Now this is an event I could sink my teeth into. In fact, I did. When I was a vaulter we had the old vaulting horse and for one vault my hands slipped and I hit my face on the horse. It loosened a couple of teeth but I did conquer the vault on the next try. This event goes way back and I mean way back. Alexander the Great and his Macedonians are said to have practiced mounting and dismounting on a wooden horse. In the fourth century Vegetius describes Roman soldiers practicing on a wooden horse in his “Overview of the Roman Army”. But before then ancient Greeks vaulted over ponies as a show of speed and agility. There was no spring board.
In the early 19th century, when Jahn, regarded as the father of gymnastics, was alive, there were different kinds of horses on his training
ranch, called the Hasenheide in Berlin: One was very realistic, it even had a head and tail. One was tailless but with an ascending end called the head. This one actually developed into the Olympic event of Pommel Horse; while the one with the tail was the predecessor of the vaulting horse. And actually for many years one horse was used for both events. When they were done with Pommels, they unscrewed them and covered the holes so fingers wouldn’t get stuck when vaulting.
Early vaults were more flanking style, like the body passing over without a flip. These evolved into flipping vaults when handsprings became the skill of choice for advanced gymnasts.
In the early 80’s the injury trend in gymnastics vaulting was too high and a replacement for the horse was on the drawing table but existed only as a discussion for many years. Men vaulted on the horse the long way and the narrow body was difficult for the wider shoulders of a man. Often arms were bent and form compromised to accommodate. For women the narrow horse was vaulted over sideways. Again the small target was difficult for a gymnast to hit at a full run and it was often missed or slip off of and made for some scary moments in the sport. In 1991 Trent Dimas the American who went on the win High Bar Gold was seriously injured while vaulting and what once was just a discussion became a call to action.
In 2001 FIG (Federation of International Gymnastics) retired the old horse to pasture and replaced it with the new Vault table. The apparatus
is much safer, but as always with these improvements comes an open door to higher risk skills. Watch this vault by Nelli Kim. She was the first woman to compete a Tsukahara (roundoff back flip from the table without touching feet obviously) and the first woman to do a double back flip on floor. Here she throws the Tsukahara with a full twist. AWESOME for 1976.