Introduction to Voltige

Voltige is the Art of Acrobatics on the Moving Horse – an equestrian sport combining horses, acrobatics, gymnastics, fitness and fun. It is an equestrian discipline in its own right, and is distinctly different than riding or driving. It can be performed as recreation, as introduction, addition, or completion to riding, as therapy, or as a highly athletic discipline on competitive level, and is suitable for all ages. As a recreational activity, it introduces young children to the horse, teaches them self-confidence, trust for the horse, discipline, and body co-ordination. It is valuable additional training for every rider; as it improves rhythm, balance, posture, and seat. Voltiging for persons with disabilities is a widely accepted form of therapy for mental and physical fitness and growth. Voltiging is an international competitive sport, requiring a maximum in self-discipline and willpower, alertness, creativity and dedication, body coordination and body control. Modern competitive voltiging has a lot in common with a related sport: gymnastics. It is a sport where the horse, the body, and the mind of the voltigeur, and the team have to be in complete harmony.

Every participant, regardless of age, level of training or expertise can experience enjoyment and a feeling of individual and team achievement.

Voltige is performed while the horse moves at the end of a longe line on a 15 -18 m diameter circle. All commands are given to the horse by the longeur through body language, by voice, and by hand signals with the whip and through the longe line to the horse’s bit. The voltigeurs are not controlling the horse; they can concentrate solely on the performance of their exercises.

Voltige competitions are divided into three disciplines; team, individual, and Pas de Deux voltiging.

History of Voltige:

Voltige is an age old sport. The earliest equestrian cultures performed voltiging as entertainment and training for war. Artistic horseback riding was part of the training of Caesar’s legionnaires. In the middle ages, it was part of the required education of the knights. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Voltige became an integral part of the training in many military riding schools. From this time period also stems the strong resemblance between voltiging and gymnastics, which was practiced as part of the physical training of the rider. In 1766, Philip Astley organized performances in voltiging and gymnastics, which are now considered as the beginning of modern circus. Various forms of Voltige still exist today in many national circuses, such as the Cossack Riders, Mongolian Riding, Morrocon Trickriders, Western Trickriders, European (“French”) Voltigeurs, and Ballet on Horses.

The 1920 Olympic Games, held in Antwerp, Belgium, included for the first (and last) time in modern Olympics a voltiging test on the standing and cantering horse. Unfortunately, only three countries participated – Belgium, France, and Sweden. Germany, where Voltige was the most popular, was in the midst of a political upheaval and did not take part in the 1920 Games. The competition in the Olympics has never been repeated. Only many years later could Voltige once again be seen on Olympic Grounds, but these times only as an exhibition. During the 1956 Summer Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, a Voltige display was given, and during the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, the five best German Voltige teams gave a demonstration of their art simultaneously on five circles, dressed in the respective Olympic colours, thereby resembling the five Olympic Rings. Equally notable, during the Olympic Games in Atlantic City, Voltige was once again performed.

However, there is still a form of riding gymnastics performed in the Games, consisting of formalized exercises on the leather horse (or pommel horse). This gymnastics discipline is the direct descendant of Voltige. Some of its exercises still have a resemblance to natural voltiging on the living horse.

In the 1930’s, voltiging again became part of the training in some riding schools. The famous Swiss dressage rider Chamartin taught it to his students, many of whom became well-known riders themselves in later years.

Two equerries at the University of Göttingen, Germany, wrote down the first comprehensive regulations for modern Voltige in 1950. In 1963, the first German Voltige Championship was held.

In 1983, the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) officially accepted Voltige as an equestrian discipline, and the first international rules were written. The first European Championship was held in 1984 in Ebreichtsdorf, Austria, and in 1986 the first World Championship was held in Switzerland. Since then, World Voltige Championships have been held on a regular basis every two years, with many participating nations – Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Britain, Poland, Holland, Denmark, Greece, Spain, Brazil and the United States, to name just a few. The 1990 World Championships were held in Stockholm, Sweden, as part of the International Equestrian Games; and the 1992 World Championships were held in Germany.

The sport is quite well developed in the United States with the American Vaulting Association (AVA) as the national body representing the sport of Voltige. There are many clubs in the States and they participate in national and international competition as well as exchange visits with other Voltige clubs throughout the world.

In Canada, voltiging is a growing sport, which holds a great promise for the future. Even though only Ontario (Voltiging Federation of Ontario; V.F.O.) and British Columbia (Equestrian Vaulting Association of British Columbia; B.C. EVA) so far have established provincial organizations. The Canadian Voltige Federation (C.V.F.) was formally established in November, 1992, as our National Body by provincial representatives from Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. However, with the restructuring of Equine Canada (formerly Canadian Equestrian Federation) in 2001, the Canadian Voltige Federation is no longer recognized.

Voltiging Equipment:

Special equipment is used for voltiging. The voltiging girth is equipped with two hand grips for the voltigeurs to hold on to in some exercises, and a loop on either side for the foot that is used to perform various stands and hangs over the back and side of the horse. The proper voltiging girth has a metal tree to give enough support for the exercises, to prevent pressure on the withers of the horse, and to distribute the weight more evenly. A back-pad (90 cm x 90 cm) even though it is optional, is strongly recommended for the protection of the horse. Side reins are used to keep the horse’s neck steady and give the horse a frame-work on the circle. A snaffle bit with a dropped noseband, a longe line, and a longing whip are also necessary.

Voltiging Barrel:

A voltiging barrel or surrogate horse is used by many groups to help the voltigeurs gain confidence by mastering the exercises on a stationary barrel before they progress to the moving horse. A voltiging barrel also saves the horse from experiencing some of the thumps and bumps inherent in the beginning voltigeurs’ learning curve. For instructions on how to build a Voltige barrel, please click here.

The Voltige Horse:

The most important element of successful voltiging is the horse. It should have a well balanced, flowing canter and be very obedient on the longe line. A good, calm temperament, kind disposition, strong conformation, soundness and durability to work on the circle are also very important requirements. The horse has to participate actively in the exercises by coping with changes of weight on his back, and by performing in a collected, steady, round canter. It must not kick or buck, no matter what exercises are being performed.

A good voltiging horse can be of any breed or colour, but it should be tall with a broad back, and at least five years old (for international competitions six years).

Well-trained voltiging horses are very hard to find and just as expensive as well-trained riding horses. The complete training can take up to two to three years, and besides specialized Voltige training, it includes a basic understanding of proper riding, and thorough longe training.

The Voltige Competition:

In competition, similar to figure skating, there are two divisions: the seven compulsory exercises, and the free-style program or kür.

Students normally practice a series of exercises to get accustomed to the moving horse before they can attempt the seven compulsories; constant work is necessary to perfect these exercises. Soon the voltigeur progresses to the kür. Free-style may be performed by one, two, or three voltigeurs on the horse at the same time. However, there is an upper weight limit of 20% of the horses weight. Voltigeurs start out doing many exercises on the voltiging barrel, before they proceed to the live horse. First at the halt, then later at the walk and finally at the canter, as this is the most rhythmic and challenging gait for the voltigeur to follow. None of these exercises must be performed in the trot for the protection of the horse and the voltigeurs.

Voltige competitions consist of Team, Individual, and Pas de Deux. A team is composed of the voltiging horse, eight voltigeurs, one optional reserve voltigeur, and the longeur. A voltigeur may take part in international team competition until he or she reaches the age of eighteen. There is no lower age limit for team voltiging, as long as the child is tall enough to reach the grip to vault on by himself/herself. However, the sport is not recommended for children younger than seven years of age. Voltigeurs may also enter individual and Pas de Deux competitions, either as junior (younger than 16) or senior (16 or older) competitors; there is no upper age limit.

A 12½ minute performance in a team voltiging competition is shown in the canter and consists of two parts; the compulsory seven exercises, and the kür. Each of the eight voltigeurs must show all seven compulsory exercises and must participate in at least one exercise in the kür. The right musical selection enhances the performance. The seven compulsory exercises are the Mount, Basic Seat, Flag, Mill, Scissors, Basic Stand, and Full Flank. In the free-style, the voltigeurs have a chance to show their creativity and personal talent. The program consists of single, double, and triple free-style exercises to demonstrate their skill and artistry.

The individual competition comprises a compulsory part with the seven above mentioned exercises and two kür performances of thirty seconds and one minute duration, respectively. Pas de Deux consists of a one minute Synchronized Kür and a two minute Dance Kür, performed by two voltigeurs.

A good voltiging horse, enthusiastic participants and a capable instructor are the primary ingredients for an experience that is fun, educational, and very rewarding.