No-Fuss Ap­proach to Cross-Coun­try Banks

Cana­dian Olympic even­ter Se­lena O’Han­lon de­scribes her sys­tem for jump­ing cross-coun­try banks smoothly and suc­cess­fully in Part 1 of this two-part se­ries.

Practical Horseman - - Special Eventing Issue - By Se­lena O’Han­lon Pho­tos by Amy K. Dra­goo

Pic­ture your­self ap­proach­ing a max­i­mum Ad­vanced-level drop: 6-foot-7 inches. As you get close to the edge, it looks 10 times big­ger than it did when you walked the course. But your horse takes two shuf­fling steps, then bends his knees and hocks to crouch his belly down to­ward the ground be­fore drop­ping softly over the edge. As his front feet leave the ground, his body tilts un­derneath you like a teeter-tot­ter—his front end ro­tat­ing down­ward while his hind end ro­tates up. There’s a bit of a jolt on land­ing, but not so much that you can’t re­or­ga­nize your reins quickly and steer to­ward the next skinny el­e­ment of the com­bi­na­tion, which your horse hops neatly over.

Through­out the en­tire ex­pe­ri­ence, you sit qui­etly in the sad­dle, keep­ing your legs closed around your horse’s sides so that your body goes with his mo­tion, but you don’t make any dra­matic moves oth­er­wise. Your hip an­gle opens and closes while the teeter-tot­ter moves un­derneath you, leav­ing you in the ex­act same po­si­tion you started in with your hel­met aligned over your pelvis. Pic­ture the Lip­iz­zaner riders in the Span­ish Rid­ing School sit­ting so qui­etly while their mounts per­form the airs above the ground. They stay in their sad­dles, but still move ex­actly in sync with the mo­tion of their horses.

That’s how smoothly and ef­fort­lessly your “up” and “down” banks should ride—at any level. The only dif­fer­ence be­tween lower-level and ad­vanced-level ef­forts is the de­gree of ro­ta­tion that your horse’s body makes in that teeter-tot­ter fash­ion. In essence, horses see these ob­sta­cles sim­ply as vari­a­tions of nat­u­ral changes in ter­rain. So the con­cept is usu­ally easy to in­tro­duce, es­pe­cially if you start small. I’ll ex­plain how in this ar­ti­cle.

No­tice that noth­ing in my above de­scrip­tion of an ideal bank ef­fort in­volves a dra­matic, heroic leap or thun­der­ing land­ing on all fours. Those are the sce­nar­ios that you don’t want! The more ex­plo­sive your horse’s jump is, ei­ther up or down a bank, the harder it’s go­ing to be for you to or­ga­nize your reins, bal­ance, strid­ing and line for the next el­e­ment of the com­bi­na­tion—and, in the case of the drop, the more con­cus­sion he’s go­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence on land­ing, which in­creases his risk of in­jury. At the lower lev­els, the next el­e­ment may be fairly sim­ple—or there may be no next el­e­ment at all. But as you move pro­gres­sively up the lev­els, those next el­e­ments will get more and more chal­leng­ing—skin­nier, on an­gles, etc. So the more ef­fi­ciently and care­fully you nav­i­gate the bank el­e­ment, the bet­ter your chances of com­plet­ing the en­tire com­bi­na­tion cleanly.

What You’ll Need

Whether you’re in­tro­duc­ing your horse to banks for the first time or re-in­tro­duc­ing them at the be­gin­ning of the sea­son, use one that is very small—no higher than the floor of a step-up trailer, about 1½ feet. Ide­ally, it should be on its own, without any other re­lated banks or ob­sta­cles to dis­tract your horse, and there should be an easy slope or hill for ap­proach­ing or ex­it­ing the top of the bank.

I also strongly rec­om­mend in­tro­duc­ing banks with a lead horse—a calm, ex­pe­ri­enced horse rid­den by a knowl­edge­able rider.

Warm-up: Ask, Tell, De­mand

One of the most valu­able tools you’ll need in case your horse hes­i­tates at the bank is your cluck aid. Dur­ing your warm-up, review it by fol­low­ing the “ask, tell, de­mand” for­mula. Use your leg aids to ask for a tran­si­tion from walk to trot. If your horse doesn’t re­spond im­me­di­ately, use firmer leg aids or ap­ply your spurs. If that doesn’t pro­duce the de­sired re­sponse, make a cluck­ing noise fol­lowed by a tap of the whip.

As soon as he picks up the trot, ver­bally re­ward him. Re­peat this as many times as nec­es­sary to be sure that he un­der­stands not only the mean­ing of your leg aids but also the mean­ing of the cluck.

The Small Step Up

Whether you in­tro­duce the bank up or down first de­pends on your per­sonal pref­er­ence. Horses are good at read­ing their riders’ vibes, so if you’re more anx­ious or ten­ta­tive about one di­rec­tion, you horse will likely pick up on that. Start with your fa­vorite di­rec­tion to build his con­fi­dence early. I per­son­ally pre­fer up banks, so I will de­scribe those first.

With a pos­i­tive, me­thod­i­cal in­tro­duc­tion, you can teach your horse to jump small banks care­fully and ef­fi­ciently so he can tackle big­ger ones later in his ca­reer with con­fi­dence.

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