Take it to the Bank

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.

Bank Basics
Traditional “up” banks and “down” banks, also known as drops, are such an integral part of the cross-country phase of eventing that they first appear on Beginner Novice courses. They usually involve square-ish steps fortified, or “revetted,” with vertically stacked logs or telephone poles. At the lower levels, they typically stand alone, but the upper levels often combine drops, banks and other elements via related distances.The maximum dimensions for drops and banks at Beginner Novice level are 3-foot-3 and 2-foot-5, respectively. 

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.

Start by following the lead horse in a medium walk, alternating your leg aids in rhythm with your horse’s steps to remind him to march forward with purpose. Follow about two horse lengths behind the lead horse on a straight path that will arrive exactly perpendicular to the base of the bank. Especially at the lower levels, it is very important to present your horse squarely to both up and down banks. If he’s crooked, there’s a danger of him hanging or leaving a leg over the bank and tipping off balance.

To help ensure this straightness, maintain steady contact on both reins. Check that there is a straight line from your elbow to your hands to your horse’s bit with no loop creeping into either rein. At the same time, keep the feeling in your hands forward-thinking, never pulling backward and causing him to shorten the length of his neck.

Meanwhile, focus your eyes on the helmet of the rider on the lead horse. After she steps up the bank, keep your eyes on her while also watching the top edge of the bank in your peripheral vision. Continue applying your alternating leg aids until your horse’s chest is as close as possible to the bank (about 4 feet away).

Then close both legs on his sides to encourage him to step up it. Be careful not to do this too soon. If you close your legs when his nose nears the bank, his front legs will still be too far away to step easily up it. Asking him to jump too soon will risk tipping him onto his forehand. Don’t worry, he won’t let himself get too close to the bank to step up safely. His natural instinct will tell him when to snap up his legs.

Avoid the temptation to lean forward. If you get ahead of the motion, your horse will be less inclined to jump. If you’re like me and have a habit of darting your shoulders forward, imagine that you’re riding through water that slows down the movement of your head and shoulders.

Since this bank is small, most horses will simply step up, rather than jump. This smooth, slow motion will give you time to think.

As your horse steps up, think of your legs relying on two different forces: 60 percent gravity and 40 percent grip. Use gravity by dropping weight into your heels and keeping them aligned underneath your hips and helmet. This helps you maintain your balance. Produce the grip factor by squeezing your calves against your horse’s sides so he can’t slip between your legs like a bar of soap. This will ensure that your body stays with his center of gravity.

At the same time, imagine holding a tray of food in both hands and lifting it up to someone on top of the bank. This way your hands will follow your horse’s mouth. If you feel a little loose in the tack or worry that your horse might take a bigger hop than expected, grab mane. The last thing you want to do is punish his good effort by catching him in the mouth.

Keep your seat close to the saddle with a low center of gravity. Lifting the “tray” up the bank will automatically lighten your seat slightly. Trust your legs to keep you in balance and just wait for your horse to tip the teeter-totter upward. When he does, allow that motion to naturally close your hip angle.

At the top of the bank, praise your horse, bring him back to the walk, return to applying alternate leg aids and walk quietly off the easy, sloped side of the bank. Then prepare to approach it again.

Repeat this process until he is stepping up the small bank confidently with no sign of hesitation. Then do it without the lead horse.

If your horse hesitates in front of the bank, use your cluck to encourage him forward. If that doesn’t work, tap him behind your leg with the stick. Remember the ask, tell, demand sequence and keep his shoulders square to the bank until he steps up. Because the bank is so small, he can do this from a standstill very easily. However, if you feel him digging in his heels, change plans and focus on the drop down first instead, using the lead horse as described below. Once he’s done that successfully, you may find that he’s braver tackling the step up.

The Small Drop Down

When the step up is going well, approach the small bank in the other direction to ask your horse to step down it.

Use the lead horse again, but this time maintain a slightly larger distance—two and a half to three horse lengths—just in case your horse jumps out helicopter-style, so he doesn’t risk landing on the lead horse. Once again, approach in a business-like medium walk, alternating your leg aids.

As you get close to the edge, grow tall in your upper body while dropping your weight down into your saddle and heels. Turn your toes slightly outward so your calves come more firmly against your horse’s sides.

Focus your eyes on the helmet of the rider in front of you, even after she steps down the bank.

As you reach the drop, use your peripheral vision to briefly look down the sides of your nose to check where the edge is—but don’t drop your chin down! Your head is the heaviest part of your body. Dropping your chin will tip your weight forward, which your horse might interpret as a sign that you don’t want him to jump off the bank after all.

About one horse length away from the edge of the drop, relax your elbows without tipping your shoulders forward or dropping the contact. By slightly lowering and softening the reins, you’ll encourage your horse to stretch his head and neck downward. This is preferable to keeping a grip on the reins, which might encourage him to leap out off the bank with his head in the air, then land on the ground with a heavy thump. Our goal is to get him to plop softly down and think, “no big deal.”

As he reaches the edge, close both legs on his sides. Again, think of keeping your seat close to the saddle. This time, though, make the strength in your legs about 65 percent gravity and 35 percent grip, planning to land a bit more in your heel than normal. Be conscious of your lower legs staying directly underneath your body, not too far back or too far forward. If they’re too far forward, you’ll risk losing your grip on landing and tipping your weight back into the saddle, bumping your horse in the kidneys, which might cause him to take off or buck. If your lower leg slides backward, you might tip forward on landing, weighing down his front end and potentially causing him to stumble. To find the happy medium, imagine that you would land on your feet if your horse magically disappeared from underneath you.

The first time you try the drop, be prepared for anything. If he stretches his neck down, allow the reins to slip through your fingers. Be careful not to pull backward on them. Only use the reins to steer, not to restrict his neck. Both for up and down banks, he needs to use his head and neck for balance and depth perception.

Just as with the up bank, if he hesitates, follow the ask, tell, demand sequence, keeping his shoulders square to the bank and not taking no for an answer. Praise him as soon as he jumps down.

Again, repeat the process with the lead horse until your horse feels confident enough to drop down the bank on his own. This time when you approach, find another jump four or five strides away from the landing side of the drop to focus on.

When the bank is riding well in both directions, try approaching it from the trot. Use your eyes, legs and hands exactly the same way you did at the walk. After several successful repetitions up and down the bank, call it a day.

Next month, I’ll explain how to progress to slightly more challenging bank questions. 

About Selena O’Hanlon

Canadian eventer Selena O’Hanlon represented her country in the 2008 Olympics, the 2010 World Equestrian Games, the 2011 Pan American Games and the 2014 World Equestrian Games, winning team silver medals in 2010 and 2011. She was the top-placed Canadian rider at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in 2014 and 2017 aboard John and Judy Rumble’s Canadian Sport Horse gelding, Foxwood High. She and “Woody” also won the 2017 Fair Hill International CCI*** and he was named the 2017 U.S. Eventing Association Advanced Horse of the Year. Based at Balsam Hall in Kingston, Ontario, Selena and her mother, Morag, teach event and dressage riders of all levels and produce and sell talented young horses.

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