It seems like a circus act, but it’s in a barn. It looks like gymnastics, but there’s no mat. It feels like figure skating, but it’s on dirt. It’s kind of like dancing, but it’s on a horse.
For an equestrian competition that’s been going on for centuries, horse vaulting is tough to describe to those who don’t know about it. But for Longbranch native Genna Downen, it was an easy sell.
Genna is one of the top junior-level vaulters in the country and is one of eight finalists competing to be part of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Junior Team. She’ll find out later this month if she makes the team that’s scheduled to compete in the 2023 FEI World Vaulting Championships in Sweden next month.
The home-schooled 17-year-old has been part of the Harbor View Vaulters team at Four Winds Riding Center near Gateway Park since 2015. She discovered the unique sport eight years ago when she saw a demonstration at the riding center during the Key Peninsula Farm Tour.
“She’s a horse girl and a Key Pen farm kid in the most stereotypical sense,” Genna’s mom, Anna Downen, said. “When I saw that look in her eye (while watching the demonstration), I just knew.”
Genna’s pathway to horse vaulting is common. She took gymnastics as a toddler and spent four years doing ballet, tap and jazz dancing. And she always had a love of horses.
Lori Robison, co-owner of Four Winds Riding Center and coach of the Harbor View Vaulters said, “That’s the perfect marriage for anyone getting into vaulting,” Robison helped start the team 15 years ago.
Part sport, part performance art, vaulting is gaining popularity across rural areas in the Pacific Northwest. It takes raw strength and performers must be in top physical shape to maintain balance while executing both graceful and athletic movements.
Genna drills with her horse partner, Hugo, an 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood-Irish Draft crossbreed, twice a week. She spends the rest of the week doing off-horse strength- and cross-training exercises. She also does taekwondo.
Genna uses that strength to perform mounts and dismounts, handstands, elbow stands, kneels, stands and jumps, all while the horse is cantering in a circle.
The vaulters are judged on their technique, precision and timing, but there’s also a good deal of showmanship involved.
Genna’s current performance has her dressed as Black Widow from the Avengers movies, and she incorporates some of her taekwondo experience into freestyle choreography set to music. Though freestyle performances differ among the vaulters, they all do the same movements in the same order for a separate compulsory event.
“There’s always people (across the country) who I want to beat, but really I’m competing against myself,” Genna said. “I always look back and compare my performance to how I did a week ago or a year ago.”
But with all the high-flying and acrobatics taking place, it’s easy to forget about the horse. Don’t. The horse’s performance makes up about 25% of the final score, so it’s important Genna keep a strong bond with Hugo or any other horse she partners with. To help with that, there’s a person called a “lunger” who controls the horse on a long line and keeps him on a steady pace. Usually one of Genna’s coaches takes on that important role.
While it looks intimidating — after all, jumping on top of a half-ton moving animal seems a little dangerous — Genna said she gained confidence in herself pretty quickly when she first started.
“Statistically speaking, of all the equestrian events, vaulting has the best safety record,” Robison said, adding that vaulting horses are very well trained.
Vaulting is a big part of Genna’s life, and she hopes to continue for as long as she can. Unlike gymnastics, vaulting doesn’t have an age limit. Robison encourages boys and girls, young and old, to get into it.
“Genna reached a level in a short amount of years that most kids don’t,” Robison said. “To be where she’s at (at her age) is unusual, but she worked really hard to get here.”
Newbies don’t start on a horse. They get accustomed to all the moves near the ground on stationary “barrels,” which resemble a mechanical bull. Even the most experienced vaulters practice on barrels when not riding.
Accolades for Genna are nothing new. (See “Local Vaulting Team Earns National Honors,” May 2019.) She was the American Vaulting Association National High Point Champion in 2018, 2019 and 2021. She’s also been the regional champion (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska) each year for her level since 2018. Last month she took first place at the Oak Hills Classic in Spokane and performed at The Pacific Cup in Woodside, California (results weren’t available by press time).
“I really admire how much she has learned about the world and the person she’s become,” said her mother, Anna. “Finding (the Harbor View Vaulters) has been the absolute best.”
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