In the early morning hours this past fall on a small beach in Iroquois, Ontario, I caught up with the National Valley Ranch Vaulting Club to photograph them showcasing their incredible talent.
When I arrived on location, fog clung low over the water and the light from the rising sun was just starting to be visible. A solitary early morning dog walker curiously looked on as the rumbling sound of a truck and trailer announced the arrival of two very special horses followed closely by a group of talented young ladies.
So how does an equestrian decide to go from ‘traditional riding’ to vaulting which is often described as ‘gymnastics on horseback’? To find out, I caught up with CQHA member, Jennifer Byvelds owner of the Capital Cowgirls Drill Team and owner of the National Valley Ranch in Chesterville, Ontario.
Getting Into Vaulting
Byvelds is an accomplished horsewoman, owner of the Capital Cowgirls Drill Team and owner of the National Valley Ranch in Chesterville, Ontario. Two years ago, she watched a clinic with a former Cavaila performer and invited them to come to her ranch to work on cossack trick riding. While buying cossack riding tack, she saw a vaulting surcingle for sale and bought it, “just to play with.”
A few months later she sold all her cossack tack and invested in more vaulting equipment! She worked with the Cavalia performer and connected with an Ontario vaulting club outside of the Greater Toronto Area called Hoofprint vaulting. They helped Byvelds start a club in Ottawa and had her mentoring with them for the completion of her Vault Canada coaching certification.
The club officially launched in March 2020 and, like most activities around that time, were quickly shut down two weeks later due to Covid. When outdoor recreational activities reopened later that year however, the club re-started as strong as ever.
For their inaugural year, the club had superb participation with about 25 vaulters and 10 that were interested in showing with ages ranging from 8 to 32. The competitive team practices roughly six times per month.
Vaulting is a great sport for building confidence, trust with your team members and your horse, and building your mental resilience because vaulting is a hugely mental game according to Byvelds. “The progress I saw this year with the vaulters blew my mind,” Byvelds says and she credits this to the atmosphere that the team created and the support that they gave each other.
Training always starts on the ground and moves are learned on barrel horses or an air horse (a life-like horse sized piece of training equipment). Once the vaulter masters the moves on the ground and they are balanced and smooth, they graduate to a real horse. Real horses are only used for roughly the last half of each practice which prevents them from being overworked.
Two of the horses Byvelds she uses for the Vaulting Club are Beau (Play Bay), a handsome bay quarter horse gelding and Willow (Strawberry Shortcake), a sweet grey quarter horse mare. These horses were complete professionals and from the minute they unloaded in the parking lot of the beach to the time they packed up to leave – you’d have thought they’d done it a million times before.
The horses that Byvelds lovingly refers to as ‘unicorns’ came into her life at a very special time. Six years ago she had a horrific riding accident. “My accident was a total fluke, I had a horse go down under me while galloping in a field and broke my back and neck. Even though it was an accident, I needed something super solid to get back on.”
After the accident she sold her green horses and, in her own words, “used the money to buy a unicorn….to rebuild my confidence… and that unicorn was Beau.”
Willow followed having initially been purchased for her daughter from a local ranch where she was known as the ‘ultimate safe school horse who adored children.’
According to Byvelds, one of the many great things about using quarter horses for vaulting is that they are small and sturdy which helps to build up students’ confidence before moving them to a larger horse. For this reason, all her students start on Beau and Willow. The club also uses a third horse owned by Circle J Ranch who, not surprisingly, is also a quarter horse and used for beginners.
When asked about her affinity for quarter horses, Byveld’s response was that they, “have the best temperaments! So easygoing and forgiving. LOVE THEIR minds.” Judging from the way Beau and Willow handled themselves that morning, I couldn’t agree more!
What’s Next for the vaulting team?
With the uncertainty that 2020 has brought all areas of the equestrian world, Byvelds and her team show no signs of slowing down. They’ve been diligently practicing and when gathering limitations have prevented in-person practice, they went virtual and practiced online.
With the commitment, dedication and camaraderie shared by all those on the team, I have no doubt 2021 will bring exciting things for this incredible group of people and horses.