Jump Cross-Coun­try Banks Suc­cess­fully

Cana­dian even­ter Se­lena O’Han­lon ex­plains how to pro­duce the cor­rect can­ter in the ap­proaches to up and down banks and how to tackle on–off banks in Part 2 of this two-part se­ries.

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By Se­lena O’Han­lon Pho­tos by Amy K. Dra­goo

Imag­ine ap­proach­ing an Ad­vanced-level jump up a large bank, fol­lowed by a bounce to a nar­row brush jump. There’s no room for er­ror. In the last few strides be­fore take­off, you ask your horse to gather his stride and tip his bal­ance up­hill, coil­ing his en­ergy like a com­pressed spring so that when he gets close enough to the bank, he can power smoothly up it, land, then power

up again over the brush fence. You find your­self sit­ting at the cen­ter of his teeter-tot­ter-like mo­tions as his fore­hand ro­tates up in front of you and his hind end ro­tates un­der­neath you to jump the bank. Then his body lev­els out mo­men­tar­ily at the top of the bank be­fore the teeter-tot­ter tips up­ward again to jump the bounce fence.

As we dis­cussed last month, that’s how smoothly and ef­fort­lessly your “up” and “down” banks should ride at any level. In that ar­ti­cle, I de­scribed how to in­tro­duce a green event horse to small up and down banks. I ex­plained how im­por­tant it is to build his con­fi­dence early, keep­ing the jumps as un­com­pli­cated and drama-free as pos­si­ble, so that you can or­ga­nize quickly on land­ing

be­fore the next ob­sta­cle. This will be­come more and more im­por­tant as you progress up the lev­els.

In Part 1, we in­tro­duced your horse to a very small bank by sim­ply step­ping up and down it, first at the walk and then at the trot. I of­fered tips on how to stay with your horse’s mo­tion with­out mak­ing any dra­matic moves that might in­ter­fere with his fo­cus on the drop or throw him off bal­ance. Re­view those tips to pre­pare for the ex­er­cises in this ar­ti­cle. We’ll carry the skills you learned last month over to slightly larger up banks and drops this month and will dis­cuss how to pro­duce the cor­rect can­ter in the ap­proaches for both. Then I’ll ex­plain how to tackle on–off banks, which are even more chal­leng­ing.

Warm Up at the Trot

If your ini­tial school­ing ses­sion over a small bank went well, for your next ses­sion choose a slightly more chal­leng­ing bank: 2- foot- 3 or 2- foot- 6 high. Ride up and down it sev­eral times at the trot just as we dis­cussed last month:

Keep your horse straight and square to the up bank, be­ing care­ful not to tip your shoul­ders for­ward in the ap­proach. When he takes off, fol­low his mouth with your hands as if you were hand­ing a tray to some­one on the top of the bank. Mean­while, keep your weight in your heels and your legs closed against his sides, so his body doesn’t slip through them.

As you ap­proach the down bank, stay tall in your up­per body and drop your

weight into your sad­dle and heels, turn­ing your toes out slightly to bring your calves against his sides. Re­mem­ber to keep your chin up all the way to the take­off, us­ing your pe­riph­eral vi­sion just briefly to look down the sides of your nose to check for the bank’s edge. Oth­er­wise, keep your eyes fo­cused up and ahead of you. When you reach the edge, close both legs on your horse’s sides and slightly lower and soften your hands to en­cour­age him to plop down softly off the drop.

Can­ter the Up Bank

When that is go­ing well, move on to a can­ter ap­proach. For the jump up the bank, think of rid­ing the last six or seven strides

as if you were ap­proach­ing a very large ver­ti­cal show jump. To prac­tice tran­si­tion­ing from your gal­lop to this com­pressed can­ter, set a marker (a cone, up­turned bucket, etc.) about five strides away from a sim­ple cross-coun­try jump, such as a coop or roll­top, then an­other marker seven strides away and an­other eight strides away.

1. Get up some speed as you gal­lop across the field at your nor­mal cross-coun­try pace.

2. At the first cone, ini­ti­ate your aids for the up­hill can­ter, clos­ing your legs on your horse’s sides and ap­ply­ing what I call “bi­cy­cle brakes:” Squeeze and re­lease the reins as if you were squeez­ing and re­leas­ing the han­dle­bar brakes on a bike. Think of clos­ing your fin­gers in your gloves just enough so your horse feels tem­po­rary pres­sure in the cor­ners of his mouth, then re­lease the pres­sure with­out let­ting the reins sag. His neck should re­main a nat­u­ral length and his ears should stay pricked for­ward as he fo­cuses his at­ten­tion on the jump—not on you.

3. Re­peat these half-halts as many times as nec­es­sary, aim­ing to achieve the more up­hill can­ter by the time you reach the third cone.

4. In the last few strides, drop your seat into the sad­dle, sit a lit­tle taller in your up­per body and main­tain the rhythm and pace all the way to the jump, re­sist­ing the temp­ta­tion to pull back­ward on the reins.

With prac­tice, you’ll learn how far away from the jump to ini­ti­ate these aids on your par­tic­u­lar horse to get the can­ter you need for those fi­nal strides. When you get the hang of this, ap­proach the up bank. As you tran­si­tion from your gal­lop to your com­pressed can­ter, sit up tall with your up­per body and think of clos­ing your legs on your horse’s sides in a way that en­cour­ages him to lift up his rib cage, bring his hocks more un­der­neath his body and ad­just and sup­ple his back right be­hind the sad­dle. At the same time, say “whoa” and ap­ply your “bi­cy­cle brakes.”

These com­bined aids will pro­duce the up­hill bal­ance he needs to power up the bank. In the last few strides be­fore it, you want to feel like he pats the ground like a cat on a hot tin roof, com­press­ing his stride while keep­ing the “revs” up—one, two, three; one, two, three.

The big­ger the bank is, the more up­hill power you want to cre­ate in these last few strides. Bal­ance is key here. Your horse must be in self-car­riage in the fi­nal strides of the ap­proach. You can­not hold him in an up­hill bal­ance. So you need to help him find the cor­rect bal­ance early, then main­tain it to the take­off with­out ever tak­ing his eye off the bank.

When your horse takes off, ride the bank just as you did from the trot: al­low­ing his mo­tion to close your hip an­gle nat­u­rally while fol­low­ing his mouth with your hands—and grab­bing mane if he takes a big­ger jump than you ex­pected.

Can­ter the Drop

Can­ter­ing to a drop off a bank re­quires a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. In fact, I pre­fer that horses don’t can­ter the last step or two be­fore jump­ing off. If they slow to the trot, they’re more likely to lower their bod­ies care­fully down the drop—in­stead of launch­ing off stiff-legged and land­ing in a heap at the bot­tom.

This can be a fine line, though, be­cause you never want to slow your horse down so much that you risk invit­ing a re­fusal. If you’re not sure your horse will slow to a trot on his own, plan to bring him down from the can­ter to the trot seven or eight strides away from the drop. (With prac­tice, you can shorten that to three or four strides, so you don’t lose too much mo­men­tum.) If he tends to be strong in the bri­dle and drag you all the way to the edge of the drop, it’s very im­por­tant to teach him early that he must come back to the trot for jumps like this.

Some horses don’t need to come back to trot be­fore big drops. They know how to slow their ve­loc­ity at the last minute, bend their knees and hocks and crouch their bod­ies down to­ward the ground be­fore drop­ping care­fully over the edge. Un­til you know that you can trust your horse to do this, how­ever, it’s safer to bring him to a trot. What­ever gait you’re in when you ar­rive at the edge of the drop, al­ways lower and soften your hands in the last stride to al­low him to use his head and neck for bal­ance and depth per­cep­tion. Just as you did over the walk and trot drops, keep your chin up, your seat close to the sad­dle and your lower leg di­rectly un­der­neath your body so you can re­cover your bal­ance quickly on land­ing.

Cau­tion: If at all pos­si­ble, avoid school­ing drops when the ground is firm. The st­ing of re­peated im­pacts on hard ground can not only con­trib­ute to in­juries but might also dis­cour­age your horse from jump­ing drops in the fu­ture. It’s im­por­tant to school banks at least once in the be­gin­ning of an event sea­son, though, so if your only choice is to do it on firm ground, limit the num­ber of rep­e­ti­tions as much as pos­si­ble.

Ride an On–Off Bank

Rid­ing an on-off bank—where you jump up onto a bank, ride a few strides across the top and then jump down off it—is much more chal­leng­ing than a sim­ple step up or down. It hap­pens faster than you ex­pect. There’s very lit­tle time to re­or­ga­nize on top of the bank, so you have to think on your feet. If you tend to have a loose lower leg, this may be a tough wake-up call! Your horse will shift his cen­ter of grav­ity so quickly—tip­ping up the bank, level­ing out, then tip­ping down off it—that, with­out a snug grip on his sides, you may

have trouble stay­ing with his mo­tion and main­tain­ing your own bal­ance.

On–off banks with only one stride on top are es­pe­cially un­for­giv­ing, so start with a two- or three-stride bank, which will give you more time to re­act if you make a mis­take. Al­ways pri­or­i­tize your line over your dis­tance. If your strid­ing is slightly off, your horse will most likely fig­ure it out. But if your line is off, that can lead to a runout or, even worse, a trip or fall caused by a crooked ap­proach and hung leg.

1. Ap­proach the bank in the same up­hill can­ter you used for sim­ple stepups, be­ing sure your line takes you straight and square to the mid­dle of the bank. As your horse jumps up it, fol­low his mouth with your hands.

2. As soon as you feel all four feet reach the top of the bank, fo­cus your eyes on the straight line you want to ride across it. Then re-es­tab­lish even con­tact on both reins, drop your seat into the sad­dle and your weight into your heels and ride for­ward to­ward the jump off. Un­like a sim­ple drop, there’s of­ten not enough time to al­low your horse to slow to the trot be­fore take­off with­out risk­ing los­ing too much mo­men­tum (and invit­ing a re­fusal). But it’s also not es­sen­tial that he put in the ex­act ex­pected num­ber of strides. Again, pri­or­i­tize line over dis­tance. If he adds a stride or shuf­fles a lit­tle be­fore take­off, that’s fine so long as he stays straight on the line. As al­ways, be care­ful not to pull back­ward on the reins.

3. When you ar­rive at the drop, soften your el­bows and lower your hands. Turn your toes out slightly and close your legs on his sides. Be pre­pared to let the reins slip through your fin­gers if nec­es­sary so he can use his head and neck for bal­ance.

With prac­tice your horse will learn to jump these ques­tions care­fully and ef­fi­ciently while you get the hang of stay­ing with his mo­tion and re­or­ga­niz­ing quickly on land­ing. This will en­able you to tackle more com­pli­cated bank com­bi­na­tions in the fu­ture.

Al­ways pri­or­i­tize your line over your dis­tance.

As we reach the first bucket, I close my legs to ask him to step more un­der­neath his body with his hind legs. Then I squeeze and re­lease my reins to ask him to adopt a more up­hill bal­ance.

… the jump.

In the fi­nal strides be­fore the jump, I drop my weight lightly into the sad­dle and bring my shoul­ders more upright with­out pulling back­ward on the reins. This al­lows us to main­tain the right bal­ance, rhythm and line all the way to …

To prac­tice get­ting quickly to my up-bank can­ter, I gal­lop Kelly Damp’s Zephyr across a field at our nor­mal cross-coun­try pace.

By the time we reach the third marker, his bal­ance is more up­hill and en­gaged—but also in self-car­riage.

With prac­tice your horse will learn to jump bank ques­tions care­fully and ef­fi­ciently while you get the hang of stay­ing with his mo­tion and re­or­ga­niz­ing quickly.

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