Equestrian athletes bound forward in vaulting

Kileen Miller, 14, of Grand Junction performs horse vaulting on the gelding CorI at the Palisade Peach Festival.

Jessica Gagler, on the horse, Sara Gagler, left, and Samantha Garrett all placed in the national championships for equine vaulting in Denver.

One could say some local youngsters involved in an equestrian activity have “vaulted” to the top of their sport very quickly.

It was just a year ago that Horseplay carried a story about local efforts to establish an equestrian vaulting team in Mesa County.

And last month, three members of that team demonstrated they can compete with people from around the country at the beginning levels of the sport.

At national competition in Denver on Aug. 8-11, 12-year-old Jessica Gagler took first place in the freestyle vaulting competition in the Novice Advanced Walk class and second place in compulsory exercises. Her sister, Sara Gagler, 9, won second in freestyle and third in compulsories. Samantha Garrett, 10, won 10th and seventh in the same classes. All are from Grand Junction and all were members of the Defy Gravity equestrian team when they competed at nationals.

Equestrian vaulting is competition in which participants vault onto the backs of horses and perform acrobatic or gymnastic exercises on moving horses. At the beginning levels, horses move at a walk. As the vaulters become more experienced and the competition gets more technical, horses increase their speed to a trot and then a canter. Additionally, there are classes that include two and even three vaulters doing complicated joint exercises on the same horse.

Equestrian vaulting is similar to performances one might see at a circus, but the exercises are more controlled, and the participants are scored on their technique. The sport is sanctioned by the United States Equestrian Federation and the American Vaulting Association.

The Grand Junction youngsters who competed in Denver found vaulting the perfect sport for their interests.

“I really like horses, so when I found out about it, I wanted to give it a try,” said Garrett, who, until she became involved in vaulting, had never ridden horses or participated in gymnastics.

The Gagler sisters are different in that regard. They have been around horses since they were toddlers, and both were involved in gymnastics prior to taking up vaulting.

“I’ve competed in so many things, but when I heard about vaulting I was really excited because it combines two things I really love — performing and a love of animals,” said Jessica.

Competing at the nationals at the National Western complex in Denver was exciting, Sara said, but not particularly intimidating because, “all of the teams cheered each other on. Everybody was really friendly and helpful.”

Additionally, all three girls said it was impressive to see people competing at top levels of vaulting and performing extremely difficult exercises with their horses. Those performances gave the girls hope that they may one day also be able to compete at top levels, they said

All three of the girls were coached by Christy Douglas and Kim Phillia, the director of Defy Gravity, the Orchard Mesa-based organization that also offers instruction in gymnastics, archery, parkour and circus arts. The nonprofit organization, located in an old fruit and produce building at 32 and C Roads, also offers Friday Night social gatherings for youngsters and a Wednesday Christian youth group.

Phillia said about 200 young people a week take part in one or more of the activities at Defy Gravity.

“I think there is a sense of belonging and that this is a safe place to come to,” she said. “For a lot of kids, the activities we offer here provide an opportunity to get away from whatever stress they may be facing in school or at home.”

Defy Gravity has now acquired its own horses, three horses and a pony, which came from various rescue groups, Phillia said. There is a mustang from South Dakota, an Arabian mare from Delta and a quarter horse-draft horse cross that came from a rescue group in Gunnison. The latter, named Cori, was used at the Palisade Peach Festival last month, when members of the Defy Gravity team gave vaulting demonstrations.

Douglas, who has her own horses, including two Percherons and a Haflinger pony, recently formed her own vaulting group, Grand Valley Vaulting Harmony.

In addition to the placings in the national competition in Denver, vaulters from Defy Gravity placed well in regional competition in Utah this summer.

But Phillia stresses that participation in vaulting and other activities isn’t just about winning. “It’s about personal growth, about gaining confidence and learning to engage the audience,” she said

Still, it is impressive that local equestrian vaulters have gained experience and skill so quickly in a sport they’ve been involved with barely a year.

Furthermore, interest in vaulting appears to be growing in this area, with more youngsters engaging in the sport and two groups now offering vaulting instruction and team competition.

It is a sport that has participants leaping with enthusiasm.

Find out about auditions for the Defy Gravity vaulting team at http://www.defygravity.org.

For information about the Grand Valley Vaulting Harmony team, contact Douglas at 970-231-7956.


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