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Ten-year-old gymnast Eva Beal of Ellsworth executes the “flag” and other basic moves at Starlight Horse Farm. Ellsworth American Photo by Maxwell Hauptman
Ten-year-old gymnast Eva Beal of Ellsworth executes the “flag” and other basic moves at Starlight Horse Farm. Ellsworth American Photo by Maxwell Hauptman

by Maxwell Hauptman

Lamoine, Maine — Dance and gymnastics seem hard enough, given the physical strength, flexibility and coordination demanded. Now picture doing both on the back of a moving horse.

Through Aurora Vaulters, their nonprofit organization, mother and daughter Deb and Cynthia Andrews coach the international equestrian sport at Starlight Horse Farm off Route 184 in East Lamoine.

Their “gentle giant” Rosie, a 13-year-old draft horse, serves as the firm platform for these equestrian gymnasts to execute the mount, basic seat, flag and other compulsory moves.

“Equestrian vaulting is gymnastic dance performed in harmony with a moving horse,” said Deb. As the lunger or trainer, she uses a longe line (a French term meaning long tether) to guide Rosie around a 15-meter circle.

Aurora Vaulters coach and vaulter Cynthia Andrews demonstrates some of the compulsory exercises atop 13-year-Rosie. Deb Andrews (not visible) directs the Shire mare in a giant circle at the East Lamoine farm. Ellsworth American Photo by Maxwell Hauptman
Aurora Vaulters coach and vaulter Cynthia Andrews demonstrates some of the compulsory exercises atop 13-year-Rosie. Deb Andrews (not visible) directs the Shire mare in a giant circle at the East Lamoine farm. Ellsworth American Photo by Maxwell Hauptman

First established on Mount Desert Island, the Andrews’ renamed their organization after moving from Bar Harbor to Starlight Horse Farm over a year ago. Rosie had previously boarded at the Lamoine farm. Inspired by the northern lights, or aurora borealis, the program’s new name reflects its spirit rather than geographic location.

Deb and Cynthia see themselves as ambassadors for horse vaulting in Maine. They offer lessons to youngsters 5 through 18 and adults.

“Our program here is both recreational and competitive,” said Deb. “So if kids want to come just for fun that’s fine, and if they want to compete we encourage that as well.”

The aim is to “provide a safe, dynamic place in which humans and their equine partner can experience the freedom of gymnastic dance in harmony with each other,” Deb says in the mission statement. “We provide a clean, safe and welcoming facility.”

The act of performing gymnastic and acrobatic moves on the backs of moving animals dates back over 2,000 years to ancient Rome and Greece. In Renaissance times, cavalry riders practiced vaulting as a drill to improve their agility.

Horse vaulting’s establishment, though, as an equestrian sport is more recent. Competitive vaulting, consisting of seven compulsory exercises and freestyle moves choreographed to music, initially was first practiced in Northern Europe, but eventually caught on in the United States, first on the West Coast starting in the 1950s. The sport has since become popular in the Northeast.

Cynthia Andrews started taking vaulting lessons at age 11 on MDI. Her mother’s interest in the equestrian discipline was piqued too and she began coaching five years ago.

Cynthia Andrews performs the two-part “scissors” on Rosie as her mother guides the trotting draft horse. The rider’s legs are first thrust back propelling the vaulter. Ellsworth American Photo by Maxwell Hauptman
Cynthia Andrews performs the two-part “scissors” on Rosie as her mother guides the trotting draft horse. The rider’s legs are first thrust back propelling the vaulter. Ellsworth American Photo by Maxwell Hauptman

“I went to competition in Virginia, and I was hooked,” Cynthia recalled.

Because the vaulters move around so much, the horse is fitted with a surcingle — a large leather strap featuring two handles — atop a thick back pad. The rider uses the handles to hold moves and perform handstands and other tricks.

Through Aurora Vaulters, riders learn the basics of horsemanship — how to approach a horse and think about how the animal sees, hears and experiences the world.

“The first thing you look for in a horse is temperament. The horse needs to be easygoing, even-tempered, like people and not mind people moving around on its back,” Deb explained. “But really any breed can be a vaulting horse.”

“Bigger horses are best because the taller you are, the more horse you need,” added Cynthia. “You need a horse that is trained, graceful, and strong, and has the right beat when moving at a walk, trot or canter.”

Rosie is one of fewer than 3,000 Shire mares in the world. The draft horse boasts a reddish roan coat seen in only about 1 percent of the breed.

“Rosie is our gentle giant,” said Cynthia. “If she feels like the vaulter is going fall off, she’ll stop and want to make sure the rider is OK.”

At Starlight Farm, Rosie is led by the lunger in a circle. At the beginner level, riders first practice their mounts and other compulsory movements on a barrel with handlebars that mimics the horse. Then, they practice them on Rosie — the horse moving at a walking or trotting pace.

Advanced vaulters run through their moves while Rosie is cantering. They also perform freestyle routines set to music.

“In the freestyle, there are a number of things that are scored,” Deb explained. “How well the moves are executed, harmony of motion with the horse. But the kids really like it because they get to chose their own music and be really creative with it.”

Shreya Hosur of Bar Harbor has vaulted for only two months. Seated on Rosie, the 6-year-old first goes from a seated position to her knees. With Cynthia spotting her, she then stands up, arms out to the side, to keep her balance.

“It feels like I’m flying,” Shreya described afterward.

Shreya Hosur of Bar Harbor stands steady atop Rosie. The 6-year-old began learning how to vault on horseback two months ago.  Ellsworth American Photo by Maxwell Hauptman
Shreya Hosur of Bar Harbor stands steady atop Rosie. The 6-year-old began learning how to vault on horseback two months ago. Ellsworth American Photo by Maxwell Hauptman

Toward the end of practice, The Ellsworth American reporter is invited to try vaulting. Standing upright on the moving horse requires a surprising amount of strength. As Rosie trots in a circle, Deb says the best way to stay balanced is to look out above the horse’s head, in between its ears.

“It definitely helps kids who are gymnasts and dancers to come in and develop their core and upper body strength,” said Cynthia. “It also really helps with kids who have disabilities because they can bond with the horse and find that they’re actually stronger on the horse.”

Right now, Aurora Vaulters has four competitive riders, but both Deb and Cynthia hope the sport’s popularity will grow and its therapeutic benefits more widely known.

“In all the years I’ve been involved with this, I’ve seen so many people transform in the process of taking lessons,” Deb said. “They gain confidence, they gain strength, and they get to develop a relationship with the horses and with their teammates.”

To learn more, contact Deb and Cynthia Andrews at 266-3791 and visit www.americanvaulting.org.

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