SURREY — Walk onto the tranquil grounds of Triple M Farms and gaze toward the arena. It is here – on the west side of the Surrey-Langley border, near 32nd Ave., and also in a scant few other facilities scattered throughout the province – where the ancient yet somehow obscure art of equestrian vaulting is taught, practiced and perfected.
Ahead of you is a horse, tethered to a handler (called a “lunger”) and cantering in highly controlled circles. The ground is sandy and soft and you can scarcely hear a sound as horse and lunger methodically do their thing.
It’s all very pretty and all very peaceful, but it’s hardly exhilarating. You’re told the sport is likely rooted in the maneuvers of horseback-riding Greek warriors some 2,000 years ago, and you wonder if those warriors were just a tad more sleepy than you’ve been led to believe. You question how a rider will add sufficient drama to this pastoral scene.
And then it happens.
Her name is Bella Old, and she’s anything but. At just 14 years of age, Bella’s barely into high school. But when she gets on a circling horse, you’d never know it.
(PICTURED: Bella Old, 14, demonstrates the sport of equestrian vaulting during a practice session at Triple M Farms in Surrey. Photo by Gord Goble)
In the next 60 seconds, she dazzles you. At first, she’s kneeling, Then, smoothly and gracefully, she’s standing. Then she’s standing on just a single foot, arms raised high above her and non-supporting leg kicked artfully to the side.
For the grand finale, she bends her legs and shoots skyward, jumping clear of the horse by a couple of feet and hovering momentarily in mid-air before landing again.
You can’t really believe what you’re seeing.
All of this… on a moving horse?
Soon, another young girl takes Bella’s place. And then another. And each time, you’re introduced to new moves.
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Handstands, off-centre shoulder stands where the girls’ heads end up halfway down the horse’s ribcage. Elegant poses any gymnast would be proud of. It’s captivating. And yes, it’s exhilarating.
You sit with the girls afterward and learn that one, Emma, is 16. The other, Abby, isn’t even a teenager yet. She’s just 12, and still in elementary school.
They’re sisters – really, really talented sisters, as evidenced by their performances last month at the BC Summer Games in Abbotsford. There, Emma grabbed a silver and Bella snagged a gold and two bronze. Abby hit the motherlode, with a trio of golds.
And it is that result that earns the youngest of the three a bit of friendly familial ribbing.
“Yeah, she won all of them,” Emma said with more than a hint of sarcasm.
“Maddening,” Bella added, prompting smiles and laughter all around.
And that’s the key: Friendly familial ribbing.
Ask what it’s like spending so much time together and you get replies such as “frustrating.”
Ask if they ever have big fights, and you get more laughs and replies like “Oh, totally!”
It’s pretty easy to see the Old sisters’ sibling rivalry is a healthy one.
Their interest in equestrian vaulting, said coach and Triple M Farms owner Marijean Maher, began eight years ago.
“Emma and Bella started vaulting but Abby (who was just four at the time) wasn’t old enough. But she kept crawling through the fence because she wanted to be near the horse.”
The girls, meanwhile, say their exposure to the sport was a natural offshoot of a friendship between the Old and Maher families.
“We came here all the time for family get-togethers and stuff,” Bella noted.
“I’ve always loved horses, and Marijean was staring a vaulting club,” Emma added “Our families are friends, so that’s how it started.”
And now, the Old sisters, given their B.C. Summer Games results, are seen as some of the best vaulters in the province, in their division.
And that last bit is important.
The sisters currently compete in a division called “Canter D,” and will move up to the more difficult “Canter C” for the provincial championships later this year.
But there’s also a Canter B, a Canter A, and, at the very top, a Canter AA. That final division is top-grade stuff, and it’s where they’ll need to be in order to one day grab a spot with Team Canada and compete at the World Cup level.
But make no mistake, even Canter D is impressive. Indeed, it looks a mite dangerous. I ask the coach if it’s as perilous as it seems.
“It’s very safe,” Maher said. “It’s safer than other equestrian sports because the accidents you see (in the other disciplines) are because of the horse bolting off or stopping. Here, the horse is in a controlled circle in a controlled environment with very soft, sandy ground.
“The horses are highly trained, and the vaulters are trained from day one to dismount. So if something goes wrong in their move, they have an exit strategy for every move.”
And no, they don’t wear helmets. Truth is, equestrian vaulters never wear helmets because, says Maher, wearing one is potentially more dangerous than not.
“If you put a helmet on a vaulter, it’s like putting a helmet on a gymnast doing somersaults – the helmet can actually cut into their neck. These are gymnasts on horses.”
All three girls agree wholeheartedly, though they do say the occasional accident is inevitable. Bella mentioned one time in particular, when, during a dismount, “my feet hit the ground and I just fell forward. I ate dirt on that one.”
More sophisticated gymnastics are on display when the girls adjourn to the “barrels,” which are essentially fake horses. This is where they first learned their craft, and it is here that they now show off some advanced moves that occasionally involve two or three of them on the same barrel in a “team vaulting” maneuver, intertwined and sometimes holding one another aloft. It’s mesmerizing.
It comes as no surprise that each of the sisters is involved in other pursuits when away from the vaulting arena that enhance their performance in it. Emma kickboxes and dances, Bella kickboxes, too, and Abby takes gymnastics classes, though she recently dropped one of her two weekly sessions in order to spend more time vaulting.
Coach Maher is convinced that if more people knew about equestrian vaulting, more would be involved and the sport would grow. Triple M Farms currently instructs 30 or so vaulters, and could certainly handle more. For more information, visit Triplemfarms.ca.