Getting a leg up

Equestrian vaulting gets going in Grand Valley

Kileen Miller practices her vaulting exercises on Whimsical while Christy Douglas coaches.

Miller has been involved in gymnastics from a young age, so learning to ride a horse in difficult positions wasn’t too tough for her.

Thirteen-year-old Kileen Miller had no experience with horses before she took up vaulting.

“I learned to ride a horse in a lot of weird positions before I ever rode one sitting,” she said.

But contorting her body into difficult positions is not something new for the athletic Miller. She’s been involved in gymnastics most of her young life, through a gymnastics business her family owned. And four years ago she began studying aerial arts — the sort of artistic, graceful moves in the air using colorful silk ribbons that are frequently seen in circuses.

It was through the aerial arts that she met Christy Douglas, a young woman who had been involved in equestrian vaulting in college in Missouri, studied equine therapy at Colorado State University and moved to Grand Junction to work as a residential therapist and equine therapist.

Always looking for a challenge, Douglas thought it would be great to learn aerial arts. She heard of Defy Gravity, a nonprofit organization run by Miller’s mother, Kim Philia, that offers opportunities for youngsters in everything from gymnastics, dance and aerial arts, to BMX acrobatics, archery and parkour, also known as urban gymnastics. Defy Gravity produces a number of programs for youngsters and adults through the Grand Junction Parks and Recreation Department.

When Philia met Douglas, and learned of her experience in vaulting, a new partnership was born. They will be offering equestrian vaulting classes through the Parks and Recreation Department beginning this Wednesday, with classes on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The cost is $52 for the class, but Philia noted, there are scholarships available for students whose families don’t have the means to pay the full price.

Vaulting is a form of gymnastics on horseback that evolved from circus performances. It was recognized as an equine sport by the FEI, the international equine organization that also sanctions dressage, jumping and three-day eventing. It is being considered as an Olympic sport.

“In my opinion, it’s the most fun thing you can do on a horse,” said Douglas. “I really enjoy it. It combines horse training and exercise.”

She also stressed the safety factor.

“People confuse vaulting with trick riding,” she said. “It’s not about high speed and danger. “It’s about form and grace. It’s really safe.”

New students, who don’t need to have any previous experience with horses or gymnastics, begin learning vaulting on stationary barrels. They move up to exercises performed on a horse at the walk, then trot and canter.

In formal competition, there can be up to three people performing gymnastic exercises on a single horse. But those horses are usually draft animals with broad backs and stout legs.

To meet that requirement, Douglas recently purchased a team of Percherons that have been used extensively for harness work, but have no experience in vaulting. She is in the process of training them.

In the meantime, her students learn the basics on much smaller horses such as Whimsical, a Haflinger pony who looks like a pint-sized version of a Belgian draft horse.

Douglas and Philia hope to put together a vaulting team with at least five members that can compete at vaulting events in the region — which basically means travel to Denver, Salt Lake City or more distant cities.

While winning at such competitions would be great, the real goal is to build a sense of camaraderie and team spirit, Philia said.

She also noted that youngsters who get involved with gymnastics and aerial arts are often stiff and tight in their muscles when they first start performing exercises. But, she said, “They react differently with a horse.”

Kileen explained it this way: “In aerial arts you manipulate the silks to do your exercises. In this, you go with the horse.”

So last week, on a farm near Palisade where Douglas boards her horses, Whimsical patiently walked and trotted on a longe line controlled by Douglas while Kileen Miller performed acrobatic mounts and graceful poses on his back.

For information, visit Sign up for vaulting classes through the Grand Junction Parks and Recreation Department.


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