Get Inspired: Welcome to the world of Vaulting

Joanne Eccles, from Kinross, is a vaulting world champion

There are people who love riding horses, and there are people who love gymnastics. Joanne Eccles has taken both to a new level.

The dentist, from Kinross, is the vaulting world champion.

"Vaulting is basically gymnastics on a real, cantering horse," she explains. "Whatever you can think of to do in gymnastics - forward rolls, handstands, cartwheels - we're trying to do that on a moving horse."

When she was eight, a neighbour introduced her to the sport.

"A lot of the attraction was the adrenaline," she recalls. "You'd go to training and there were people of all different ages coming together to have a great time. Learning new moves, jumping on and off the horse, standing on someone's shoulders - it was incredible."

Soon her younger sister Hannah, had been roped in. Their father, John - who had never had the slightest desire to own the horse - realised he could not escape the inevitable.

"When you mention vaulting, people think it's like a gymnastics vault," he says. "They don't actually realise it's gymnastics on horseback. When you explain it further, they think it's a circus act, but this is a fully fledged sport.

"If you had told me when I was younger that I'd be involved in this sport, I would have said there was absolutely no possibility at all.

"But because I happened to have a farm, when my daughters got involved, it made sense to have a horse and try to help out."

John found a five-year-old horse named Wormpton Henry Bentley ('Henry' for short), who became a fixture in the family.

The same horse helped Joanne win gold at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in France. As did John, who competes in the arena alongside his daughters, performing a vital role.

"I am the lunger," he explains. "I look after the horse and make sure it stays in a circle, in a canter, and in a good rhythm so the vaulter can then do gymnastics on the back of the horse."

To win world gold, Joanne had to perform four separate routines on top of Henry, with John in the centre of the arena controlling the horse, in front of thousands of fans.

"It was a massive arena," says Joanne. "You run in for the first time and you're looking at all the people, listening to the atmosphere.

"But when the time comes, it's you and the horse. You know the audience is there, but you can't see them. It feels at home, you as one with the horse."

Vaulting has three events: the individual, a team contest with six people per country, and the pas-de-deux, which is a pairs competition in which sisters Joanne and Hannah compete together. At the World Equestrian Games, they came third.

"Before Joanne came along in British vaulting, we didn't really have anyone to look up to," says Hannah.

"Anyone coming up now knows you can come from a small vaulting country like Britain and be the best in the world."

Nations like Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland the United States are more traditional vaulting powers, but Joanne's strength and never-before-seen moves have lifted her to the top of her sport.

"Fitness is key," she says. "You need to be flexible, strong, have good rhythm to keep in time with the horse, and you need to love horses as well.

"Strength is something I've really worked on. I was doing a check-up the other day and this boy's mum said, 'What sport do you do? Your forearms are incredible!' And there I am, just doing a check-up on a her son."

Her signature move is a one-handed handstand. She is the first vaulter ever to successfully pull it off in competition.

"I've been working on that for about three years in training. Dad kept saying, 'Nah, it's not going to work, take it out.' But this winter he told me to put it in. 'It'll work this year,' he said. It's something totally different and it's nice to have a move you did first."

Having been the best vaulter in the world since 2010, Joanne has yet to decide if she'll be back for the next World Equestrian Games in 2018.

She is, however, strangely reluctant when 'pure' gymnastics - without a horse involved - is suggested.

"Maybe not," she says. "I think they're brave in some ways.

"I wouldn't like to do a somersault off the beam. Off a horse? Any day. But not off a beam."

Take a look at our Equestrian pages for more horse related activity ideas. For Acrobatic inspiration, see our gymnastics activity guide.

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