World Equestrian Games champion Joanne Eccles is also a dentist
The 25-year-old is favorite to come out on top at the Games in August
Vaulting involves competitors performing acrobatic moves on a horse
Take one dentist, a catsuit, a horse and a barrel, and you have a world champion.
Four days a week, 25-year-old Joanne Eccles examines teeth in Kinross, north of Edinburgh. She spends the rest of her time clad in spandex, performing gymnastics on a horse.
Her sport? Vaulting.
The British rider is the favorite for August’s World Equestrian Games, having won world titles in 2010 and 2012.
“I’ve been vaulting since I was eight. After that, everything had to fit around it,” she says.
“I’m maybe not quite so enthusiastic about being a dentist, but I can earn a living and still get the most out of my vaulting.”
Here are the basics: you get on a moving horse and perform leaps, handstands, tumbles and other acrobatic moves on the animal’s back, while it canters in a circle.
You can compete as an individual (where Eccles excels), as a pair (the “pas de deux”) or as a team of six.
Men and women of all ages can compete together. Eccles sometimes performs with her 22-year-old sister Hannah, who has also represented Britain.
“I still get to throw my little sister around, it’s brilliant,” she says.
Even her father, John, is involved. He is Joanne’s “lunger” – which means his job is to guide the horse from the center of the arena while she competes.
Lunging is an important job: when vaulters win medals, the lunger gets one, too. (The horse, meanwhile, must settle for everyone’s lasting gratitude.)
“The lunger is in constant contact and communication with the horse,” explains Craig Coburn, a leading vaulting judge.
“You have to work to keep the horse’s pace and tempo, keep it paying attention to what’s going on.”
Eccles says her dad was less than impressed as a spectator at her early domestic competitions.
“He thought it was so boring,” she recalls. “But then I was the reserve for a big international event, and he realized that if you’re at a high level, it’s a brilliant sport.
“So he looked into getting a horse himself, he got into it, and now he’s a coach and judge as well as my lunger.”
John Eccles is not the first parent to revise their opinion of vaulting.
When Sheri Benjamin took her eight-year-old girl to pick up hay for their rabbit at a nearby California farm, she had not planned on raising a vaulting world champion.
However, there was a demonstration taking place at the farm, and a coach overheard daughter Megan’s excitement.
“We knew nothing about it,” recalls Benjamin. “You can’t imagine our amazement when we went up to this ranch, and here were these athletes on the backs of horses, doing all sorts of gymnastics and dance moves.
“I looked at that and thought, no way in hell am I going to let Megan do this.”
Five years later, the Benjamins had a horse on each side of the Atlantic. By the age of 18, in 2006, Megan Benjamin had won world gold for the United States.
“I swear I’m not a bad mom,” adds Sheri, who claims vaulting is statistically safer than playing on a playground.
“When Megan first wanted to ride a horse, they said she was too young to go into the regular riding program, but they would let her vault – because an adult controls the horse, and a three-year-old can do it with the horse at walking pace. They can build up.”
This is where the barrel comes in. If you go straight to the horse with a new move, chances are you will eat sand after a nasty fall moments later. A vaulting barrel is the answer.
“You can build your own,” explains Coburn. “It’s basically an oil drum with four steel legs on the bottom – long and round, with handles on it, and wrapped in padding.”
You practice new moves on a mat and then go on to the barrel, says former competitor Lucy Bell, who now manages the British team at big events.
“The horses themselves are wrapped up in cotton wool, you train on them just a couple of times a week,” she explains.
“The rest of the time? You’d be on that barrel.”
New moves, and new links between moves, are the lifeblood of the sport. “Something the judges haven’t seen before, so the sport progresses,” says Bell.
For Eccles, that means the one-handed handstand – a move many would find tricky on the ground, but which she must pull off while balancing upside-down on a cantering horse.
“A new move sets you apart from the rest and nobody else had done a one-handed handstand before,” Eccles says.
“I tried it in France last month and it worked. Now a lot of people know I can do it, so there is more pressure to do it again.”
Flexibility is an obvious asset for a vaulter – the sport attracts plenty of young gymnasts, though Eccles insists she had very little bend as a child. “I had to be held down and stretched by three other people, which I absolutely hated,” she recalls.
Strength is another vital component, sometimes masked by the necessity for vaulters to compete in all-in-one catsuits.
“What Megan had going for her was her upper-body strength,” Sheri Benjamin says of her daughter, who played ice hockey before taking up vaulting.
“After she had been vaulting for two or three years, we went to watch the X Games, and there was a Marine Corps recruiting booth which had a pullup contest.
“Megan waited in line, got up there and popped off 25 pullups, aged 10 or 11.
“All the boys behind her melted out of the line after she finished. The recruiter said she could be a marine any time.”
As a judge, Coburn looks for exactly the right balance of skills before awarding scores (from one to a maximum of 10).
“I’m looking for a vaulter that is smooth, and light, and in harmony with the horse. They’re not springing off the horse like it’s a trampoline, they are in motion with the horse as if they are one,” he says.
“When you leap off the back of a horse, if you are in perfect harmony, you go up as the horse’s stride is going up – so you leap without jumping.
“When you land down on the horse, you land in sync with the horse, as softly as a feather on the ground. Performances will give you goosebumps when that’s the case.”
So who are the “goosebumps candidates” at the World Equestrian Games?
Germany is historically the sport’s leading nation. Austria and France are contenders, and the U.S. has improved dramatically.
But Sheri Benjamin believes Eccles, the defending individual champion, is still the best.
“She is the person to beat,” says Benjamin, whose daughter retired from vaulting in 2012. “It amazes me that she continued to vault through dental school.”
Bell, who will be Eccles’ team manager at the Games in Normandy, adds: “Joanne is very calm, she can focus completely on what she has to do.
“Between her and her dad, they’ve taken every single part of the sport and worked out what you need to achieve.”
Eccles herself is, for now, secretly watching vaulting clips over lunch with her dental nurse at the surgery.
However, she has two tournament wins to her name in the past month and feels ready to return to the spotlight.
“When I started, we were just having a laugh,” she says. “We were lucky to do so well.
“Now, it feels like we’re riding on the back of success. It gets better and better.”