By Nancy Henderson
Ten-year-old Melanie Stallcup maneuvers her way onto the “horse” – two raised, 55-gallon drums covered in soft gray Naugahyde, designed to simulate the real thing – and swings one leg wide before sitting up tall. Next to her, Ashley Henderson, 12, settles onto another set of barrels, arms extended, toes pointed. Moments later, the two girls are practicing in unison, kneeling, then rising up on one knee, the other leg pointed high off the padded surface. Standing side by side, they gracefully lower their bodies to sit facing forward, then rotate to the side, the back, the other side before advancing to headstands and somersaults.
Outside the barn, a gentle Percheron named Sam grazes in the pasture. Soon the young Tennessee Walking Horse will be groomed to assist the nine members of the Monroe County Vaulting Club, the first competing group in the state.
The club began in 2008, when Joanne Martinsen, an equestrian trainer who had recently moved here from California, noticed that many of the girls she taught at the 4-H Club near Madisonville were unfamiliar with horses.
“I said to myself, ‘These kids have got to be able to put their hands on a horse,’ ” says Martinsen, 75, who also works as a registered nurse. “I was riding one of my horses and thought, ‘Ah, vaulting.’ ”
A competitive blend of gymnastics and horseback riding, vaulting was even more of a mystery to her new neighbors, who had never heard of the sport.
“They looked at me like I was crazy,” admits the energetic Martinsen.
With the help of a friend, she staged a demonstration. “And the next thing you know, everybody’s on the horse,” she recalls.
Since then, the girls, who range in age from 10 to 18, have trotted and cantered their way through choreographed single, double, team and freestyle events throughout the South, winning several medals. Most, like Henderson, had no prior dance or gymnastics experience. Unable to jump on a horse at first without the aid of a trampoline, she now mentors the new girls.
“The hardest part is trying to explain what it is in a way [my friends] understand,” Henderson says, grinning. “If you can picture gymnastics on a moving horse, you’ve got it.”
Stallcup, who got her first horse for her fifth birthday, joined the club in early 2012. “It sounded fun, and I love horses,” she says.
Her mom, Tuesday Stallcup, says vaulting has given her daughter confidence.
“It’s been really good for Mel because she was always really, really shy,” she says. “I tried to put her in baseball, softball, everything. And with this, she can’t wait to get here, and she’s not shy around the other girls.”
According to their coach, vaulting teaches much more than balance and agility.
“They’re dependent on each other not to let each other down,” Martinsen says. “I think that’s a really good life lesson.
“I almost feel like they don’t know how good they are,” she adds with grandmotherly pride. “How many people do you know who can stand up on a horse and do this?”
For More Info
To learn more about vaulting, visit americanvaulting.org or contact Joanne Martinsen directly at 423-404-4513.