Averill Saunders leaps into a spread kick with the support of Jessica Bentzen

THURSDAY SPOTLIGHT: Parksville vaulters to represent Canada at world championships

The team of six horseback vaulters from B.C. and Alberta qualified for the world championships April 23-24 at trials in California

Parksville’s West Coast Vaulters equestrian vaulting squad will have a temporary new name when it travels to LeMans, France for the world vaulting championships in August:

Team Canada.

The team of six horseback vaulters from B.C. and Alberta qualified for the world championships with their marks in the April 23-24 Mozart Memorial Vaulting Classic and Selection Trials in Somis, Calif. The showing was nearly a year in the making, and got them to their goal two years early.

“Our intention was not to qualify for (worlds) this year,” said rider Jessica Bentzen of Parksville, whose mother, Debbie, formed the club and directs its practices from her ranch just off the Englishman River. “It was going to be a practice year to get ready to try to qualify for the 2018 worlds, which are in Quebec.”

“We’re all a little shell-shocked now that it’s actually happening,” Debbie Bentzen added. “We’re taking a deep breath and going, ‘We’re going to have to do a lot of fundraising.”

In vaulting, riders perform gymnastics-type moves and poses atop a cantering horse, either individually or in groups of up to three performers. Little known by those who are outside the equestrian community or who have seen it performed, vaulting is just beginning to catch on in Canada — and the West Coast Vaulters are on the leading edge of the movement.

“This is only the second time Canada has sent a team to the world championships,” said Debbie Bentzen. “The World Equestrian Games in Quebec (in 2018) will be the first time the championships will be hosted in Canada.”

The squad members range in age from 12 to 25. In addition to Jessica Bentzen, the team includes Danielle Adams of Parksville, Alex Balance and Ariadne Greekas of Qualicum Beach and Charlotte Axani and Averill Saunders of Alberta, who travel to Vancouver Island twice a month for practice sessions. Korynn Weber of Nelson had been on the team until suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon, forcing the West Coast Vaulters to pull in their alternate rider and leaving them with the minimum contingent of six for the world championships.

The vaulters will compete this weekend in Chilliwack with the goal of improving their marks, and will hold a wine and cheese fundraising demonstration at Arbutus Meadows July 10 beginning at 1 p.m.

Vaulting came to Vancouver Island in 1999, when Debbie Bentzen was directing a competitive riding program for Donna Naylor at Naylor’s Coombs riding school. That spring, Naylor brought a vaulting instructor to demonstrate the sport.

One of the students who saw that 1999 demo was Bentzen’s then-eight-year-old daughter, who was smitten immediately. Debbie set about learning how to train for vaulting, which begins with acquiring and training a horse that can be trusted under the performers.

Kingston, a 13-year-old Clydesdale gelding, has proven the perfect fit. The big horse came to the Bentzens as a rescue animal with anxiety issues, and needed two years to train for performing.

Last summer Bentzen formed an actual competition team for the first time with an eye toward competing at the world level.

The squad will compete in both individual and group events, the latter a recent addition to their repertoire. Under the guidance of coach Gabe Aniello, an Oregon native who competed for the U.S. team in the 2014 World Equestrian Games, the riders are put through their paces first on a stationary barrel, then on the back of Kingston at an easy walking pace, then at a steady canter.

“It’s a process,” Debbie said. “And after they run through it, then they make changes, to try to make it a little more difficult.”

The sport looks difficult enough — and potentially dangerous — with smaller riders lifted high into the air by teammates and members performing jumps, shoulder stands and rolls on the moving horse. But both Bentzens said it is the safest of the equestrian sports.

“Lesson one is learning how to fall, and how to get off the horse,” Jessica said. “They make you do it before you do any routines. You learn how to jump clear, how to land without hurting yourself and how to roll away. That’s all part of planning the routine when you’re still on the barrel.”

“Everyone competes in the first round, and the top 15 move on to the second round,” Jessica Bentzen said of the world championships. “I’d like to make that second round, and to make Canada proud. In 2018, I’ll have higher goals.”

Tickets for the July 10 wine and cheese demo at Arbutus Meadows Event Centre are $30 and can be ordered in advance by e-mailing westcoastvaulters@gmail.com. The squad also has an online fundraising account at gofundme.com (enter West Coast Vaulters in the search window). The squad will also hold a bottle drive June 25 at the Parksville bottle depot and a burger and beer demo at the Rocking Horse Pub in Nanoose Bay June 26.

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