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.
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.