Gioia-Valeria Keppler and her horse Smarty. | Phoenix Media Mallorca


Gioia-Valeria Keppler and her horse Smarty, are warming up in the arena at the Es Pi stableyard near Son Sardina. Strangely though they are warming up separately. Smarty is being lunged in a circle by their trainer Lorena, whilst Gioia and her training partner Mercie are also jogging in circles nearby. After some plyometric exercises Gioia is ready to join Smarty in the ring and the training begins. She stands beside her trainer as they constantly move around in a circle, spinning very slowly as Smarty revolves in a circle, the horse is controlled mainly by the position of a long lunging whip, trailing behind him to keep him moving, and then brought into his eyeline to slow him down.

I haven’t seen vaulting before, and I am impressed with the gentle introduction as Gioia first jogs alongside him, and then puts her hands on him before pulling back. The next time she approaches him she puts her hands and some of her weight on to the surcingle belted around his belly, and then pulls back. It’s a slow introductory routine to the main event. The next time in and she leaps gracefully onto his back as he continues to trot steadily, not flinching or shying at all, completely comfortable with the situation. Bit by bit the training continues until Gioia is standing up on top of Smarty’s back, she is upside down, backwards, holding her body completely straight, her head pointing towards his hooves, and her toe pointed to the sky. The team makes it look extremely easy, which is always the trick when something is extremely difficult. But then I am watching one of the best in the Junior Equestrian Vaulting world who is right here on the island.

Equestrian vaulting, or just “Vaulting” most often described as gymnastics and dance on horseback. You might think it started with circus acts, but its origins stretch back at least 2000 years when acrobats would display their skills on cantering horses at ancient Roman games. It’s a popular sport in many European countries, and is rapidly gaining fans and participants in Spain. The present name of the sport/art comes from the French la voltige, which it acquired during the Renaissance, when it was a form of riding drill and agility exercise for cavalry riders.

When did you start to compete in Vaulting?

I fell in love with the sport one Halloween when I saw a display and I started during COVID with online competitions where you would film yourself and send in the recording to judges in Austria and Germany. Now I am travelling internationally and competing at very big competitions at prestigious shows, like Aachen and Saumur. I would love to compete for Spain, but I am still waiting for my citizenship to be accepted.

What was it about Vaulting that you fell in love with?

Just being so connected and so close to the horse and having the opportunity to be creative. I really loved the feeling of being free.

Who is designing your competition routines?

We have to have some compulsory elements in the competitions so we have to start with them, and then add in from there. I am choreographing my own routines now. Sometimes music will inspire me as well. You are judged on your routine, how you perform it, how the horse behaves, every element is important. You have to have perform in all different positions on the saddle to show your skill level. You always have to do the compulsories first, which are always the same exercises that everyone does, depending on the level you're at, and then you have the freestyle and then of course you can do a little bit more of what you like.

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How do you train for this?

70% of the training is on a wooden vault horse. I train six days a week, either with Smarty, on the wooden horse or in the gym. I attend online school so that I can do this.

How did you choose Smarty?

We found him in Germany last year. I used to sketch a horse just like him when I was a little kid. He has the right conformation and personality for vaulting even though he hadn’t been bred for it. And you need the horse to be intelligent, which he is. We moved him over to the island this year after I had been travelling to train with him in Germany for a few months.

What's been the hardest thing for you?

Building up my skills and gaining the trust of Smarty. It has taken time and we have worked a lot on it. It can be mentally tough and physically difficult, I have had to overcome fears and injuries to get to the level that I am at now. I have dedicated all of my life so there's some things that I have missed out on to put it that way. Like graduation is something I will not be attending because we have competitions. But on the other hand, I have got to do so many great things. To share something special with an animal. I don't think everyone has that. It's my passion.

Would you ever consider performing in a circus?

I have seen a couple of French people do it. And it's something that really interests me a lot. Just the freedom to do whatever you want to without having to keep the judges happy!

You’re 17 years old, what are your goals for the future?

I want to study journalism and become a sports journalist. And I want to compete at the highest level in Vaulting with Smarty. In the short term we are working on competing in Italy next year.

Best of luck to Gioia and Smarty in their competitions! There are regular vaulting competitions on the island. Visit for information.