Some kids play soccer, others play chess and some stand on the backs of galloping horses. Lately, equestrian vaulting is finding a foothold with children in the Northwest. Parents say like any sport it teaches concentration and gives kids a boost of confidence.
Seth Rouhier’s mom cues up the freestyle vaulting music on a boom box. Seth is nine years old and a paperweight of 55 pounds. It’s a blustery afternoon in a sand-filled arena in central Washington.
A Quarter horse named Mo runs in a giant circle around the arena. Seth is wearing a black and red spandex bodysuit. When he gets the “go” from his trainer he doesn’t hesitate. He runs from the center of the circle and leaps onto the horse’s back.
What happens next looks like an Olympic pommel horse routine. This is horse vaulting. It’s sort of like dance-meets-gymnastics on the back of a moving horse.
Vaulting draws its roots from ancient Greece and probably Asia too. Now, there are local clubs and national and world competitions.
But Seth isn’t doing it to get a fancy ribbon.
“It’s about like learning," he says. "You learn about horses a bit. You learn how to balance yourself sometimes. ‘Cause if you are standing up on a moving horse you have to have balance so you won’t fall off.”
Clearly, horse vaulting can be dangerous. But Seth’s mom Bobi McAlexander says her home-schooled, only-child needs a sport like this.
“When we get home from vaulting he is much calmer," she says. "We can actually sit and eat dinner and he’s not standing up talking a mile a minute and wanting to go do something else. He is sitting there eating dinner and focused on the conversation -– and that’s amazing right there in itself.”
Tereesa Wentland is Seth’s coach, and the mother of two other vaulters. She says these kids don’t just start by jumping on a galloping horse. They practice on stationary equipment first. Still, they don’t even wear helmets.
Wentland admits that sometimes she has heart-in-the-throat moments.
But still, she’s trained several kids who have low self esteem or are overweight. And this is a sport where they fit in.
“They can suddenly come out here and be with this horse and they can vault," Wentland says. "And they can be with other kids that love them. And they walk away from here with some confidence and something that makes them feel important.”
Tiny Seth is now working on a move where he runs backwards toward Mo and then pulls himself up onto the horse’s back.
“I just like all the excitement and all the swirl and adrenaline,” he says.
Near the end of practice, Seth is working on his dismount. He slides down Mo’s shoulder. Lands on his feet and flashes a big smile.
Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio