Editor’s note: This is the first installment of Marlee on the Move, a new series airing in the 4 p.m. hour in which News 8 sports reporter Marlee Wierda tries out various sports. You can send ideas for the segment to marlee.wierda@woodtv.com

ALGOMA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Great Lakes Equestrian Vaulting in Cedar Springs is home to some of the best equestrian vaulters in the state and the country. If you’re wondering what equestrian vaulting is, the simplest explanation is it’s gymnastics but on horseback.

“I think vaulting is open for all ages that want to try it — it has benefits from a fitness standpoint: flexibility, strength, cardiovascular fitness, and then the element of connecting with the horse which a lot of sports don’t offer,” Michelle McLean, the head coach and founder of Great Lakes Equestrian Vaulting, said.

“My daughter was the genesis of this whole operation,” McLean said. “In 2018, we went and watched the world equestrian games in North Carolina, and she said I want to do that at that level.”

The rest was history.

Her daughter, Maria McLean, has been vaulting for more than a decade and has competed at the highest level. Her sights are set on with her sights on the Junior World Championships this summer.  

“What keeps me going is all the connections that you make,” Maria McLean said. “It’s a small world, and it’s a small sport, and I’ve made connections and friendships with people across the world.” 

I decided to take up the opportunity to learn from some of the best and try out equestrian vaulting for the first time. The first step was getting acquainted with the horse, Rhapsody.

“That is one of the components of vaulting that makes it such an incredible sport — because vaulters don’t own the horse — typically the club owner owns the horse,” Michelle McLean explained. “But everybody takes part in being a part of that horses’ team. They all look after the horse, they all love on that horse, and the horse learns their routines. So we see a lot of times there’s a great bond that develops between a vaulter and a horse, which typically you wouldn’t see unless you owned the horse.”

After the Rhapsody was ready to go, we started with a warmup that consisted of some dynamic stretching and some gymnastics moves. Then, after some stretching, it was time to learn the basics on the mechanical horse.

“(On the mechanical horse), you get a really good opportunity to see what you’re going to experience before you get on the horse,” Michelle McLean said. “Every equestrian sport requires a basic seat. I really good balanced, harmonious seat.”

I learned some of the beginning vaulting moves, including a kneel, a flag and a stand. Then it was time to get on the horse. 

“Equestrian vaulting is the safest equestrian sport because the horse is in a controlled environment, and it is in control by the lunger on the ground. So the vaulter (the one riding the horse) doesn’t have to worry about where the horse is going,” Maria McLean said. “In addition to that, the horses are picked based off their personalities for their job. They’re all very well-trained, safe horses that are chosen for vaulting.” 

“It may sound counterintuitive, but a helmet while you’re doing these skills, cartwheels, rolls, could actually be a safety hazard,” Maria McLean said. “It does take strength and flexibility and a lot of harmony with the horse is the very basic level, so just moving with the horse, being relaxed, and then as you go from there you build the strength, and obviously the skills.”

Even some of the most basic skills were a challenge.

“To do it at a level that’s going to be fun and be competitive, you don’t have to be the most athletic person in the world,” Michelle McLean said. “We have a lot of kids that are really interested in the horseman side of it, and they love gymnastics and dance, and they love moving to music that they like, and then they kind of become athletic through the process of the training that we offer.”

“You need to build quick twitch muscles, so boxing is great cross training, and also the dance aspect comes into vaulting to ballet is great, learning how to control your body through dance and then putting that on horseback,” Maria McLean said. 

Perhaps one of the most unique aspects I learned about vaulting is the bond with your “teammate.”

“The horse actually is performing with you. And one thing that got me one time when (Maria) was really little, she was like, ‘you know mom when I was out there, I was almost going to fall, but the horse shifted its weight and kept me on, and I got goosebumps because I realized that I’m not out there alone,'” Michelle McLean said.