The big gray lopes easily in a circle, the cadence of his movement and rhythm of his breath functioning like a metronome for the riders performing elaborate gymnastic maneuvers on his back. Held aloft between two seated riders, a young girl does aerial splits before rolling onto her shoulders, executing a headstand over the horse’s withers. She maintains the position, her body fluidly rocking with the horse’s gait. Her poise and athleticism are captivating. It’s only after she summersaults off the horse’s back that the casual observer might notice the acrobatic young rider is missing an arm.
“You’re going to put my child with disabilities on the back of a horse and have them do WHAT?!”
Rick Hawthorne—the founder and head coach of Valley View Vaulters, an inclusive vaulting program in Lake View Terrace, California—is used to incredulous parents and family members. After all, vaulting combines multiple physically demanding activities. One of the oldest known forms of equestrian sport, vaulting is often described as gymnastics and dance performed on horseback. With its inversions and flips, vaulting is a discipline that might give any parent pause, regardless of their child’s abilities.
Hawthorne, however, only sees the possibilities where others see the impossible, and for more than 40 years, he has taught people of all ages and abilities the art of vaulting.
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Hawthorne knows better than most what it means to overcome the inconceivable. At the age of 11, he lost his left arm at the shoulder to bone cancer—a colossal blow to a child with dreams of spending the summer playing football with his friends. Being included in sports became an exercise in frustration. “I was always picked last or not picked at all,” Hawthorne recalled in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “That was a real downer.” It was an experience that shaped Hawthorne’s future philosophy about inclusivity and athletics.
Hawthorne discovered vaulting in college while studying for a degree in animal science and went on to win an Olympic bronze medal in the event when it was featured as an exhibition sport. Not long after graduation, Hawthorne knew he wanted to share the benefits of vaulting with as many people as he could.
In 1980, Hawthorne and his wife Virginia founded Valley View Vaulters with seven students, a practice barrel, and one horse. The Hawthornes’ philosophy was simple: No one would be turned away, and the goal is to have fun.
In the four decades since the program’s inception, Hawthorne has coached thousands of students of varying physical, emotional, and cognitive abilities. Their photographs paper his office so thickly that the walls can hardly be seen. Some of the photographs were taken at internationally renowned competitions where Hawthorne has coached his riders through elite levels of the sport, but many more were taken at the home arena. The settings may be humbler, but the riders are no less champions.
Roughly a third of Hawthorne’s students are equestrians with disabilities. “Our riders have had arthritis, amputations, autism, vision impairment, blindness, cerebral palsy, dyslexia, Down syndrome, hydrocephalus, hyperactivity, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, learning disorders, and more,” explains volunteer Donna Hensley.
And Hawthorne has yet to find someone who couldn’t benefit from vaulting. Physically, vaulting helps build strength, balance, posture, coordination, endurance, and muscle tone. It’s the intangible changes, however, that are perhaps most important.
Valley View Vaulters is unique in its integrative approach. It is one of the few vaulting programs that has both riders with and without disabilities participating in one inclusive environment—both in lessons and at competitions.
“Our approach to vaulting helps to build relationships that teach the importance of interaction with peers and gives the riders a unique recreational activity they love. It helps with confidence, self-esteem, and decision-making” says Hensley. “All these traits enable individuals to live a more independent and productive life, whether they have disabilities or not.”
The approach is working. Valley View Vaulters is one of the largest vaulting groups in the country, and they boast a long list of accolades including three national champion titles at the American Vaulting Association’s National Championships.
Hawthorne hopes the rest of the vaulting community takes note and that other programs will consider becoming more inclusive. Critics worry integration at the competitive level devalues the sport, but Hawthorne counters that it’s actually this type of closed mindset that brings the sport down.
At Valley View, there’s no distinction between vaulters without disabilities and vaulters with disabilities—there are only vaulters. Everyone is equal on the back of a horse.
Valley View Vaulters
Valley View Vaulters is a non-profit organization that teaches the sport of equestrian vaulting in a safe and inclusive environment. All students learn to vault together in classes that include all ages, abilities, and/or disabilities of the same level. Learn more at valleyviewvaulters.com.
Valley View Vaulters was the winner of Hope in the Saddle’s 2021 Tack Room Makeover contest, for which they received a prize package from Nutrena and Tractor Supply Co.!
Hope in the Saddle
This content is provided by Hope in the Saddle, a program dedicated to sharing some of the most meaningful and important stories to emerge from the equestrian world: stories of how our relationships with horses can help us overcome life’s toughest challenges. Read more stories of hope and healing through horses at hopeinthesaddle.com.