Fremont resident Sarah Taylor, 12, had never heard of horse vaulting. But she heard the word “horse” and leapt at the chance.
The Johnson Crossing sixth grader got her first opportunity to participate in the unique sport, where riders perform gymnastics on the backs of moving horses, through an auction at the Fremont Alliance Church. Fellow parishioner and Fremont resident Amanda Marshall, who recently started the Two Rivers vaulting club in Valley, offered a voucher for four lessons. Sarah had done gymnastics and dance in the past, but was more interested in getting involved with horses again after attending a summer camp that taught campers how to care for the animals.
“I thought, ‘oh my gosh I love these animals,’” Sarah said. “They’re so pretty and fluffy and amazing.”
Three years later, and Sarah’s still jumping and rolling on the back of Marshall’s vaulting horse, Wade, in a Valley barn on Ida Street. She’s a veteran in a sport that few of her friends have heard of—and that’s exactly how she likes it.
“Lots of kids play sports, lots of kids do gymnastics, lots of kids do whatever,” said Sarah’s mom, Keri Taylor. “This is something that I think she likes because she feels like it’s kind of her own thing.”
It may not be a secret for long—since Marshall first began the club in 2013, it’s grown from around 5 students to 26 students. They’ve participated in competitions in Minnesota and Iowa, and performed in Omaha’s CenturyLink Center. And while they’ve made an impact as the only vaulting club in Nebraska, Marshall hopes that the sport will spread, creating more opportunities for students across the state.
“It’ll be three years this August, and it just keeps doubling and doubling each year,” Marshall said. “I would love for another club to happen. It’s just a small sport that nobody knows about. Sarah will have an amazing advantage—she could start her own club when she’s out of college because she’ll have been doing it for so long.”
Marshall grew up outside of Arlington but went to Asbury University in Kentucky to study equine management. It was there that she discovered vaulting.
“I grew up riding and dancing—and those are like my two great loves—I wasn’t good enough to dance professionally or in college,” Marshall said. “That’s where I learned about vaulting. I was like, ‘oh, all this stuff that I spent 16 years of my life learning and getting good at, I can now use on a horse.”
As the president of the school’s vaulting club, Marshall got her first experience coaching by teaching children from the surrounding community—though she didn’t grow to really like coaching until later, while she was working at a horse farm in Kentucky.
In 2013, she bought Wade—a brown Clydesdale with three white legs and one brown one who was originally a logging horse. He could be one of the iconic Clydesdales in Budweiser commercials, Marshall said, if it weren’t for his one brown leg.
Shortly after, Marshall and her husband decided to move back to Nebraska, and used Wade to open Two Rivers Vaulting.
Marshall currently holds her lessons in a barn where horse owners can board their animals. There’s an indoor riding area where she practices with Wade and her students. During lessons, just outside the riding area, students can practice their gymnastics on a stable vault over a floor mat.
During a recent Monday afternoon class, Marshall stood in the center of the riding area taking on the role of the “lunger,” guiding Wade around in a circle. A team of girls, including Sarah, took turns practicing rolling, jumping or lifting each other up in team tricks.
There are two styles of competition. Compulsories involve performing specific movements on the horse, which are judged according to very strict standards of right and wrong. Freestyle is more influenced by dance and involve more performance. There are several difficulty levels in vaulting based on the speed of the horse, ranging from walking to different levels of cantering. Eight of Marshall’s students have advanced from “Walk” to “Trot.”
Vaulters can compete individually, in a pair—known as a pot de deux—or as a six-person team, with up to three riding a single horse at a time.
“That’s what makes vaulting unique from other equestrian sports because you do use other people with it,” Marshall said.
Taylor says that the team element of vaulting has made the sport more exciting to Sarah.
“I think these are great friendships,” Taylor said of the other girls who take lessons with Sarah. “Sarah really enjoys these girls and wants to spend time with them. So that’s been good too—just different people, different friends than she has, say, in school.”
But an even more appealing part of the sport is its accessibility. Marshall says that her lessons, which last an hour and a half at $16, are more affordable than private riding lessons.
It’s also easy for all ages. Students in Marshall’s “Mighty Mites” program range from ages 3 to 5. She’s also tried doing adult classes, but found it was difficult to get students to commit to regular schedules.
“I think lots of kids love horses, and they don’t have very many opportunities, unless you know somebody with a horse,” Taylor said. “You don’t have to be in dance or gymnastics or horses or anything to come and do this.”
Modern-day vaulting originated in Germany as a way to encourage children to ride horses, Marshall said. It’s safe enough to the point where vaulters don’t wear helmets—it’s actually considered safer without them, as they could increase the chance that a falling rider gets caught on something.
“The vaulter has no control over the horse, it’s all done by me or the lunger, and so it makes a safer way,” Marshall said. “That way they’re thinking about themselves, and how to move on the horse, versus trying to control the horse and trying to move with the horse.”
Two Rivers is the only vaulting club recognized in Nebraska by the American Vaulting Association, according to the association’s website. And with rapidly growing numbers, Marshall is planning to expand. She just got two new horses that she plans to start training in the spring—they are smaller.
Just got two new horses to start training in the spring. And she’s building an indoor arena by her Fremont house that will be geared solely to vaulting.
“It’ll be a little safer, a little cleaner, a little better atmosphere,” Marshall said.
She plans to break ground on that when the frost thaws, and hopes to open it in May or June.
Sarah meanwhile, is still perfecting her skills at the Trot level and trying to get the hang of standing when the horse is cantering. She’s thinking about becoming a coach to the little kids when she turns 16.
“They’re just so cute,” Sarah said. “They’re up for anything and they’re like, ‘I’m invincible.’”