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Vaulting competition features gymnastics on horseback

In the rollout of test events for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, this weekend's Kentucky Cup event at the Kentucky Horse Park is tough to describe. Unlike last week's reiners, who were cowboys cutting cattle minus the cattle, this is vaulting, which takes more words.

"I usually pull out pictures," says Megan Benjamin, the first female American to take a world championship in the sport of vaulting when she won gold at Aachen, Germany, in 2006, stunning the traditionally dominant Germans.

So here goes: Vaulting starts with tall, velvet-coated, smooth-walking horses whose job is to keep a three-beat canter while they carry a working gymnast/dancer (or two or more). The horse and the rider together dazzle with their impossibly muscular lines, their otherworldly grace and their knowledge that no one is going to let the other fail.

So, vaulting is like the circus?

Marisa Hamar says people usually resort to that question if they still don't get it.

No, she says, exasperated.

Marisa's mom is braiding her hair and twirling it into a tight bun. Attendance at the horse park indoor arena is sparse today for the compulsory rounds — only families, really — which is good, because Marisa's a little nervous.

She's been vaulting since she was 6, when her sister "threw me up there," she says, "and I loved it."

All this was OK with Marisa's mom, Ingrid, who has always loved horses. "I don't have to drop my kids off at soccer, then go pick them back up," says the Visalia, Calif., mother of four. "We've been blessed. This all goes on at my house."

The kings of reining horses make millions, she is told. Is there any money in vaulting?

"Mine," Marisa's mom says, laughing.

But it doesn't matter. "Their joys are our joys," Ingrid says. And, she adds, "It isn't unsafe. The kids look out for each other."

"I'm a professional faller-offer," says Marisa. "I know what I'm doing there."

That's because the horse knows how to accept the vaulter, says nine-time U.S. national women's champion (1992-2000) Kerith Lemon.

It's also because the horse is being handled by an additional member of the team, the lunger, who stands in the center of the ring, holds the reins of the horse and gently guides it around the ring.

"It's the safest sport by statistics," says Lemon. "More than even soccer on the playground. The lunger is fully in control of the horse. It is not like a circus. We get very defensive when you say that. We train as hard as Olympic athletics, as do our horses. This is not death-defying."

Vaulting also seems to attract families and camaraderie. Ingrid Hamar acts as Marisa's lunger. Erik Martonovitch, who has his own equine performance business, has his mother in the ring with him as his lunger. Erik acts as lunger for those competing against him.

It is not even uncommon in the sport for competitors to lend horses to those who couldn't afford to bring their horses with them. Lemon remembers that in 1994, the top two male world contenders were from Denmark and Germany. On the last day, one of the men's horses did not pass a vet check. The other competitor shared his horse.

The competition Thursday was largely a North American affair, with an occasional competitor from Denmark or China thrown in. The elite European talent was at the European championships scheduled for this weekend, a result of some bad timing.

Hence, the streaming feed from the horse park over the Internet, so that all the possible WEG entrants can see their competition. (See it at www.alltechfeigames.com.)

"I come for the grandeur and the guts that is here in this sport," said Beth Orloff of Nashville. "You can't tell me those leotards are going to look good on everybody."

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