At Oak Hills Vaulting in Salem, Utah County, up to three teenage girls can ride a horse at the same time — just not in the way you'd expect.

All three actively do gymnastics on the moving animal, with one acting as a base, holding up another vaulter, who in some cases will also grasp the flyer — the gymnast that's in the highest position. Many times, the vaulters will do handstands or splits, either on the horse or in the air.

“It’s just like the perfect combination between my love for horses and my love for gymnastics,” said Jacey Muir, a 16-year-old competitor on the Team USA junior squad.

This year, a group of Utah vaulters will show off their skills to the world in the 2023 FEI World Championship for Young Vaulters, which will take place in Flyinge, Sweden, from July 25-30.

The championship alternates between competing with junior squad teams, those ages 11 to 17, and senior squads, those above the age of 18. This year, Oak Hills Vaulting's Team USA junior squad is comprised of six vaulting competitors with two alternates.

The team will compete in the junior squad division of the competition, while other young vaulters from around the country will compete in the junior individual female and the junior “Pas de Deux” (the pair) categories.

In the junior squad’s event, all six members of the team have to get on the horse at least once within four minutes, with a maximum of three people on the horse at the same time.

Left to right, Gracie Griffiths, Emma Wilson and Mikell Stoddard practice their routine on horse Cabo San Lucas at Oak Hills Vaulting in Salem on July 7. The team will represent the USA at the FEI Vaulting World Championships for Juniors and Young Vaulters, taking place in Sweden.
Left to right, Gracie Griffiths, Emma Wilson and Mikell Stoddard practice their routine on horse Cabo San Lucas at Oak Hills Vaulting in Salem on July 7. The team will represent the USA at the FEI Vaulting World Championships for Juniors and Young Vaulters, taking place in Sweden. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

But one key member of the team won’t be able to travel with the girls — their horse. Kimber Phillips, a mother of team member and alternate Paityn Phillips, noted that transporting a single horse can amount to $20,000 or more.

The team will need to travel to Germany on July 13, where they will train with a leased horse a few weeks before the competition. There, the team will learn how to best vault on the moving animal.

“He looks like a really good horse, and so I feel confident about how we’re going to be doing on him,” Paityn Phillips said. “I’m not worried about that at all.”

Oak Hills Vaulting has had its junior and senior equestrian vaulting teams compete internationally since 2019, with the exception of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to KyLynn James Cooper, head coach and owner of Oak Hills Vaulting.

Oak Hills Vaulting was started by James Cooper's grandmother in 1967, according to James Cooper. Since then, the club has provided dozens of girls with opportunities to not just compete in national and international competitions, but to give them a strong support system as they chase their passions.

The girls thank their horse Cabo San Lucas after practicing their routine at Oak Hills Vaulting in Salem on Friday, July 7, 2023. The team will represent the USA at the FEI Vaulting World Championships for Juniors and Young Vaulters, taking place in Sweden. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

“Oak Hills is just literally my dream team. I don't think that if I vaulted anywhere else, I don't think I would have stuck with it. I love vaulting, I do, but the people just make it so much better,” said Amber Terry, a base on the junior squad.

Phillips also noted that when her daughter broke her ankle, everyone on the team continued to support and care for her.

“It’s a tough sport and physically it's hard and you know, they deal with teammates getting injured and falling off the horse and stuff like that, but they still show up and they still do everything together,” Phillips said. “My favorite part about it is that their success is everyone's success.”

And it's not just the rapport that the girls build with each other, Terry noted, but the team's talent stands out among the rest of the squads in the U.S. — a type of talent that pushed them to the international level.

The Utah-based squad qualified for the world championship by winning several Concours de Dressage International competitions, coming out as the top team in competitions in California, Colorado and Utah. Eventually, the squad bested the vaulting teams that also planned to go to the world championship, such as the California Pacific Coast vaulting club and the Colorado Mile High vaulting team.

“I think we're really good at keeping our composure. We're a really good freestyle team,” Terry said.

Competitions are divided into two categories: compulsories and freestyle.

As a “backbone of the sport,” James Cooper noted that compulsories require vaulters to do the same set of moves on the horse in the same order, with each person judged in the same way.

With freestyle, the competitors wear costumes, customize their own moves and find creative ways to time their routine to music.

This year, the team plans on creating a murder mystery theme for their freestyle, James Cooper said, with many wearing costumes from the movie and game Clue.

“They're trying to tell a story for four minutes of this kind of murder mystery, ‘whodunnit’ kind of a feel,” James Cooper said. “That's like their goal — is to take their audience, their judges and spectators through that story.”

The Oak Hills Vaulting team warms up at practice at Oak Hills Vaulting in Salem on July 7. The team will represent the USA at the FEI Vaulting World Championships for Juniors and Young Vaulters, taking place in Sweden.
The Oak Hills Vaulting team warms up at practice at Oak Hills Vaulting in Salem on July 7. The team will represent the USA at the FEI Vaulting World Championships for Juniors and Young Vaulters, taking place in Sweden. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Despite the joys and creative outlets that come from vaulting, there are a few challenges and sacrifices that the athletes and their families make, one of which involves sacrificing high school clubs and committing hundreds of hours to the sport.

“They sacrifice a lot of things to be able to compete at that level ... like, my daughter gave up prom and she gave up most of the dances of her junior year,” said Meredith Stoddard, a mother whose daughter competed on the senior team last year, and whose other daughter will compete in the junior squad this year.

It’s not just the time that the families sacrifice, the monetary commitment can sometimes pose challenges.

While the competition itself is paid for, the girls still have to pay out-of-pocket for the travel, along with their entire stay in Germany the week before.

To raise funds for the trip, the team has completed several fundraisers, including selling butter braids bread and Team USA cups and bracelets, according to Muir. The team also is raising money through a GoFundMe* page to help afford their expenses.

Stoddard noted that despite the expenses and time commitments that come from raising such accomplished athletes, there is a great sense of pride in watching her daughters perform.

“It’s really rewarding to watch them work so hard to reach a goal and then achieve it,” Stoddard said. “It's just rewarding, as a parent, to see them commit to something and follow through, and the things that they learned along the way about being part of a team and putting the team first versus themselves.”

Vaulting has also built her daughters into better, more service-minded people, Stoddard added.

“One of my coaches always says like, ‘It’s great, the vaulting we do is great,’ but it's also — they love the people that come from vaulting,” Muir said. “Building the individuals from vaulting is the best part.”

Jacey Muir, left, and Amber Terry practice their routine on horse Cabo San Lucas at Oak Hills Vaulting in Salem on July 7. The team will represent the USA at the FEI Vaulting World Championships for Juniors and Young Vaulters, taking place in Sweden.
Jacey Muir, left, and Amber Terry practice their routine on horse Cabo San Lucas at Oak Hills Vaulting in Salem on July 7. The team will represent the USA at the FEI Vaulting World Championships for Juniors and Young Vaulters, taking place in Sweden. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

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