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Steel City Vaulters take balance to a new level

Countless stomach crunches and living-room hand stands come down to this moment for Andrea Bruno.

She twists, bends and stretches, while balancing atop a slow-trotting American shire horse named The Crumpet.

"Head up!" coach Lynda Fox yells out from a few yards away.

Bruno reaches for the sunlight, setting up for the big dismount. This also is where her stomach muscles need to be their strongest.

"That's it! Center your body!" Fox says, drowning out the horse's heavy hoof beats as they pound past her.

A cloud of dust punches up around Bruno as she sticks the landing.

What was once the subject of a college-research assignment is Bruno's latest obsession. She's one of the newest members of the Steel City Vaulters, a team of equestrian gymnasts based in Greensburg.

Haven't heard of equestrian vaulting• You might the closer you get to the Canterbrook Stables Equestrian Center, where the team practices once a week. Think Cirque du Soleil meets Lonesome Dove, set to a soundtrack of bouncy or classical tunes.

"Pretty much anybody can do this," says Fox, also a former vaulter. "They just have to be willing to work at it."

Equestrian vaulting involves athletes, sometimes as many as three at a time, performing gymnastics and balancing stunts on the back of a slow cantering horse. Historians say the sport's roots date to ancient Rome, although riders in Germany modified it after World War I. It was introduced at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp and performed as a demonstration sport in 1984 and 1996. It was dropped from the Olympic schedule after that.

Vaulting continues to be big in Europe, but has been gaining steam in the United States, particularly in Virginia, Kentucky, Florida and the West Coast states.

The Steel City team is made of vaulters, ages 4 to 45, and its first competition was last month in Herndon, Va. Marah Frank, 14, of Export, won the novice championship, while Juliet Mendik, 6, of Claridge grabbed the Tiny Tots crown. The team is training for a demonstration Oct. 23 at the Autumn Festival in Derry.

Some on the team are dancers or gymnasts who can make the transition to vaulting easily.

Bruno, 21, is neither, and admits she has to work to be agile.

A student at Westmoreland County Community College in Greensburg, Bruno raised two horses at her home in Harrison City and began vaulting in June.

She developed an interest in the sport while doing a research paper on equine therapy for a class. Aspects of vaulting are incorporated in equine therapy, which is used to teach riding skills to people with physical or emotional disabilities.

Making the transition from rider to vaulter has meant hours of sit-ups and other core-tightening exercises. And not always in a gym or at the stable.

"Everyone else could be watching TV, and I'm in the room doing back bends and hand stands," she says. "If you improve the little things, it really helps you along the way later."

Beth Zaccari, 35, of Greensburg has earned a living breaking in spirited colts as a horse trainer the past eight years. She began vaulting just five months ago.

"This is my mid-life crisis," she jokes.

Zaccari applies ballet and other dance she studied early in life to her new life as a vaulter.

"If it has to do with music, I'm all for giving it a try," Zaccari says.

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