Not everyone can do a handstand. Fewer yet atop a cantering horse.
But for sisters Jeanine and Angelique van der Sluijs of Olds, it’s as natural as walking.
The duo are longtime equestrian vaulters — gymnastics mixed with dance all performed via horseback — and recently returned from the Chio Aachen World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany, where they placed 10th with a score of 7.124.
The Chio Aachen is one of many competitions the women have under their belts this year, all in preparation for hooking the big fish: the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in France from Aug. 23 to Sept. 7.
“Our goal is to use this event to test out the waters and set goals for France,” said Jeanine, 27, from Germany last week.
Performing as a pair, called pas-de-deux, they placed second at the CVI (International Vaulting Competition) Pacific Cup in California earlier this year, qualifying for the worlds.
Dressed in matching bright outfits, they have two particular tricky parts in their routine.
“Our routine starts out with rain and thunder with piano music so we’re trying to portray that emotion,” said Jeannine. “We have this motion that portrays the water, which is a neat move for us.”
The van der Sluijs, impressive figures standing at 1.88 metres (six feet two inches) and about 1.75 metres (five feet nine inches), also have been known to raise the crowd’s applause for a position involving Angelique laying down on the horse, with Jeanine supporting herself on her hands, her legs on Angelique.
“Then we do a little leg switch so I go from one split position to another and she catches me again. From there we both roll out and stretch over the whole length of the horse.”
The sisters left Central Alberta at the end of June to become familiar with a new horse, Ilph Islay, a gelding that is located in Scotland. They will be working with Ali again for the World Games.
“The horse has been great for us and we’ve been able to do everything that we had planned to do,” said Jeanine. “It’s important to have that relationship with the horse and see how he reacts to the routine, what will work and what won’t.”
Jeanine started testing her balance on a horse’s back when she was six-years-old in the Netherlands, where she was born. Angelique, two years younger, soon followed in her footsteps.
“We started because our older sister started riding lessons and a friend brought us to a local barn and there was vaulting happening at the time. With both of us being involved in gymnastics before, they said we should give it a try so we jumped on it and stuck with it from there.”
When the family moved to Central Alberta in 2001, the girls kept up their passion and opened the Meadow Creek Vaulting Club outside of Olds, where Jeanine teaches and practices.
Mother Marijke was getting up early and also playing night hawk while her daughters were in Germany, watching them compete live online.
“I’m so proud of them,” she said from the family’s dairy farm just east of Olds. “They train very hard — every day — and they improve every time. I’m so happy they get to represent Canada in a sport they love.”
Jeanine has been a full-time competitor in the world of vaulting for the past four years, representing Canada at the World Games in 2010. But this year marks the first time the sisters are competing together on an international level.
“It’s fun,” said Jeannine of working with her sister. “It’s great to share the experience with her for a change. It’s a neat competition and exciting to be going up against the best in the world.”
For more information on the sisters, visit www.vds-sisters.ca.