Wednesday, November 24


There are things one might ask a one-armed girl how she tie her shoe, or peel an orange, or put on underwear. And then there are things that no one thinks to ask, like how do you stand up on a trotting horse.

I’d certainly never thought to ask before a summer day, six years ago, when I met Rick Hawthorne. As I recal
l, the first thing Rick said when he saw me was “Oh, yeah!” when he recognized my one arm situation. Rick's left arm had been amputated at the shoulder when he was ten, after he punched a kid in the playground, breaking his arm in several places. The doctors found cancer and that’s when Rick began his life as a one-armed boy.

In his early twenties, Rick found vaulting, a sport that combines riding and dance on the back of a horse. It was the beginning of a life-long love story for Rick, who went on to compete with one arm at the national level. Today, he and his wife Virginia have been coaching vaulting for over thirty years.

But in all that time, Rick had
never met someone like me, with almost exactly the same handicap. The excitement was mutual. I hadn’t known him five minutes before I was up on a horse, learning the basic exercises. Buoyed by Rick’s belief in me, I would have tried nearly anything he asked. I went home sore and hooked.


On Saturday, I hurried Little Gen out of her warm bed to go to vaulting practice with me. The jury's out on whether my blueberry pancakes were extortion on her part, or bribery on mine. Either way, we were out the door by 9:30am.

I. Warm-up

Here is a series
of me 'vaulting up' on the practice barrel.

And the outtakes....


You do what on a horse?, is generally the look on a person's face when I try to explain vaulting. Most people immediately assume I'm talking about gymnastics or pole vaulting; or they combine the tw
o with a mental picture of me running up to a horse and jumping over the top of it. Ridiculous. But then, I'm not in much of a position to talk.

has been around as long as most anything, varying from artistic expression to military training, depending on the demands of the time. But it's modern form was developed in post-war Germany to improve general riding skill.

Much later, Joey coined 'horse ballet' when I started coming into work sore from head to toe, barely able to walk. Even later, my friend Ariel dubbed 'horsenastics.' Both accurate and clever, I say;
though a bit hard to pronounce without spitting on someone. And horsenastics leads to the obvious conclusion that an athlete in said sport is a 'horsenast,' which sounds like a bad head cold, but gives me endless giggles.

II. On the horse

I get on the actual horse. The person in the middle of the circle, directing the movement of the horse, is the longeur. She keeps the horse going while I do my acrobatics...or just sit there out of breath, trying to remember the next exercise.

The 'flag,' with one leg and one arm extended, is one of the compulsory exercises in vaulting; but it's always been my strongest move
. Here, the horse is going to the right on the circle, which makes it even more challenging because I have to raise a leg on the same side where I don't have an arm. No big deal.

The nice
thing about being a one-armed girl is that if you can do anything on the back of a moving horse, you have everyone's attention, and are automatically amazing. And on a good day, you have your photographer sister along to capture this...

The 'stand', somewhat obviously named, was completely out of my comfort zone the first time I tried it. St
anding straight up on the back of a large animal, nothing to hold onto, seems counter-intuitive, to say the least. And to be honest, I'm hard pressed to imagine the need for this in a wartime situation, unless you're trying to distract the enemy by giving the impression that you've lost your mind. But then, we're talking about Germans here, for whom over-achievement is the least that's expected. And in feats of athletic prowess, they were just borrowing from the Spartans. Best thing about the stand: no arms required.


It felt good to get out on Saturday. Vaulting seems one step away from superhero status. As a human, I've had many long hiatuses in the past five years, when I was too weak to leave the house, much less get on a horse. Even now, one practice can put me under the weather for days. That's the part people don't see when I'm the girl with one arm standing on a trotting horse. I have daydreams of performing before huge crowds, doing a one arm hand-stand to the tune of 'Rock Me' by Great White. But I've left practice in tears, realizing the gulf between reality and imagination, which is constantly getting the better of me. And I want to quit. Like when I quit piano lessons because I didn't think I could be better than the best two-handed player.

I wasn't able to vault at all last winter, which gave my head some time to clear. I wasn't meeting my expectations, true. Nationals were out of the question, I can't even get up on the horse by myself. Why was I vaulting at all?, I wondered.

And this is what I got: I've never cared much for competition, ribbons or awards. I vault because I believe in the sport, because it's beautiful and therapeutic and exciting to watch. Rick isn't an amazing vaulter because he's the best; he's extraordinary because he gives other people reason to believe. I want to be extraordinary, too; and that is not beyond possible.

After all, Beethoven was deaf.


[*This post made possible by the contributions of Little Gen...and viewers like you.]