Freshmen twins preform gymnastics on horseback

October 3, 2008

When the sport of volleyball was originally founded in 1895 in a nearby Massachusetts YMCA, it was hailed as an ingenious combination of tennis and handball. American football drew inspiration from its British predecessor, rugby, and its namesake, known in America as soccer. But only one sport can claim as its godparents two sports that at first glance might seem immiscible. “We usually try to explain it as gymnastics on horseback,” said Mara Rosenberg ’12.

Mara and Ilyana Rosenberg, first-year twins, are both involved in a sport that is more commonly referred to as equestrian vaulting, or more simply, horse vaulting.

A typical competitive horse vaulting meet includes matches in which vaulters like Mara and Ilyana showcase their flexibility, athleticism and balance by performing gymnastic feats atop a cantering horse. “The horse canters in a circle, and we do routines to music on its back,” Mara summarized.

The horse runs in an even circle, led by a rope called a “lunge line” which in turn is controlled by a horse trainer who stands in the middle of the circle, known as the lungeur. Meanwhile, vaulters use the horse’s back and sometimes even its neck as a moving balance beam, executing moves like shoulder stands and splits.

During a competition, vaulting routines are divided into two types. First, vaulters must complete the seven “compulsory moves,” including a mount in which a vaulter gets onto the horse; stand; seat; flag and scissors and others, and are judged for their form and execution. The freestyle that follows must be a minute long and set to music, with moves that are judged based upon their difficulty and the level of the vaulter’s skill. Last year, the Rosenbergs choreographed a pairs, referred to in the sport as pas-de-deux, freestyle routine to the theme song of “Batman Begins.”

“Gymnastics on horseback,” as Mara referred to it, is also a pretty accurate description of how the two got involved in the sport in the first place. Said Mara, “I’d done horseback riding lessons since fifth grade. [During high school] I wasn’t ready to give up gymnastics, but it was too much of a time commitment to do both.”

When the twins’ mom saw an advertisement in the newspaper publicizing a vaulting club near their home in Portland, Oregon, Ilyana was looking for a sport that would combine two of her passions. And despite their initial perplexed reaction to the sport, a common reaction of most first-time viewers of equestrian vaulting, Mara and Ilyana quickly became hooked.

Under the direction of their coach in Portland, the two competed last year in the national vaulting competition in Watsonville, California. That experience, said Mara, gave her a chance to match up her skills against other vaulters in her division, as well as the unforgettable opportunity to see world-renowned vaulters perform their routines.

At its best, vaulting is an art form, Mara said, “High-level vaulters look like they’re so at ease on top of the horse. “

As such, one of the main focuses in horse vaulting is the smooth interaction between the vaulter and the horse.

“The core element [of vaulting] is harmony with the horse. You get deduced a lot if you hit the horse by landing on it too hard. You are supposed to not even let the horse know that you’re up there,” Mara said. “It’s a really big team and horse combined effort.”

Most vaulting clubs in the United States have a horse that is owned collectively by the vaulters who in turn are in charge of preparing it before practice and taking care of the horse afterward. Keeping that in mind, injuries in the horse vaulting world are rare.

If there is a conflict between the horse and vaulter, vaulters are taught to protect themselves at all costs. “We actually don’t wear any pads or helmets or protective gear. If we’re off balance or something happens, we just jump off… The longeur is in control of the horse,” Mara said.

A random survey of Brandeisians show that horse vaulting is pretty much unknown on campus.

What is most people’s reaction when they hear the Rosenberg’s unique pastime? Surprise, if you ask Ilyana. “I tell them to go on Youtube or Google. They do it…and say ‘Wow. You do that? That’s really cool,” she said.

Though equestrian vaulting has been in existence as a sport in America since the late 1950s, it still has yet to take off in America the way it has in Europe.

Most vaulting experts trace modern-day vaulting to Germany, where it originated as a tool to introduce children to the equestrian arts.

In 1983, the sport gained official recognition in the field when the Federation Equestre International (FEI) included horse vaulting in their 10 member list of equestrian disciplines. But even with recognition and occasional vaulting demonstrations at the Olympics, horse vaulting remains one of the least popular of the 10.

For Ilyana, the sport’s small size has some unexpected benefits, and she remains unsure as to whether or not it is advantageous to expand the sport’s appeal to a wider audience.

“It would be a lot of fun to have more people involved. But then again because it’s such a small sport you get to know everyone and you get to compete at the same competitions as national champions,” she said.

There are several horse vaulting clubs scattered throughout the United States, making continuing their unique hobby during college relatively easy for the Rosenbergs.

“It was actually one of the ways I was considering colleges—how close it was to vaulting. Luckily all the colleges I applied to were at most 30 minutes away from a vaulting club,” Mara said.

Even with schoolwork, Mara and Ilyana have found the time to spend two hours every Sunday at the New England Vaulakryies, a competitive club near Waltham.

After all, the Rosenberg twins are masters at combining, whether it be schoolwork and hobbies or gymnastics and horseback-riding.

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