Phillip Dutton: How To Jump a Bank

Ride a cross-country bank confidently with seven-time Olympian Phillip Dutton.

A bank on a cross-country course can ask all kinds of questions, depending on your level of competition. At Novice level, the bank may be a simple step or small jump onto slightly higher ground; you just jump up and canter on. At Prelim and Intermediate, banks get higher and require you to jump up, then off again. The question gets harder if there’s a fence as part of the approach, part of the landing, or on top of the bank. At Advanced and beyond, banks can be quite formidable—like the enormous Rolex Bank (which typically has a tough technical question at the top) or the Badminton Staircase (three maximum-dimension bounces with no room for a stride between efforts—and, again, a difficult technical fence at the top or bottom).

Whatever the level at which you hope to compete someday, starting your horse correctly on banks at entry level will make progressing easier for both of you.  

Challenges for your horse

At a basic level, a bank tests your horse’s ability to “read the question” (figure out what he’s being asked to do—to jump up onto a higher, solid surface—and how to execute it), his fitness (how he springs to the new terrain), and his balance (whether he lands ready to continue or all strung out).

Challenges for you

Even a small bank requires you to ride in a secure cross-country position with independent seat, leg and hands, so that you’re able to avoid interfering with your horse’s mouth; and to stay with his motion in both the up and down phases, so that you don’t impair his balance.

Getting Ready

Find the Right Canter

Before you tackle a bank on course, practice recognizing and maintaining the type of canter that will give you the best jump up. It’s not a slow, dead canter, and it’s not fast and flat. It’s a strong, forward, elevated “show-jumping canter” in which you feel your horse’s wither and shoulder up in front of you. This is the canter that will enable him to spring up and land on the bank comfortably—not flatfooted and disorganized. In fact, establishing this canter now will come in handy because it’s what you want for most cross-country obstacles.

Learn to stay with him

The biggest challenge for you in riding up a bank for the first time will be the powerful upward surge as your horse leaps to the next level. (We’ll talk later about how to handle the drop off the bank, if there is a drop.) The sudden backward pull of gravity can cause you to lose your position and grab the reins for balance—something you want to avoid at all costs.

Although you can’t build a bank in your ring at home, you can build something that will give you a similar feeling. Set a gymnastic of three small (2-foot to 2-foot 6-inch) vertical bounce fences, spaced about 12 feet apart. The feeling you’ll get when your horse lands, then takes off again immediately, with no stride between fences, is a lot like what you’d experience in the liftoff for a bank. Practice maintaining your two-point position through this gymnastic, staying with his motion and not grabbing his mouth as he jumps. Grabbing a handful of mane before the first fence can be helpful while you’re getting used to this motion.

Got all your prerequisites in place? Great. Let’s tackle those banks.

Jumping Up the Bank—First at Trot

However well your work is going at home, plan to trot (not canter) the first couple of banks you encounter on cross-country, as I’m doing here with Seemore. Approaching at trot gives your horse a better chance to look the bank over and understand what he needs to do. It also makes riding him to a deep takeoff spot, close in to the base of the bank, much easier. That’s important because when he jumps from a deep spot, he lands on top of the bank in a much more organized way, ready for the next job. If he stood off and jumped from a long spot, he’d be more likely to “land in a heap” and need more time to repackage.

How To Jump A Bank
1. I bring Seemore back to trot from canter ten or twelve strides out from the bank. He’s moving in a strong, active trot, out in front of my leg, with his shoulders up. By establishing the trot this early, I avoid needing to pull on the reins to shorten his stride as we near the bank, which would take away from his jump. Seemore looks a bit set in his mouth here, but he’s actually just intent on the bank. ©Amy K. Dragoo
How To Jump A Bank
2. We’ve found a nice deep spot from which to jump. Seemore’s back is round and he’s using himself well; I love his focused expression. I’ve come forward with my upper body to stay in balance with him, and I’m giving him the reins to free his head for the effort. My lower leg stays vertical, securing my position. ©Amy K. Dragoo
How To Jump A Bank
3. Nice landing! Seemore’s jump, out of a powerful trot and from that deep spot, takes us well onto the bank. As he lands, he’s already organized (look at how far under his body his hind legs are coming) and ready for the next question. My seat is close to the saddle, but I’m still following his motion with my hands and upper body. His good experience with this effort will help his confidence the next time we jump up a bank. ©Amy K. Dragoo

Jumping Up the Bank at Canter

Jumping A Bank at Canter
1. Here’s the good bouncy canter I was talking about. I established it ten or twelve strides away from the bank so I wouldn’t be picking at Seemore’s mouth all the way to the jump. He’s nicely connected front to back, and I’m sitting in the saddle with my upper body more nearly vertical than it would be for galloping, and with my leg on to keep the energy coming. ©Amy K. Dragoo
Jumping Up A Bank At Canter
2. As Seemore jumps from the canter, I come forward with my upper body to stay with him. If you look closely, you’ll see my left hand is grabbing mane to avoid getting left behind. (An alternative to grabbing mane is to follow the example of Britain’s William Fox-Pitt, one of the world’s best cross-country riders, who routinely uses an easy-to-grab neck strap on course.) ©Amy K. Dragoo
Jumping Up A Bank At Canter
3. As we take our first full canter stride on top of the bank, I’ve come back to my canter position, ready to encourage Seemore for the “off” jump ahead. My leg is on enough to keep him engaged and moving forward, and I take a feel of his mouth to establish steering so I can direct his attention to the “off.” But I <I>don’t rush him<$>–I want him to have a chance to read the jump. Taking his time will make him more likely to land balanced and “together”; a hasty leap could cause him to land in a flatfooted scramble that would NOT be a great experience for him. ©Amy K. Dragoo

Now, Bank Off!

Jumping A Bank At Canter
1. This is a nice moment. Seemore and I are in perfect balance as he commits to a quiet, controlled jump off. I’m sitting right in the middle of him. And I’m giving him all the rein he needs to read the drop. ©Amy K. Dragoo
Jumping Down a Bank
2. As he jumps down, I slip the reins (although I maintain a soft connection to his mouth). I also stay back with my upper body, my lower leg still securely vertical. In the next moment, I will bring my upper body back to canter position. In another stride, I will prepare to rise to galloping position, begin shortening my reins and ready him to gallop on. ©Amy K. Dragoo

Problem-Solving: The Long, Flat Approach

Problem-Sovling: The Long, Flat Approach
1. We got to this bank in a canter that was too flat and fast. As a result, Seemore took a big, strung-out jump at it from a long spot. I try to stay with him. ©Amy K. Dragoo
Problem-Solving: The Long, Flat Approach
2. But I get left behind. My weight is too far back when he lands, causing him to hollow out. His back feet clear the lip of the bank, but it’s not a comfortable landing. To regroup, in the next stride, I’ll get back in balance with Seemore. I’ll do this by coming a bit more forward than this with my upper body, even as the “off” jump is coming up quickly. I avoid interfering with his mouth, which would confuse him, and I have my leg on to let him know we need to keep going to the “off” jump. ©Amy K. Dragoo

Problem-Solving: Hesitation

Problem-Solving: Hesitation
1. This bank is unfamiliar to Seemore, with a bigger “off” jump than he’s used to. He’s reacting like a typical green horse, hesitating suspiciously on the approach to the “off.” One of my biggest assets on cross-country is my horse’s natural instinct. So I don’t want to punish him for using the caution about new problems that helps make him such a good jumper. But I also want him to understand that he has to take the jump. I’m positioned securely to give him confidence—and to avoid getting catapulted forward when he finally decides to go. I sit deep and give him plenty of rein to check out the jump. My weight is in my heel, and my lower leg is on him (though it’s slipped back for a second) as a reminder that we’re going forward. I’m ready to keep my upper body back and slip my reins. ©Amy K. Dragoo
Problem-Sovling: Hesitation
2. But Seemore takes an enormous leap off. This is also typical for a green horse who, having finally made his mind up, says, “Let’s get out of here!” I’m balancing back with my upper body, keeping my leg secure and slipping the reins. My biggest concern here is that I not restrict his jump. That way he comes away with a good experience. ©Amy K. Dragoo

About Phillip Dutton

Seven-time Olympic eventer Philllip Dutton won Olympic team gold at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. He also won individual bronze at the 2016 Games. Dutton has competed at seven World Championships and won two U.S. team Pan American gold medals in 2007 and 2015. He and his wife, Evie, own, manage and train out of True Prospect Farm. It is based in West Grove, Pennsylvania, and Buck Ridge Farm in Loxahatchee, Florida.

Thanks to Cosequin for our coverage of the 2024 Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event. It includes rider interviews, competition reports, horse spotlights, photos, videos and more.

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