biddison, which they also use.

Danelle adjusts Picasso's surcingle during practice. "The amazing thing about Picasso is that every time we've set limits on him, he's always proved us wrong," she said.

The horse, who is called Shamu because she is black and white like Sea World's famous whale, is part Shire.

"She's bigger than Picasso," said Danelle, "but we only use her to trot in vaulting. Her canter is too rushed and not rhythmical enough for the kids to trust. "Kurs (freestyle classes) require even smoother gaits, so some vaulting clubs have two horses--one for compulsories and one for Kurs.

"Picasso was our first vaulting horse. We've tried many others, but we found out it really takes a horse with a certain temperament."

However, Picasso wasn't always the reliable horse he is today.

Temper, Temper
When Danelle bought Picasso in 1991, the gelding was a handful. He was 7 years old and barely green-broke.

A grandson of the great Paint foundation horse Yellow Mount, Picasso was sired by Yellow Investment and is out of King's Ms Venture.

Danell thought he would make a great horse for her children, but first he had to be trained.

"It took us two to three years to work through some of his habits," she remembered.

"When we first started to teach him to longe, he had a temper tantrum and threw himself on the ground. He was set in his ways and didn't want to work."

But eventually, Picasso blossomed and made a name for himself at Pony Club contests.

"Picasso has done it all," Danelle said.

"The only thing I haven't done with him is drive him. I have an old buggy and harness that needs repairs, and when they are fixed, we'll do that, too."

Picasso has exceeded the family's expectations.

"The amazing thing about Picasso is that every time we've set limits on him, he's always proved us wrong," said Danelle.

"He's always been able to do more than we thought he could. He has a kind mind and is pretty sweet."

That can be particularly important when he has a young vaulter jumping around on his back.

"You can put a little kid on Picasso and he's so slow and careful," Danelle noted.

"One of our scariest moments happened when one of the girls wouldn't let go of the surcingle, and her feet were dragging under him.

"Picasso was so careful. He tried really hard not to step on her. He skimmed over her once before he actually realized her feet were under him, but then he stopped.

"She had a bruised shin, but he didn't step on her. When she finally let go, he trotted over her."

The group has loaned Picasso to other vaulting clubs at competitions, but Danelle is always the longeur and she is careful not to overwork him.

"Vaulters are a tight-knit community," she explained.

"Finding a horse you can vault on is the most difficult part. There are strict rules on how many vaulters can use a horse and how many classes they can compete with him.

"Safety is very important for the horses and vaulters. The horse is the team's most valuable member."

Time to Practice

It's practice time for the Canyon View Vaulters, who gather at Angel and Jim Minto's ranch approximately 16 miles south of Chico.

The Mintos' daughter, Felicia, is a member of the team. Jim is Danelle's cousin.

The group practices one or twice a week for about 2 ½ hours. After warming up by exercising on a barrel for a half-hour, the team is ready to work on the horse.

Surprisingly, none of the members have experience in gymnastics. Some compete in hunter jumper; others vie in eventing, dressage, and barrel racing.

The sport offers the girls an opportunity to do something different from what most people do on a horse--simply ride.

"You get to do things, like stand and somersaults, you don't normally get to do," Megan explained.

Vaulting builds confidence, increases horsemanship skills, and strengthens a member's ability to balance. Vaulters develop a sense of timing and balance that enhances their ability in other equestrian sports, said Danelle.

"Vaulters tend to land on their feet if they fall off a horse," she noted. "You can tell riders have vaulting experience from their confident way of going and their balance and security over fences."

Vaulting boosted Megan's self-confidence and balance.

"When I fell off a horse while jumping it, I somersaulted off," she said. "Or, when I got on a new horse that reared, it wasn't a big deal to me, because I'd been standing on a horse and jumping off at a canter."

The sport also provides participants a way to express themselves through music and dance, and encourages teamwork.

"The older vaulters help the younger ones," Megan explained. "It's really fun."

The team's youngest member, 10-year-old Melinda Gross, likes vaulting because of its novelty. She tried other sports, but stopped participating when they didn't hold her attention, said her mother, Kellie.

Melinda has been vaulting for approximately two years now and hasn't been bored yet.

"It's something you don't see people doing very often," Melinda said with a smile.

The little girl shows no sign of quitting and appears to enjoy the attention.

"She doesn't want to stop," Kellie said.

For more information on the sport of vaulting, check out the American Vaulting Association.

Vaulters practice on a barrel before they perform on a horse. (Top left) Megan helps Felicia (left) and Melinda on a barrel. Felicia, Nicole, and Megan do a stand on a stand triple (bottom left). (Right) With Melinda high in the air, Megan and Nicole perform a high chair maneuver on a patient Picasso.

From Paint Horse Journal, January, 2003