We have talked to the renowned lunger, horse trainer and vaulting coach Nienke de Wolff from the Netherlands. Nienke has been lunging internationally since she was 18 years old, she is a riding instructor and she is managing a vaulting school for years now. With this extensive vaulting background, and a running business about vaulting horses, we wanted to get the essence of her day to day work at the stables and her best tips to start with a vaulting horse from zero.
How did you become a lunger in vaulting?
“That is a kind of a funny story, before I started lunging I was an international vaulter and I bought a horse, named Othello. At that time Cynthia Danvers needed a vaulting horse and asked if she could use Othello for the Dutch vaulting championships (Nederlandse Kampioenschappen Voltige).
We went to the Dutch vaulting championships and CVI Ermelo 2012 with Othello, we got some good scores there and it went really well. By then I noticed that I was more talented in lunging than in vaulting, since I am a tall person it was quite challenging for me to stay muscular for vaulting. So the choice was made to emphasize my vaulting career on lunging more than being a vaulter. Nevertheless I didn’t stop completely.”
What do you like about being a lunger and competing?
“I love the challenge! Training at home towards a competition, and giving it everything I got. I am a real perfectionist when it comes to training the horses. I always try to make sure that they are strong, feel confident and ready to compete. In fact, I feel that I build a connection with the horses, and I also noticed that I am improving in lunging since I train a lot of different horses these days. However I don’t like training the brave, well behaved horses. I enjoy the challenging horses which are just on the edge. With these horses it is a puzzle and a real challenge to train, but when you get them well trained they will perform really good in the sport.”
Tell us about your favourite moment during your career as a lunger
“That was CHIO Aachen 2019 with Cadans and my own pas-de-deux. That was a really awesome moment, because we had worked so long for this. The horse Cadans was a really difficult horse to train with, he was really busy in his mind, sensible and picky, like REALLY picky. And when he performed so well at the competition with the best horse score I was really proud of him.”
Starting to train a vaulting horse from scratch
How the first training weeks look like?
Step 1: lunging
“Yeah that is a good question, because that is with every horse different. Often when the horse arrives at our stable I have already communicated with the client about what type of horse it is and what the horse has done in his life. What we often do is we will first longe him twice just because I want to see what type of horse it is. How does he react and does he want to work or is he preferably lazy?
We will just become acquainted with the horse, and also estimate what his physical state is. I want to see if he is well trained and what his stamina is. I often question myself about what I could possibly miss about a horse, miss about what this horse is supposed to be able to do. By that I deduce what the best way of training this horse. That is an important first step.“
Step 2: riding
“We always start with lunging to see what we have and when the horse behaves well while lunging we go to step two and see how he behaves in riding. With some horses, I first train 3 weeks before I even start vaulting with them. For other horses we start to train vaulting with them after 2 days. It really depends on what kind of feeling the horse gives me. I cannot really say how we train every horse because it is for every horse different, there is no standard. It goes by feeling, and when I feel that the horse is lunging well, he understands what I mean and his galop is nice we then put a vaulter on him.”
Step 3: vaulting
“From that moment we start with focussing on vaulting. However there are also horses who need a lot of time and a lot of physical training. If that is the case we actually don’t do vaulting with them. We train them under the saddle instead and we do lunge training. Every horse is different, for instance the horse I am training currently has been here for 2 weeks and he does the club’s vaulting trainings. Because he understood it from the beginning and thought I can do this. He does that really well and he is actually ready to compete. But I also got a horse who was physically really weak, he did great in vaulting, but he wasn’t strong enough to do it. So we are riding him 5 days per week, and we lunge him once a week.”
“So as you can see it depends on the horse’s physical and mental ability. It also depends on what the client wants. Some horses are really talented and we can get them ready to compete in a small amount of time. But I prefer to do a competition with them before they get sold to the client. And then there are horses which need time and they are sold as a prospect, which means that the clients will educate them further for vaulting.”
How to manage the very first vaulting session with a horse?
“When you are training for the first time you want to see how the horse reacts to vaulting, which means that it is not important how they do. As I said earlier, some of the horses are fine with it. Others get really nervous and you won’t get any further than walk and trot and that is fine. You want to see how they take up vaulting and you start with simple things like waving your arms and legs. It might be scary for the horse the first time but they should be able to accept it after a few times. If that is not the case then it gets difficult.
The goal is that we should be able to get anywhere on the horses’ body and that they are not sensitive on the butt of tail. It is alright if it makes them a little nervous or if it is a little difficult but they should be willing to get over it.”
Going too fast
“What you really shouldn’t do is going too fast. And that is something you often see happening, people surprise the horse by immediately vaulting on them. A lot of horses won’t react the first time because they are well behaved and surprised by what is going on. I think that a lot of people don’t realize how unnatural the thing is what we do. A horse is a fleeing animal and you have to prepare him well for it and start slowly.
I see a lot of people who just pull a horse from the stable and just start vaulting. What happens is that you are doing a lot of new things and the horse can’t handle that mentally. Try not to want to achieve a fully educated vaulting horse in just a few trainings. It take time for it and take it slow. I see very often that people go way too fast, they go in galop, on the knees, try to mount in galop and that is not the way to train a vaulting horse.”
Work on the mount in the first place
“This to me is a very important point to understand about of training vaulting horses, never do the mount up in galop or anything similar in the first training. We don’t do anything like running up to the horse, because that is really unnatural for the horse. Everything we do for the first time is already weird. We put different equipment on the horse, do something the horse has never done before. Running up to the horse and trying to jump onto him is not right. He won’t understand and it will only get him stressed out. It is also really heavy for the horse because you are pulling on one side.
First make sure your horse is confident and strong in vaulting and then you can teach them the mount up. In my opinion the mount up has the least to do with vaulting, you can teach it to any horse, even a dressage horse. I am preferably a little too slow, than doing that I do too much too fast.”
Every horse is different
Have you ever given up on a horse and why?
“Yes we have had some horses which just weren’t suitable for vaulting. With these horses in the beginning everything is fine, but when we ask them work and use more strength we notice that they don’t really like to do vaulting for you. Nevertheless we also sell horses in other disciplines. They will get sold for jumping or dressage so it is not a big deal for us when they are not going to become a vaulting horse.
For me it is more important that the horse does something that he can do and that he likes. That the horse enjoys it and wants to do it for you. It happens that some horses are not interested in it, if that happens find them a different discipline they will like. There have been horses with which I started off, and I wasn’t sure if they were going to learn vaulting. Then we train them for around 2 or 3 weeks and at that point we can see if the horse will become a vaulting horse or not.”
How can you see if a horse is suitable for vaulting?
“In one or two weeks the basics should really be there, and the basic exercises are for instance mill, kneeling and sitting in the neck in galop. This is not that much but it should be there after that time. However it really depends on how the horse reacts to it. There are horse which are physically not strong enough and if that is the problem then an exercise like kneeling is really heavy for them. It is understandable that the horse reacts to that. I don’t mind that, but they should accept that we are touching them on the butt, when we pet them or have a leg over there.”
Is there a difference between preparing a horse for team or individual?
“Of Course you have types of horses which are way better at carrying, and there are horses which can handle movement better. And we find out what type of horse it is during the training. s it a weight carrier? This is nice for a team. Is it a horse which prefers more movement? This is nicer for individual. But basically the training is exactly the same, we don’t really distinguish that.”
How do you educate a horse not to be scared?
“I say no horse is bombproof, but many things happen around at our stable. We got for instance tractors, kids classes, and when we are training we always try to train the horse next to the kids training or in the kids training (when of course the horse is behaving well) And it makes the horse a little more at ease with things going on because there is a lot going on. We also have a forest path next to the stable where we take them too to get at ease with the things that can happen outside. But there is no specific scare training or whatsoever.
We like to challenge our horses, as what I said a lot happens here, we got an open arena, they can see a lot. I really like that because they will learn that there can be something going on and not mind it. We try to engage it, and I will not go out of the way of scary things. For instance when they are training the dressage horses they always say please don’t do that because it scares my horse. But I say keep on going instead because the horse has to find out anyway.”
What do you think is often forgotten in vaulting?
“Vaulting is a one sided load, which is really boring for the horse and it is also not good for him. It is really mind-numbing for the horse to walk in a circle for an hour. We should realize that there is not really a challenge in that for the horse to walk around in a circle. You should also work on other kinds of training to keep the horse excited for vaulting training.
It happens a lot that the horse doesn’t like to do vaulting anymore after 1 or 2 years. You cannot expect the horse to be on it’s best the entire season, for every competition. For the horse it is also high level sports, and you have to think about your horse. When you should take him to the competitions and when you should not. However I can understand that many people don’t have the luxury of owning several horses. I want to ask the vaulters to keep in mind that what they want should also be possible for the horse. It is not fair to take the horse every weekend to a competition with the team. Resting is as important as training.”
How do you keep the training interesting for the horse?
Keep the attention, so the connection
“Make the lunging a real training, and keep the connection. Some horses are just not that focused on the training and need to be kept busy to make them focus better. What I try to do in order to make my horse focus is asking miniscule tempo changes. The goal is to make the horse constantly focus on me so that he starts to work for me. You want to have that connection constantly, because obviously you communicate a lot with the horse.
This is important for sure when there is a lot going on, you need to support your horse. When the vaulter does a ground jump, or there is a team freestyle going on, you need to support your horse in that so that he knows he is not alone in this. Which makes it a lot more fun for the horse, when he can feel that it is a real training. Don’t just let them gallop around, that is really boring for the horse.”
If you want to learn more about Nienke or contact her, visit her website www.dewolffvaulting.com