ACA Blog

Jan 30, 2013

Horses as Counselors: Therapeutic Vaulting

This is an area of Therapeutic Horsemanship that I find to be fascinating. When I think of vaulting on horseback, the image of superhuman gymnasts in Cirque du Soleil-like performances springs to my mind. The more I researched the topic, however, the more I realized the value it brings to clients participating in Therapeutic Horsemanship programs. The balance, focus, confidence and teamwork it takes to perform the exercises during a Therapeutic Vaulting session can be extremely beneficial not only in a physical sense, but also psychologically.

What is Therapeutic Vaulting?
Therapeutic Vaulting is a modified form of traditional equestrian vaulting, which is essentially a combination of gymnastics and dance movements performed on horseback. Participants in therapeutic programs are taught basic vaulting positions and exercises, but modifications are made to accommodate a wide variety of disabilities and specific needs of individual vaulters. Participants in Therapeutic Vaulting range from able-bodied individuals to those with physical challenges. Many programs cater to individuals with mental health issues such as anxiety, fear, ADD/ADHD, eating disorders and behavioral issues. Most classes are limited to groups of four to six vaulters. One of the main objectives in a therapeutic vaulting session is the development of cooperation, teamwork and group cohesion.

What happens during a Therapeutic Vaulting session?
As with riding lessons, vaulting lessons usually begin with grooming and tacking up the horse. This provides the opportunity for participants to learn the parts of the horse and the required equipment. It also helps participants develop an emotional connection with the horse and other group members. The horse wears a thick pad on his back that is secured around his girth by a surcingle made specifically for vaulting. The surcingle has handles on it to allow the vaulters to achieve different grips and positions. Modifications to the surcingle can be made according to the specific needs of individuals or groups.

Once tacked up, the horse is lunged in a circle and the vaulters warm up through a series of movement games. These games may include walking one at a time to the horse as he walks in a circle, patting him on the shoulder and returning to the center. Or, the group could be asked to move around the circle and keep pace with the horse. This may not be easy when you have six people moving in a relatively small space!

Once warmed up, the vaulters perform a series of exercises on the horse. The exercises are structured with certain goals in mind. These goals may be related to a physical aspect, such as improving balance or strength or something psychological like overcoming a fear issue or working together as a group. The level of difficulty for each exercise depends upon the experience level of the group as a whole. One example of a beginning exercise is to have one or more vaulters ride with eyes closed as the horse walks over poles on the ground. A more advanced exercise is to have the vaulters kneeling or standing on the horse as he walks over the poles.

After the group completes the exercises and the session comes to an end, the horse is un-tacked, groomed and cared for while the instructors wrap up things up by discussing how the group members performed in relation to their goals. One of the instructors I talked to indicated that she likes to end her sessions by creating a report card to document the group’s performance that day and prepare a to-do list for the next session. She also posts at the barn entrance a chart tracking goal progress, so participants, families and caregivers know how the group is performing.

Therapeutic Vaulting and the Opportunity for Growth:
Many of the skills learned through Therapeutic Vaulting are transferrable to daily life activities. The major physical benefits include improved balance, coordination, motor skills, body awareness and sensory integration, strength and stamina. The psychological benefits include increased confidence, problem solving ability, memory, focus, trust, teamwork and creativity. Also, being part of a supportive team will encourage participants to trust one another and develop social skills that are applicable at school, work and in the general community.
I have no doubt that being able to stand up on a horse as it canters in a circle is an empowering experience that will last long after the session ends. In fact, some participants in Therapeutic Vaulting excel to the point they are able to join vaulting teams and compete at the local, regional and national level.

Want to learn more about Therapeutic Vaulting? Here are some great resources:
American Vaulting Association: www.americanvaulting.org
Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), International: www.pathintn.org


Lisa Krystosek is a counselor in St. Louis, Missouri. She specializes in Equine-Facilitated Counseling to help adults, adolescents and children improve their lives. To contact Lisa, please visit www.lisakrystosek.com.

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