In his observations of the horse and rider, Manolo Mendez ‘hits the nail on the head’ with accuracy, intuitive awareness and in doing so, demonstrates his keen horse sense and deep understanding of ‘horse nature’.
As a rider I felt privileged to share time with Manolo. I was aware of the beauty in his poignant honesty, as it came from a place of non-judgement, offered for the betterment of the horse. It seemed that Manolo read from the book of Nature, a book he was evidently familiar with as his narrative throughout the clinic showed. With his captivating stories of boyhood wonder, he held us entranced with tales of an eagle taking flight for the first time, after watching him build his muscles whilst still in the nest. Or the fact that as a young man he sat up and watched a little Frenchman enter an arena. Amongst Spaniards, the Frenchman with calmness and relaxation, demonstrated precision and straightness, in a simple snaffle bit. Everyone else turned off and instead Manolo tuned in to study and learn.
Each story added to the last, building color and richness of understanding to the overall philosophy of training that Manolo displays. He uses his stories as an allegory for instilling the rider with clarity and inspiration to understand their horse better.
His philosophy is simple, good dressage is SIMPLE!
From shoulder-in to travers, the transitions Manolo exhibited were effortless. For example, from the 15 meter line, the set up for a shoulder-in with the correct angle, is easy for the horse, because the bend in the circle continues on into the shoulder-in bend, with just a little head flexion. Other ways of leading into the shoulder-in create over flexion of the neck, which allows the shoulder to ‘escape’ further than it should. Simultaneously, the diagonal hind leg would not be following the track of the foreleg causing the horse to work in four tracks. Only three track work is correct dressage.
The four track leg yield is something Manolo does not train, as it is too dis-uniting of the front and hind end of the horse. He demonstrated the free–flowing lateral hind leg action of the horse, comparing it to the muscle bound upper foreleg.This showed the foreleg has less lateral movement compared to the hind leg and thus cannot be expected to perform the same abduction required in four track work. This would also dampen the very important forward movement with the lateral work.
For a young horse with established rhythm and consistency in the low self carriage neck position (forward/down and out, never short necked/behind the vertical), the lateral work is restricted to only a few steps.
For the more advanced horse, 3/4s of the length of the arena would be used for training and then the whole length ridden in lateral movement when the horse was more consolidated. It was important to always set the horse up to work a few steps straight, before bending to the opposite rein, especially if the horse was stiffer to one side (as most horses are), or still warming into the work. This was so, whether it was a transition from travers down the long side, to inner flexion going around the top of the arena, or the changes of bend through the centre line of a three loop serpentine.
Manolo would encourage – “out, out, out,” if the rhythm of any of the advanced moves such as canter pirouette, passage and piaffe deteriorated, or the horse became stuck in a weaker leg. In riding the horse out of the movement, to a more forward and freer moving gait, tension and anxiety in the horse was abated. If an exercise was not progressing too well for one reason or another, it was trained twice but not a third time. If the second attempt was better than the first, then a third may be ridden in sequence.
Limited repetition consolidates the understanding and movement of the horse. This works both ways. If the horse was becoming more agitated and un-nerved by the sequence, a change to other movements for a while, would settle the horse, enabling training of the previous movement later with less resistance. Everything must be done with calmness, kindness and by request, this is especially so, if the horse is sensitive.
When he rode Manolo’s seat connected with refinement to the back of the horse. His elegant posture was light and rhythmical with each stride, stead fast, fluidic and mesmerizing. His hands were low on the horse’s wither, connecting with the bit through soft hands, that were giving and receiving subtle information. A little less bend here, a little more extension there, the simple gesture of giving with the hand, guided the horse. Coupled with subtle shifts in body weight and the rider’s pelvis aligned parallel to the shoulders of the horse, created a more refined relationship.
Demonstrating dexterity of single handed rein work with ease and sophistication, Manolo’s multitasking ability seemed effortless. At times riding like a bull fighter with a three meter bamboo in one hand or a dressage whip held vertically, marking rhythm and time inciting the horse in passage.
On one occasion whilst riding, the bamboo was used to remind a young horse not to swing his hind quarters to the inside of the arena, when straightness was required. The same bamboo, held slightly differently taught the horse not to dive in on the shoulder, training balance and poise. It was refreshing to see little or refined hand movement; even when slowing or speeding up the tempo of a gait or asking for extension within a gait without rhythm change.
Manolo explained that by giving the horse’s head further forward and down positioning ( neck and head forward, down and out with nose in front of the vertical), the hind legs could track more through into the imprint of the front hooves, allowing impulsion for extension of gait. The whole long side or diagonal of the arena became a scale for extension or collection in various movements.
The following of the horse’s head and body movement at the walk was reiterated. At the trot the hands became stable. If a downward transition was asked, the hands would not abruptly pull back. Rather the transition was initiated by becoming more motionless with a subtle ‘hold and release’ of reins and the simultaneous decrease in the scale of movement until the horse walked.
The rise of the trot followed though until the last trot stride flowed into the first walk stride. At the walk the hands would uptake the flow of the horse’s head movement again careful not to change the head position nor create a disagreeable head toss.
Forward thinking and feeling what the horse was anticipating or struggling with, set up the next movement the trainer would execute. All the time the emphasis was on the exaltation of horse, growing and developing in fluidic movement, with harmonious energy flowing between horse and rider.
Manolo effortlessly gets inside each horse’s head and heart, unwinding tensions and habits where even a highly proud and sensitive Grand Prix stallion, followed Manolo around the arena like a loyal friend. The energy shift Manolo created, transformed the rider and horse, the latter into a state of absolute trust. When presented with a Portuguese trained horse, Manolo’s expertise came to the forefront.
He knew how the Lusitano needed to be ridden to get more extension in his working and collected trot. Currently, his upright trot was causing increased concussive forces to operate through the forelegs. In the long term, this would not bid well for soundness and longevity of riding. By the time Manolo had finished riding the Lusitano, a more elegant and graceful horse captivated the audience. This highlighted the reasons WHY the classical training methodology has lasted throughout the centuries.
Manolo’s ability to unravel each horse’s idiosyncrasies; resistances, issues, tensions in the body and misunderstandings that have all been instilled through ‘bad rides,’ was the living proof of a maestro at work. He showed an authentic understanding of ‘horse,’ through listening and hearing the horse. It’s like Manolo intrinsically knew what the horse needed, felt and wanted.
‘Bad rides’ would be where the horse spends more that 50% of the ride in a ‘non training’ head position (where the head is above the desired level or behind the vertical). It also relates to how the vertebrae move and if they are all rotating smoothly or not moving in some areas due to underlying muscle tensions or hindquarters trailing out behind with lack of impulsion. To be of benefit and suppling to the horse, the over track of the hind hooves has to be at least at the same leave as the front hooves. The trot was pointed out to move and work the vertebrae from side to side (laterally).
The canter works the spine up and down on the vertical plane, thus both are required for suppling the spine.
Put another way, ‘good rides’ are where the horse’s eye level is between the level of the wing of the ilium and the stifle and the head angle is slightly forward of the vertical to allow good functional airflow through the gullet, which is so important for muscle oxygenation and reduced functional damage to muscles, especially when the horse is in cardiovascular extension or fast work. It was pointed out that a purple tongue is not a desirable quality, as can be seen in rollkur. When jugular restriction occurs, the carotid artery becomes restricted and consequently the head pressure is increased. Sometimes, over extended periods of restricted intra-cranial pressure, the eye of the horse becomes more permanently cloudy and the temporal area (above the eyes) fills more than usual and the head develops a full and congested feel.
‘Good rides’ are where the ventral neck is loose, supple with a relaxed undulation evident in the guttural area. In this position, any previous damage (due to over flexion of the C2 vertebra) will now be building muscle in the flattened area of the neck, often present in the C2-3 area where the muscle fibres of the splenius muscle insert on the dorsal processes of the cervical vertebrae.
Misbehaviors were summed up into two groups: those that were due to the horse misunderstanding the request the trainer had made and those predisposed to laziness, stubbornness or insolence [ NOTE: Manolo says he can count on one hand the number of horses he met born that way]. The latter was dealt with quickly, sharply and with authority for the preservation of the boundaries of a mutually non-harmful relationship. Belligerent horses were treated with extra care, not to ask more than they were capable of, not to make them feel like they HAD to work, but rather that man and horse were exploring new frontiers, even if it was simply walking in-hand around the arena. The attitude shift of the horse was exemplary of the positive influence Manolo inspired.
Manolo’s body work with each horse was captivating. The tensions in the horses’ bodies melted away as if drained of overt stress. After each session, the horse would follow Manolo more intensely, as if hanging on to the source of nurturing energy they had just experienced. Some showed preference to return to Manolo, rather than be ridden around the ring again – it couldn’t get more obvious than that from the horse’s perspective! From this writer’s perspective the horses all loved him, for the respect, understanding and direction he established and shared with them.
Forelimb and hind leg stretches, neck flexions, poll releases and thoracolumbar vertebral lifts, along with the vacillations of fascial tension in each limb enabled each horse to become softer, more pliable and further accepting of the stretch and rotation forces delivered by the maestro, as if horse and man were dancing together. Since meeting Manolo, stretches for each horse worked with, have became an integral part in the training of my horses but also in the diagnosis and treatment of other peoples’ horses as well. Without them, certain muscles in the horse remain tight, unable to fully function and limber up to demonstrate the fluidic movement most horses are innately born with. Movement which unfortunately, with the way we ride our horses predominantly means they lose, rather than gain more suppleness with age and use.
And so it was, three days with Manolo was like three hours, passing all too fast. I did not want it to end. Training with Manolo, felt like nothing could go wrong, and if it did, he was there to simply correct the rider, show the horse again more clearly, to avoid mis-understanding and then move on.
Simply put the course was, “Pure Magic”, which is understandable on multitudes of levels for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
The following poem, especially the last verse, appeared to this writer to sum up the deep connection Manolo established with each horse. If the poem is read as if from the horse’s perspective to a rider, it eludes to how the inconsistency of relationship may have arisen. When possessed by ego, driven to look good, a rider may compromise the horse’s development. What does this do, other than to push the horse beyond his limits either mentally or physically? A horse cannot be considered to be the equivalent of a V8 engine. The rider needs to be aware at all times that the horse beneath, is in fact a living creature with sentient emotions but without the ability to speak its truth. When treated appropriately the horse would give that extra spark and pizzazz and even lay down its life for a true master.
In my heart of hearts,
I no longer want to be
Better than you
Smarter than you
Thinner than you
Prettier than you
Faster than you
Stronger than you
More accomplished than you
More creative than you
Better educated than you
ANYTHING more than you.
I want to walk this path
Side by side
In awe of who you are
In awe of what your gifts are
To see you only in love and light
With your beauty shining through,
Just as you are.
And I want you to see me the same way.
For I really do love you,
Just as you are.
I only thought I had to be better
In order for you to love me.
I drop this cloak of outshining at the gate.
It has been such a heavy burden,
An unnecessary burden
A self imposed burden.
Will you still love me
Being just as I am.
In my heart of hearts,
I know you will.
~ Katy Stevenson Wirth