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Horseback acrobat

John Hart and I arrived at Rock-N-Horse Ranch ready to catch MacKenzie Thurman in action, as the 10-year-old Mt. St. Mary’s fifth-grader was preparing to compete in the American Vaulting Association Nationals.

But both John, our staff photographer, and I were bummed out to see MacKenzie with a frown on her face and sling on her left arm.

Yet not as bummed as MacKenzie, who delivered the disappointing news that she won’t be able to compete at nationals after breaking her arm less than 24 hours before our interview.



“I’m disappointed, because I was really excited,” she said, managing to share a small smile when her mom, Joanna, told us there would still be plenty of vaulting down the road.

But, boy, there was some serious sadness in those bright blue eyes.




“She’s broken-hearted,” Joanna said a few minutes later. “To see her on the couch yesterday and see her with her arm … But, she’s extremely tough and extremely determined.”

As tough as it was to talk about at the time, MacKenzie did tell me how she fell off the practice barrel on Monday while trying out a handstand for a routine she will later perform on horseback.

That’s right. She does handstands on horseback – and so much more – while the horse is moving.

Though it may be a sport that’s fairly new to Americans, vaulting has been around a whole lot longer than your baseball, basketball or football. Some believe it began as a Roman game, while others argue it started in ancient Crete. Either way, it appears to be here to stay.

It’s big throughout Europe, especially in Germany, where it’s often practiced as part of basic equestrian training.

Vaulting is often described as gymnastics or dance on horseback. Competitors perform required movements and also add their own creative flair to their routines, which are judged for scoring.

About three years ago, MacKenzie caught a vaulting competition in Saratoga and suddenly wanted to give it a shot.

Despite not having a horsemanship background, Bob and Joanna Thurman decided why not let their girl give it a go? After all, you don’t necessarily need to own a horse to compete, as the Thurmans found with the Mt. Eden Vaulting Club.

It quickly became quite clear, MacKenzie considered it a hit.

“I really like horses and I really like gymnastics,” she explained, “so this is kind of both of those things.”

Any hint of sadness in MacKenzie’s voice then quickly dissipated, as she started to share some of her favorite movements – and not so favorite – in her routine. And she was kind not to roll her eyes when I asked how she could keep her balance, perform her trick and stay on a moving horse all at the same time.

“I just concentrate on the routine I’m doing,” she said.

Routines typically start with the mount, in which the athlete vaults onto the horse into a sitting position. From there, they might extend both arms into “basic seat” or stretch out an arm and leg in “flag” or – as with MacKenzie’s favorite – stand straight up on the horse’s back in … well, “stand” position.

“I like ‘stand,'” she said, “because it feels like you’re really high up there.”

Stand next to one of the horses on which she performs, as we did at Rock-N-Horse Ranch, and it’s clear that she is, in fact, really high up there.

And the vaulters don’t wear helmets, due mainly to it potentially obstructing their mobility and vision, Joanna said.

Still, the Thurmans don’t see the sport as all that dangerous. After all, MacKenzie did break her arm while training on a stationary barrel and not a trotting horse.

“I’ve never been scared when MacKenzie’s on a horse,” Joanna said. “I know that may sound really strange because watching as an observer it might look scary. But it’s actually very safe.”

Joanna is hoping to help bring the sport more mainstream here in western Nevada County, although the Nevada County Fairgrounds has hosted regional competitions for several years. MacKenzie was among those on horseback there on July 9-13, when she added to her already substantial ribbon collection.

No doubt there are plenty more for her on the horizon.

Randall and Trish Gross, who have operated Rock-N-Horse Ranch on McCourtney Road for the past eight years, offers horses for those who want to ride but don’t own their own – kind of “like a health club, but with horses,” Randall said.

Now Randall and Trish have started to train some of their nine draft horses to help the cause of locals interested in vaulting.

“We’re basically doing whatever Joanna tells us,” he said. “We don’t know a lot about it, but we’re learning.”

The Thurmans hope many more want to learn about the sport, enough to actually start a vaulting club here like the one MacKenzie belonged to back in Mt. Eden.

And perhaps the next time she’s getting ready to make a trip to nationals, she’ll have a few friends to come along and compete with her.

But one thing’s for certain, as far as anyone who has watched her on a horse. MacKenzie will have the opportunity to make that trip again, once she’s on the mend.

“She’s tough,” Trish said. “She’s John Wayne in a cute little blonde body.

“And that’s the best compliment I can give.”

Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. Contact him via e-mail at bhamilton@theunion.com or by phone at 477-4240.


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