“If my RDA friend Emily and I are managing something then the others don’t have an excuse not to try”

We have had few opportunities to talk about para vaulting here at Vaulting News in the past. We once told you the story of a para vaulter in the USA and we also talked about it a few months ago when we reported on the structure of para vaulting in the UK. But today we would like to hand the stage to Lizzie, aka “The para vaulter”. Lizzie is a young athlete from the UK who suffers from an illness called EDS, you can read more about her story here. She has been doing a great job promoting para vaulting online at the YourHorse portal and we will give her the opportunity to explain things better to you.

Welcome Lizzie. Did you ever think you could do gymnastics on a walking / cantering horse with your disability?

A lot of people with severe physical disabilities exclude themselves from vaulting because they don’t think it will be possible. I didn’t think it would be possible either – when I started I was a full-time wheelchair user and didn’t know what would happen! Having a physical disability certainly can put you off believing that a sport as physically demanding as vaulting can be achievable. Learning to vault with a learning disability is just as hard but there seems to be a perception that it’s more manageable.

How is para vaulting training organized in the United Kingdom?

There are two options to participate in vaulting classes:

  • With Riding For The Disabled Association (RDA) groups: All group members have diasablities. There might be one or two able-bodied vaulters in the group to help. This probably works best for younger vaulters, especially those who have learning disabilities who may struggle more in a non-disabled group.
  • In able-bodied vaulting clubs under the British Equestrian Vaulting Association (BEV): I am part of such a club. We are only two disabled vaulters. This is very uncommon in UK. This means that we have some schedule conflict with the RDA trainings.

How are the of the competitions structured?

  • At the RDA event, there are simply three age categories:
    • 10 years and younger,
    • 11 to 17 years and over
    • over 17 years.
    • There is no distinction between type of impairment.
  • BEV competitions: There are no age groups but instead there are the following categories
    • Walk class
    • Pre-Novice class and
    • for the various walk pairs, trios, and squads.
    • Like with the RDA, there’s no distinction between types of disability.

What might be the better option, training together or in separate groups?

When vaulters are a bit older I think there is a definite advantage to training with able-bodied vaulters.

  1. You can learn a lot from the more advanced vaulters.
  2. You get more ideas from watching and working with a bigger group of vaulters, big and small!
  3. It encourages you to attempt things you might not otherwise try because you can see how other vaulters work up to it.
  4. It’s nice just to have a slightly bigger group of vaulters because it makes the whole experience a lot more fun!
  5. A final reason why I like being able to train with able-bodied vaulters is that it means I get to train more often and for longer, so I achieve more and progress faster.

I try to help younger or beginner vaulters but I’m no better at this than anyone else – I’m just another vaulter who can tell them the basic moves! It may be that having us around spurs people on a bit more, because if my RDA friend Emily and I are managing something then the others don’t have an excuse not to try too.

Whilst there are definite advantages to us of training with able-bodied vaulters, there are also advantegs for disabled groups.Sometimes paras need longr or more help to do the exercises. So, it helps to train in a seperate group. What the team members learn is for example cameraderie.

In my RDA group, we sometimes find that people are really nervous about getting on the horse in the first place, so the expectation to hop up with a bunk, do your moves and slide down again in the space of about a minute would be a bit much. I never thought I could vault with my disabilities, so a disabled group is good for beginning with the sport.

Where people have a learning disability, it depends on the severity of the impairment as to how easily they will slot into a regular class. From what I’ve seen, plenty of people even with quite serious learning difficulties can be included in able-bodied classes without a problem. However, there are certainly some with more severe impairments who would probably find the pace and expectations of an able-bodied class really challenging.

Is there one thing you are better in than the able-bodied vaulters in your group?

One of the things I am a bit better at is thinking about how to enact certain moves. Because I have really poor sensation and proprioception, I have to remember how to do moves with a whole load of complicated thought processes instead of just relying on feeling for it. When you’re teaching someone new to do a certain move, it can help to have some of those extra visualised ideas.

I used to do a lot of coxing and coaching for rowing clubs and I was taught to have at least eight ways of explaining something to the crew in case the eight guys rowing needed a personalised explanation. I think this is useful for any kind of coaching so it’s maybe my one superpower!

Is there a difference between para and regular vaulting?

The difference between para vaulting and regular vaulting should, ideally, be pretty small. The requirements are exactly the same as for able-bodied vaulters and we are judged by the same standards – it’s just that we have our own classes to compete in. That’s probably why it seems very similar to able-bodied vaulting – because it is!

In practice, of course, there are definitely additional challenges in training and competition, and these will vary from person to person depending on the disability. For me, for example, my main difficulties are physical. Vaulting has made me stronger but I’m still physically weaker than another person my age because my body is so damaged, my nerves don’t work properly, I dislocate and relocate things every time I’m on the horse (usually I can hide it because a lot of the time I don’t need to use my hands to relocate!), my co-ordination is affected, my balance isn’t great, and I tend to black out when I go upside down. My muscles and joints aren’t very good at coping with sudden movements, so, for example, if a horse stumbles underneath me then I find it hard not to hit the ground. In particular, my knees are very weak so standing with them bent even on the ground tends to make the nerves fail and produce a reflex which makes me fall over – so trying to stand with bent knees on a moving horse is really hard!

Whilst all of these problems mean that I’m unlikely to be performing at a CVI anytime soon (until they introduce para classes!!), I’m still able to train alongside able-bodied vaulters quite easily because we just do more walking, and basic moves cantering.

Lizzie, how could able-bodied and disabled vaulters work together?

My opinion on integration is that where it can be achieved to the benefit of both parties, or where one group is unaffected and the other advantaged, it should definitely be encouraged.

Across the various disability sports I take part in (athletics, gymnastics, rowing, and riding), it’s usually a good idea to start people off in a specialist disabled class, to begin with, but if they then want to move on then it should be possible. Usually, all that is required is an adaptation of the activity – so, for example, teaching moves in walk before canter, or asking a para rower to row a shorter distance than an able-bodied rower. In vaulting, this should be easy to accomplish because para vaulters can easily work as individuals or in pairs without detriment to other vaulters in the group.

As for competition – it’s a tricky one! A lot of disability sports suffer when they’re starting out because there aren’t enough people taking part. This means that either you have people with wildly different disabilities competing against each other, or you have so many categories that the competition is pretty meaningless. It’s worth remembering that there are five categories for para dressage riders, which go from people who compete solely in walk (Grade I) to those who can also compete in able-bodied Prix St George (Grade V, formerly Grade IV). Obviously, this is a huge range of impairment, and it’s reasonable to assume that dressage riders graded I, II or possibly III are unlikely to be able to vault much at all – so, basically, you have a smaller range of physical impairment that can access the sport.

Adding in learning disabilities is another complexity. At the moment, an intellectual impairment is not eligible for classification in para dressage. However, it’s apparent that a learning disability could be a substantial barrier to taking part in competitive vaulting against unaffected vaulters, and that just because your body works better in theory than someone with a physical disability doesn’t mean you can get your brain to do what you want!

What kind of development for para vaulting in the future woud you like?

In the future, it probably would be good to get some system of classifying vaulters according to their disability. In British Gymnastics, for example, disability gymnasts are classed as I or II, where I is learning disability and II is physical disability. I’m not sure this is the best route to go down because it isn’t really subtle enough to distinguish between a mild learning disability and a more severe one, or between a mild physical disability and a more severe one. Classification in any disability sport is fraught with difficulties. In my opinion, the most important thing is that it doesn’t put people off. For para vaulting to take off properly around the world people need to be encouraged at grassroots level and this means providing opportunities to compete and to succeed.

What should we do to develop para vaulting?

I think the best way to get it more international would be to host a demonstration event at one (or more) of the CVIs, and obviously the more people that took part the better.

I know that disabled people vault all around the vault. It would be grat to start international competitions. Everything has to start small and I think it is the right time. Disability sport is definitely growing here in the UK and I think the profile of the Paralympics and the Invictus Games has helped elsewhere. Let’s get it up and running!


(I spoke with Lizzie in June 2017)

Adele Feuerstein

I am Adele Feuerstein the founder of the blog. I used to vault & train teams in Germany. Now I am only an observer & love to share my knowledge about international vaulting with you.