Benefits of Adaptive Vaulting

Horse vaulting tests the balance, coordination, and courage of equestrians as they perform impressive gymnastic maneuvers from the back of a horse. It is a thrilling sport that constantly challenges riders to push their physical and mental limits, making it a fun and beneficial form of therapeutic riding and hippotherapy.

Karin’s Horse Connection—a nonprofit equine-assisted therapy program in Caledonia, Michigan—has been offering adaptive (therapeutic) vaulting to its riders since 2012. The adaptive vaulting team consists of program founder and director Karin Schmidt as well as seven other instructors, volunteers, and more than 20 horses ranging from Shetland ponies to a Belgian draft horse.

Adaptive vaulting offers many therapeutic benefits, like encouraging a close physical connection between the horse and rider. In horse vaulting, instead of a saddle, the horse wears a non-slip pad and a surcingle with two large handles for students to hold on to. This close contact allows students to feel every movement the horse makes, improving balance and muscle coordination. It also gives riders more freedom of movement; students can sit backward, kneel, and lie down on the horse’s back.

“To have full-body contact with a living thing is super therapeutic and so relaxing,” says Schmidt.

Adaptive vaulting teaches riders of all ages about balance and bravery! photo by Karin Schmidt

Therapeutic Riding for All Ages and Abilities

Schmidt explains that vaulting improves focus, rhythm, strength, flexibility, and coordination, making it a wonderful and unique form of physical therapy for riders of all ages and abilities who have balance, attention, motor skill, and social deficits. Students as young as 2 are able to benefit from adaptive vaulting, practicing their body awareness and coordination by learning simple maneuvers such as turning themselves around on a horse’s back.

In addition to the physical benefits vaulting provides, Schmidt has found that the experience of performing gymnastics from the back of a horse while forging a connection with the horse improves the self-confidence of riders. The power of this connection has been especially evident when Schmidt works with teenage boys who have come to America as refugees.

“You can see how it falls off of them,” she says. “All those anxieties, those patterns of how you have to behave. All of a sudden, it’ just them and the horse. And that’s beautiful.”

In their first session, riders from this group perform simple exercises like riding the horse at a walk, letting go of the surcingle, closing their eyes, and reaching as high as they can into the air. In subsequent sessions, the riders will perform these exercises at the trot. And by the final session, some of the boys are able to kneel on the horse’s back at the canter, with their arms spread out like wings.

“There’s always something they can top their personal best,” says Schmidt. “They are so amazed by themselves and what they can do. Their confidence and self-esteem go way up.”

This boost in self-confidence is experienced by vaulting students with disabilities ranging from ADHD to cerebral palsy. And for students who have difficulty connecting with people, spending time with horses can help unlock their communication and social skills.

“The influence a horse can have on a person is like a miracle,” says Schmidt. “It’s just this special connection.”

The unique challenges and benefits of adaptive vaulting make it a highly effective form of equine therapy. It gives students the opportunity to improve both their physical and mental health by testing their limits and achieving their goals. At Karin’s Horse Connection, students don’t just learn how to do gymnastics on a horse—they gain confidence in their ability to reach heights they never thought possible. 

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