By Devon Maitozo
Vaulting and Germany. When it comes to Equestrian sport, you can’t really mention one without mentioning the other. If this most unique of sports were to declare a homeland, that land would be Germany, no doubt. They are bonded in a way that is hard to compare to any sport in the USA. The average German is about as likely to know about vaulting as the average American will know about baseball, but yet Germany’s connection to the history of “Voltigieren” is much less straightforward than one would think. This story is nearly as complex as the history of Germany itself, with its numerous reincarnations and contradictions. A beautiful sport based on harmony, yet with a military background fueled by war. Traditionally only for men, and now in it’s modern form 85% female. One thing is very clear though. The modern sport of vaulting was not only born in Germany, but it remains to be practiced there more than all other countries in the world combined.
First let’s briefly take a look back. Way back… To when vaulting was actually introduced to Germany. Yep, that’s right, introduced!
It was in 1612 when a German Theologian named Johann Valentin Andreä from Württemberg travelled to Padua, Italy and discovered this sport previously known through the Renaissance by it’s Latin term “volte sive gire.” Out from the middle ages when vaulting skills were mostly utilized for mounting and dismount training for combat, the renaissance came to refine this skill-set until it was seen as a dignified sport/art such as riding, wrestling, and fencing. Skills were performed on horseback with an ever-growing emphasis placed on grace and beauty, but a great deal also developed primarily on a wooden horse in place of a real one. This stands as the foundation for both the sport of vaulting and gymnastics as well. If you consider even the terms “palma horse” or “the vault,” it is easy to see how it was actually the early skills of equestrian vaulting that led to modern gymnastics, and not visa versa. The aesthetic development of this equestrian craft in Italy was well noticed by Herr Andreä, and upon returning to Germany he opened a school devoted to it. The rest is history.
Germany’s vaulting developed through many forms over hundreds of years, increasingly becoming a more important activity for male cavalry training throughout Western Europe back when wars were still fought on horseback. Vaulting developed into a military sport that even made it into the Olympics in 1926. War would ironically build this sport up regularly over history until it became a coveted art form, and then would tear it back down again, as war tends to do. Goodbye Olympics.
The modern sport of vaulting that we know today most definitely has its roots in post WWII Germany reconstruction, and thanks to 70 years of relative peace in Europe, has had plenty of time to develop and thrive. After the war Germany was clearly a nation with a lot of rebuilding to do, both structurally and socially. Vaulting simply came to fit in quite well as a positive activity for youth, representing Germany’s most common first line of access for kids to any equestrian sport. Vaulting was embraced as a bridge between a long tradition of horse culture and a collective determination to give the new generation a healthy choice for social and physical growth. It was 1950 when the first official modern vaulting club was formed at the University of Götingen, mostly for exhibitions. It was not very long after that when numerous clubs began organizing regional competitions, the first one of which was held in Götingen in 1953. Just 10 years later in 1963 was Germany’s first National Championships, for team vaulting only, and it was won by Team Goslar with none other than the well-known current FEI Judge Helma Schwartzman as part of the winning team. This just shows how young our modern sport actually is. The first generation to actually compete is still involved in the sport!
The fact that vaulting was seen as primarily a team sport in Germany was not accidental. It thrived as a mechanism for social development, and emphasis was placed on accessibility of youth over advanced individual achievement. This remains in some ways the case still to this day, but was firmly so through the mid 1970s when Germany was faced with the need to react to a new trend internationally towards individual vaulting. The first set of rules written for individuals in Germany were not put into place until 1980, more than a decade after the USA had established an individual framework for our sport. German vaulting was in fact enforced as a team youth sport with a rule established in 1964 to limit eligibility to 16 years old and under! It’s hard to imagine, now that teams commonly have multiple adults, but this is a very new trend for the modern sport. It wasn’t until 1980 when they allowed individuals to compete up to 21. It was the FEI that lifted the age limit of teams to 18 when taking on our sport in 1983, and removed the individual age limit completely in 1987. Germany only changed rules it had to for international competition. They had a very successful formula for vaulting as a national sport for the masses partly due to the age limits and large teams of 9 that fueled the constant recruitment of new participants to fill them. The system worked domestically, so there has always been great reluctance to change it.
You may wonder how the system actually works. As vaulting is seen as a sport for the masses, and the entry to any equestrian activity for youth, vaulting in Germany is much less expensive than it often is in other countries. Coaches usually volunteer their services, and clubs only charge the bare minimum to even exist. It would not be uncommon to this day for a family to pay the equivalent of $200 for their child to vault at the lower levels. I’m not talking per month, but per YEAR! No joke. It enables a sort of conveyer belt of vaulters. The masses give it a try because they can, and they are filtered as they move up the levels within their own clubs. New vaulters are put into the beginner team program, and these classes are often taught by one or two teenaged vaulters from a more advanced team in that club. There are always adults involved, but teaching is often part of the journey of climbing up the ranks. This works because most clubs have multiple teams. Some have more than a dozen! Practices are usually not much more than an hour and a half, and time is simply not wasted. Vaulters run through a very specific set of drills and routines to build a foundation for further learning. The expectations start off very basic, mostly emphasizing basic gymnastics and building confidence with the horse, but as vaulters continue and advance through the levels, the demands of the sport become more and more aggressive. The German rules are set up to support many different levels with a greater spectrum of compulsory and freestyle demands. There is so much local competition, even within one’s own club, that most vaulters never even fathom attending the National Championships. To do so, teams and individuals must qualify, and that is greatly limited due to the sheer numbers involved. In 2014 Germany had 1141 teams competing domestically!
How then did this formula in Germany pay off? In short, it was epic. Just as I was becoming aware of the scope of vaulting internationally in my adolescence, my coaches would talk about the vaulting superstars in a faraway land. Names such as Dietmar Otto, Michael Lehner, Silke Bernhard, and Christoph Lensing were being spoken about like they were demigods. At the first World Championships of vaulting held in Bulle, Switzerland in 1986, Germany swept all the gold medals as they have done 9 times altogether at European and World Championships. To say Germany was the dominant country in the sport of vaulting is an understatement. For many years they set the standard that the rest of the world aspired towards. When it comes to popularizing our sport, it still does.
In 1988, at the age of 13, I got to actually travel to Germany for the first time and experience this magical vaulting haven and meet the vaulting superstars I had heard so much about. When I actually got to see some of them vault in person, I had to pick up my jaw from the floor and have been inspired ever since. The long history of vaulting in Germany had culminated in an environment where the sport thrived. Vaulting was found in every corner of the country and is even more prevalent to this day. In about 6000 vaulting clubs, it is estimated that there are between 50,000 and 60,000 vaulters in Germany alone, a large majority of whom are on teams. All of this is packed in a country almost 20% smaller than the state of California! As I said, it is everywhere.
That first trip to experience vaulting in Germany was otherworldly. I attended a camp in the black forest (Wildberg), which had been run for many years by the late Paul and Isle Lorenz, a couple who were fundamental in vaulting development in Southern Germany since the 50s. Seeing so many vaulters of my level and beyond all together vaulting in multiple circles in multiple arenas simultaneously in one place was mind blowing. There was a feeling in the air that I was part of an old tradition, with real history, and yet it also felt like a moment when something very new was being born. The “old” feeling was aided by the smell of fermenting hay, the lack of a back pad on the vaulting horses, and the very regimented training that smacked slightly of military drills. Go figure! Times have changed and pads are the norm now of course, but even then, a “new” and modern feeling was palpable mostly due to the high standard. This was exemplified by a nighttime performance organized by the camp in the covered arena. The show was in the pitch dark with trampolines placed around the arena and only black lights illuminating the white tack and lines on the vaulters’ uniforms. It was like seeing vaulting in space! Lines floated in the abyss. They where some of Germany’s best vaulters; even the current world champion Dietmar Otto, and they wowed everyone, especially me.
Within the coming weeks I got to immerse myself in the visceral experience that is Germany vaulting at not only my own level, but also seeing the best in the world training for the their greatest event. I was a spectator for the 1988 world championships they were training to compete in, and got to see Christoph Lensing win his first of three World Championship gold medals performing his trademark yoga exercise on the horse. Although 1988 seems like ancient history now, I felt like I was witnessing the cutting edge of our sport emerging from the depths of ancient tradition.
I have come to know Germany as a second home of sorts over the years, having trained and competed there consistently every year at some point since 1991. In the 90s I decided that if I wanted to vault like the best, I had to learn from the best, so that’s where I spent most of a year after college. In short, Germany kicked my ass. There seemed to be something about the mindset that made training feel different and pulled the most out of you. Time was not wasted in practice. Corrections were yelled at you in a barrage, leaving you bruised and sometimes overwhelmed, but without time to feel sorry for yourself. Beyond the beginner stage, German coaches seldom tolerate whining. If you show reluctance to push yourself, there are 20 other people eager to take advantage of that horse time. I remember attending my first lesson with Andrea Weber (Toppe), the coach of the famed Michael Lehner who had won everything a vaulter could ever win, including the first WEG in Stockholm in 1990. Michael was my hero, having performed what I still consider to this day one of the best freestyles ever done at the 1992 World Championships in Heilbron to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” I wanted to vault like him, so I went to his coach to find out how. As current US national champion, I had this silly notion that I was already a pretty good vaulter at that point, but Andrea brought me down to earth, literally. I mounted, and she yelled to get off and do it again. I mounted again, and was again told to repeat, with more speed, more stretch, better posture; I repeated the mount probably 10 times until she yelled, NEXT!
And then there was the vaulting that this type of training produced. Any vaulter who has been internationally involved for some time came to know what people refer to as the “German style.” Of course it is a generalization, but what that has traditionally meant is exact, powerful, proud, explosive. They weren’t always the most graceful vaulters, but they usually made the fewest mistakes. They built their vaulters like they built their cars, like the ultimate vaulting machines. Inside many of those vaulters though were the souls of creativity, and behind those well-shaped exteriors were the best of sportsmen, eager to share their skills and passions with people like me who were eager to learn. The inclusiveness of the sport, embodied by the German vaulters and trainers with some of the world’s most amazing horses, has always included foreigners as well. It was the idea that the best athletes were the ones who shared their knowledge and drive with their fiercest competitors. I most certainly was the beneficiary of this mindset, and it still remains to this day as one of the most remarkable and powerful qualities of our sport. It most certainly has been tested over the years, but I still see that the spirit of sharing remains very strong in Germany. It comes naturally to them, and this mindset has helped spread our sport internationally.
Although Germany still to this day keeps true to their trademark of producing some of the best teams and individuals in the world, their sharing has paid off to other nations as well over the years, and Germans continually face an ever-greater challenge holding those podium positions. They certainly get some of the credit for the general advancement of the sport, but as other nations aggressively pursue high performance goals, inspired by high art and sometimes at the expense of grass roots programs, Germany is certainly being challenged from the top down. How long they will continue to hold the leadership position in our sport while maintaining its affordability to all remains to be seen. Vaulting has seen such progressive changes at a more rapid pace in the last 10 years than at any other time in history, yet Germany continues to lead the way in creating opportunities for the sport’s advancement and popularization like never before. Hosting the biggest and most well-attended vaulting competitions in the world by far, providing amazing horses, and trading notes with the experts from other countries ever increasingly, they seem to be embracing the modern as much as they did that warm evening under black lights at Wildberg summer camp in 1988. That spirit of camaraderie that has been nurtured by the German vaulting tradition may be being threatened as our sport evolves, but my prediction is that Germany will remain the sport’s godfather for many vaulting generations to come.