In the Right Place at the Right Time
Thoughts on a chance encounter with Manolo Mendez
My introduction to Manolo was impromptu, and quite unexpected, to say the least. It was a Friday evening after work, not unlike the countless others when I eagerly leave my office job and drive to the barn to ride my horse, “RC.” There was one difference on this particular Friday, however. A number of unusual circumstances caused me get to the barn about an hour behind schedule, and my ride was even further delayed after I arrived. End result: I got in the tack about the time I’d normally be back in the barn cleaning my saddle & bridle, getting ready to go home.
As I led RC out of the barn, his head, not uncharacteristically, went up. I looked the same direction that he was intently staring to see what horse-eating monster was lurking in the shadows. I didn’t see any monsters, rather, I saw a tall gentleman casually strolling about the farm. It looked like he might have been talking on the phone, but I couldn’t really tell because he was some distance from where we stood. I patted RC on the neck & told him it wasn’t a big deal. I’m not certain he 100% agreed with me because he kept his eye on that tall figure, but he didn’t complain when I got on and we walked over to the arena.
I started my warm-up as I usually do, but soon I noticed the tall gentleman walking in the direction of the arena where I was riding. I didn’t know Manolo, but it was a good guess that this was he, because he was going to be conducting a clinic at our farm for the next 2 days. When he came to the rail and sat in the chair at arena side, I wasn’t quite sure what to think, but I said “Good evening” as I trotted by and continued on my way.
I was more than a little self-conscious because I have this “perfectionist gene” that makes me expect nothing but the best from myself – and Manolo’s reputation had preceded him. But I also always try to do right by my horse, so I told myself: “Just ride your horse.” Getting tense and nervous wasn’t going to help the situation. I felt like we did some decent warm-up work, and after about 10 or 15 minutes took a walk break. Manolo was still sitting in the chair. I thought perhaps we had bored him to tears, or he had fallen asleep, but when we walked up that side of the arena, Manolo asked me my horse’s age (6 years) and breeding (hackney/thoroughbred). He didn’t bat an eye, but he did get up out of the chair and come in to arena to stand beside RC.
In that moment I didn’t know what would transpire over the next 30 minutes.Manolo essentially gave me the gift of a lifetime. He took the time to talk to me about riding and training horses in general, and RC in particular. We talked about the connection between the rider, the horse, and the horse’s brain. Manolo explained and demonstrated specific training exercises that would be beneficial to my horse’s development. Beyond the mechanics of riding the exercises, he explained why they work the way they do, all the while stressing the importance of taking time to understand the horse and his way of thinking and moving. Successful training of a happy, healthy, and capable horse can only be achieved by a union of these elements.
Because RC had some confidence issues when I bought him as a late, very green, 4 year old, I had embarked on a training journey with him unlike any other I’d had with a horse. It would have been impossible to bring him along without addressing body, mind, and spirit, so it was refreshing to talk to a trainer who understands these are all important pieces and has methods that take them in to account.
Earlier in my career I spent several years working as the stable manager for a large dressage and driving facility on the East Coast. Although I had exposure to many wonderfully talented horses and opportunities to work for and watch some of the best riders in the country at CDI FEI competitions and U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) dressage training clinics, I could never afford that caliber of horse myself, so I worked and groomed and mucked stalls – whatever it took for the privilege to ride. And I never turned down a chance to ride. I didn’t care what level of training, what age, what breeding, or what gender the horse was. If it had 4 legs and I was offered the chance to sit on it, I did! And sometimes I was given rides on great horses who taught me a lot. But my appetite for riding and training at that level was never completely satisfied, so I’m always looking for new opportunities to increase my knowledge and competence.
A few turns in the road of life later, I find myself working an office job, owning a horse, but still not in the position to be able to afford regular training. So, with the exception of some lessons here & there, I’ve brought RC along largely by myself. It’s not that I think I don’t need guidance, I know I do. But my budget is often stretched to the limit just paying the board, shoeing, and vet bills. Nevertheless, the joy RC brings in to my life is worth every penny, so I figure out ways to make it work.
This, in part, is why I call the one-on-one time Manolo spent with me & RC a gift. We weren’t even moving at the time. We simply stood in the arena talking, but Manolo’s words made sense to me. He explained to me & showed me, as he gently guided RC’s nose toward the ground, how just looking at the horse’s neck and shoulders while standing still, can tell you what muscles have developed, and what needs to be worked on. And he told me why the muscles develop the way they do. For example, he told me what could be seen when a horse habitually carries his head too high, or braces the under neck muscles, or breaks (flexes) in the wrong part of the neck or poll. But then he took it one step further, and told me what muscles should be developed, how the properly developed horse looks, and why proper training and development are important. We even talked about how the sweat pattern on the horse provides clues about whether or not the right parts of the horse are being worked.
Speaking to Manolo was effortless and easy, one horse person to another. Upon reflection, I would later realize how remarkable it was that I had shared this time with a true Master Horseman. But there was no inflated ego here; only Manolo’s genuine love for horses and his passion to share the principles of classical dressage training.
There are people in the world who believe we shouldn’t worry about the times when we get off schedule or when unforeseen circumstances force us to change our plans. These people believe it’s not worth wasting energy worrying when you find yourself in such a situation, because we’re always right where we are meant to be. I’ve often questioned the legitimacy of that kind of thinking, assuming people were just trying to make themselves feel better. But on that Friday evening in May, no matter how late the clock on the wall said it was, I believe I was exactly where I was meant to be. How fortunate I was to be so far behind schedule and still be right on time!
Clinic Day 1
General Impressions of Manolo Mendez Teaching and Training
Although I hadn’t pre-registered for the dressage clinic that was being held at the farm where I board my horse, I was curious about this trainer whom I had only heard referred to as “Manolo,” so the Friday before the clinic I did a Google search and explored the website of Manolo Mendez. The more I read the more interested I became in riding with him. I called and asked if my horse “RC” & I could be put on the wait list, if one existed, on the off chance there would be an opening The clinic was already full, but I had the good fortune to meet Manolo when I was riding my horse that same evening the day before the clinic was going to start. Due in part to that encounter, RC & I were fit in to the very full Sunday schedule, as long as we agreed to go first thing in the morning.
Because my lesson wasn’t until Sunday, I was able to spend Saturday observing. When I arrived to audit the clinic, a rider had just completed her lesson and Manolo was starting to do bodywork on the large warmblood gelding she had ridden. The horse was relaxed, seemingly enjoying the massage and stretching. When Manolo appeared satisfied with the results of the body work,he got on & rode. I know this gelding, and I have to say I have never seen him move so forward and free. He’s a beautiful horse to begin with, but the difference in him was remarkable. He was moving up over his back, free in the shoulders, and softly connecting with the bit.
Over the course of the day one of the things I found fascinating is how Manolo handles the reins so softly and deftly. At times there was a small loop in the rein, or he would slightly lower his hands on either side of the neck, or extend his elbows a little, encouraging the horse to stretch forward. He invited each horse to find the contact while coming freely over their backs, through their shoulders, and necks, and when they did, he instantly, almost imperceptibly, rewarded the horse’s efforts by softening, thus helping them understand this was the correct place to be. At one point I recall Manolo saying to the spectators: “See how this horse wants to be either too low or too high in the neck”? He patiently continued trotting around the arena quietly working his magic, until the horse found the middle ground. He was rounded on a soft contact, moving freely forward with no sign of tension. Not too high, and not too low.
The kind of contact Manolo sought with the majority of horses that first day probably wouldn’t win in today’s competitive dressage arena, which I think is a shame. But the work he asked of the horses isn’t the end product; rather it’s the foundation for the higher degrees of collection and connection needed later in the horse’s training. And because Manolo’s methods were new to most of the horses ridden in the clinic, there had to be a starting point. We wouldn’t ask a human to go out and perform elite level gymnastics on the first day of training any more than we can expect our horses to go in an FEI level frame without building the proper muscles and developing the mental capacity to handle that caliber of work. Step by step, one day at a time.
I also want to note that I don’t think I heard the word “frame” spoken once over the course of the entire weekend. Rather, the talk centered on opening the neck, back and shoulders so the horses were free to carry themselves on a soft contact. There was nothing forced or harsh about Manolo’s style. When the horses made a connection, they were working their entire bodies and naturally found varying degrees of “roundness”. But there was nothing artificial in the way the horses carried themselves. They rounded because they could use their bodies without constraint.
I believe if this type of work is maintained as the backbone of a horse’s training, he’ll stay healthy & strong & happy over a long riding career.
Some common themes became evident over the weekend as Manolo worked with a variety of horses and riders doing many different exercises. He would say: “Keep working on this(exercise), and in 4 or 5 days it gets better & better. Understand?” In other words, give the horse a chance to grasp what you’re asking him to do. Be patient, and believe that he’ll get it if you show him the way and reward him by softening your aids when he gets it right.
One other important point that Manolo stressed was not to do any exercise more than 2 or 3times in a row. Making frequent changes keeps the horse interested, fresh, and alive, rather than exhausted, tense, and bored. You can always come back to an exercise later in the ride, but don’t overdo it all at once. Here are a few of Manolo’s suggestions that I found particularly helpful:
• When riding a trot or canter circle, change between riding circles of varying size from larger to smaller, or vice versa
• Change the horse’s stride from shorter to longer steps, or longer to shorter steps,within the gait (this can be done in walk, trot, & canter)
• Ride transitions between gaits
A KEY POINT to remember here is if the exercise you’re doing is of poor quality, or isn’t going well, riding around and around and around the same way won’t make it better. What you’ll end up with is a horse that’s stiff and tight as he continues to struggle. Before that happens, it’s up to the rider to make a change. For example, if your horse is having trouble on a large canter circle don’t keep riding the same circle over & over again. Instead, try making a smaller circle so the horse has to bend the joints in his legs more. Or come off the circle and ride up straight up the long side of the arena with a lengthened stride and then come back to a shorter stride. Or stay on a circle and slow your seat so the horse must slow his tempo, then ask him to move on again.You might even try transitions in and out of the canter. I don’t mean to suggest this strategy can only be used in the canter. It works in all the gaits. The important thing to remember is the rider has to feel what the horse needs moment to moment and make any necessary adjustments.
Manolo also talked about the importance of the horse being allowed to use his muscles properly over the back so the shoulders can move freely. One example was particularly helpful to visualize what he means.
• Imagine a person who wants to bend over & pick something up off the floor. If the person raises their head & neck while bending at the waist, the effect is a hollow back, making it almost impossible to extend the body and reach down. It’s as if the arms have become shorter.
• Now, imagine this same person who wants to pick something up off the floor, but this time they round their back as they bend at waist. It suddenly becomes easy to reach as the arms stretch down toward the floor.
The effect is the same with the horse. If the horse isn’t allowed to round his back his movementwill be limited by stiffness and tension.Another thing that sets Manolo apart from other trainers I’ve watched is how he combines in hand (ground) work with riding and bodywork. Manolo didn’t ride every horse in the clinic, buthe did get on quite a few. More than once he stopped riding, got off and worked specific parts ofthe horse’s body with a combination of massage, stretching, and chiropractic techniques, andthen got back on. With the first horse I saw in the clinic, Manolo worked on the horse’s body immediately after the owner’s lesson and then got on for a few minutes himself. It wasinteresting to watch the union of riding and bodywork and to see how well the horses responded. Each time Manolo got on after doing bodywork, he asked the horses to go freely forward and soft – and they did so, willingly.I was also very impressed by Manolo’s dexterity and skill using bamboo sticks (actually gardestakes of varying lengths) for the in-hand work. This is a skill I’d love to develop, because Ithink it’s very beneficial to the horse’s development and understanding if done right. The “problem” (if you can all it that) with watching Manolo do in-hand work is how naturally it comes to him. I watched very carefully and took notes, but it’s really something that has to bewitnessed first person to truly appreciate. A skillful touch with the bamboo on various parts ofthe horse’s body yielded amazing results. For example, Manolo used the bamboo to activate the hind legs to create a correct and active walk pirouette. Manolo jogged alongside one horse thatwas doing a beautiful trot. When Manolo rhythmically tapped the horse’s front legs the horse responded with beautiful passage like steps. Another horse did piaffe when gently tapped on therump with the bamboo. In fact the next time Manolo asked this horse for piaffe steps (with the bamboo in one hand and the reins in the other), he didn’t even touch the horse with the bamboo.
A couple of times he tapped the stick on the top of the arena fence in rhythm with the horse to encourage the piaffe, but that was all it took. He maintained a light rein contact and the horse stayed relaxed. They didn’t miss a beat and it looked effortless. As with all the other work,
Manolo didn’t drill any of the horses on a particular movement. He didn’t have to because he communicated xo effectively with the horses that they gave him their best efforts and he movedon. I heard Manolo say to one of the riders early in the clinic that riding is like dancing with someone you can’t give directions to in words. You must tell your partner what you want in some other way. In riding this happens through the use of clear & consistent aids the horse can understand.
Although Manolo’s approach is somewhat different from the dressage training I’ve experienced before, I believe a horse that is encouraged to stretch through the back, neck and shoulders will produce an athletic, content horse that can collect or lengthen with ease. It certainly seems to suit my horse, and I’m eager to learn more!
My first “official” lesson with Manolo Mendez
When I first met Manolo on Friday evening, we had discussed training theories and strategies and then I watched Manolo teach and train in the clinic all day Saturday, so I had some idea of what to expect. I was excited to have the opportunity to ride with Manolo, but I was also a bit apprehensive because I wanted to ride well.Sunday morning dawned bright and clear, and just cool enough to wear lightweight long sleeves.I got my horse ready and we hacked out a bit before heading in to the arena. The farm was peaceful and quiet. Besides me, RC, and Silviano, who takes care of the horses, there was no oneelse in sight. By the time we had finished our hack, Manolo had entered the arena, looking remarkably awake and energetic after a very long Saturday of teaching, riding, and training.
We started the with walk work, something that I had been very careful not to do too much of in RC’s early stages of training because I was worried I’d ruin the gait. My concerns, coupled with the fact that RC had been started western, resulted in some rocky periods in his training over the previous few months as I tried to help RC understand that contact at the walk didn’t mean he was supposed to roll up behind the bit, go backwards, or stop. We’d made some progress with the walk, but the problems were still just under the surface.
A concept Manolo stressed over the weekend is the importance of the rider’s hands following the horse’s head at the walk and canter because the head naturally moves forward with the nose slightly poking out in these gaits. Although my arms weren’t “active”, I let my elbows hang relaxed, following RC’s movement with soft elbows, allowing him to move his head, and therefore his neck & shoulders, without constraint.
On the first day of the clinic, Manolo had worked on this same concept with another rider. When that rider first tried to follow her horse, she actively pushed her hands forward, but then took them back, which had the effect of encouraging the horse to move forward in one part of the stride, but in the next instant had the effect of holding him back. I remembered Manolo’s explanation and demonstration as he showed how his arms swing naturally at his sides when he walks. As a result of this natural movement, his body was relaxed. But when he held his arms to his sides and didn’t let them swing, his body became stiff and tense, and his walk was shorter. He said it is the same on the horse. The rider needs to be aware of following the movement so the horse can use his body freely.
With a relaxed walk established, Manolo had me change the stride within the walk from longer steps to shorter steps, or change between more or less tempo sometimes slowing the motion all the way to a halt. These changes were accomplished with the softest of aids, mostly just byslowing or speeding up the tempo (following) in my own body. The transitions within the walk required tactful, coordinated leg, rein, and seat aids to get the desired response. Obviously the reaction of horse & rider improve as the rider develops a feel of what the horse is doing and the horse understands the aids.
Manolo also stressed the importance of the horse traveling straight. Although this thread was present in all gaits, we worked on it in the walk first, as Manolo explained that the work is easiest in the walk, then the trot, and hardest in the canter. In other words, it’s easier to introduce things to the horse at the walk and trot first. Maintaining even contact with both reins and being careful not overflex (bend) the neck to one side or the other helps the horse move straight. The importance of this became really evident doing transitions from the walk to the halt when just a little extra leg or rein pressure can influence the horse to move to one side or the other. And likewise, when moving out of the halt, the rider’s legs and reins must be evenly applied to help the horse move off straight. RC is very responsive to lateral aids, so I have to be very aware of my aids.
Of course, riding is a dynamic sport involving two living beings, so feel is very important. The rider needs to be able to feel whether or not the horse is drifting, and how much or how little the rider needs to influence the horse, depending on what’s happening under the saddle moment by moment. Manolo talked about how the placement of the rider’s leg on the horse’s side effects how the horse carries himself. For example, a rider whose leg is back too far on the horse’s side can push the quarters the opposite direction. That is, if the rider’s right leg is too far back, the horse’s quarters are going to come in to left. Unless you’re asking the horse to do a travers (haunches-in), it’s important therider’s leg isn’t too far back because if it is the horse can’t travel straight.
One particular statement Manolo made in my lesson stuck with me, and I think about it everyday when I ride RC. Manolo said to me:
As the front legs go, so go the hinds legs.
As Manolo explained: If the horse’s front legs are free to move, that is, he’s moving up over his back, freely through the shoulders, with a stretching neck, the hind legs are also free to move with bending joints and big steps. But if the front legs take short steps because the horse is shut down or tight in the neck and/or shoulders, then the hind feet have no where to go. You end up with short, choppy strides and a tense horse.
Another thing we worked on was my horse’s tendency to overflex to the right, which makes him stiffer to the left. The emphasis was on keeping even reins to help RC find the place where hecan travel straight; and for me as the rider to be very aware that I don’t ask for more right flexion, which only makes things worse. As I worked to the right I discovered that the outside (left) rein doesn’t have to be active, but it does need to guard so the shoulders don’t go too far left, this creating a different problem. On the left rein, where RC tends to be stiffer, or I should say flex less, because he really doesn’t feel stiff to ride, we came through a corner and Manolo told me to give with the outside (right) rein while asking for left flexion. The result of giving with the outside rein – but not dropping the horse – is that the shoulders are free to move and the turns improve because the horse can balance and carry himself better. He has a place to go rather than being confined by too short or too tight reins that constrict the movement. In my rides since the clinic I’ve been experimenting with this concept and it’s amazing how the slightest opening or softening of a rein has the effect of opening the horse’s body and the work improves.
An exercise I saw Manolo use quite a bit, and my lesson with RC was no exception, is riding a 10 or 12 meter half circle off the short side of the arena and then do a shoulder-in back to the long side. The goal here is to ride the horse on three tracks to gymnasticize his body by helping him learn to carry more weight on the hind legs and move freely through the shoulders. RC did well with this exercise, at both the walk and trot. Manolo said when the exercise is done with the proper angle it is easy for the horse and he moves steadily with his head and neck relaxed. But if ridden with too steep an angle causing the horse’s legs to cross too much, it becomes difficult for the horse, which is evident when he raises his head and stiffens his body. Luckily we didn’t encounter this problem during the clinic, but knowing the trouble signs helps me when I’m on my own.
Beyond specific exercises, Manolo also gave me pointers that now seem like common sense, but no one had ever put it to me like this before. When riding across the diagonal, he recommends aiming about 2-3 meters before the letter (assuming you’re in a dressage arena) so you have plenty of time to develop a good turn with your horse. I had been so focused on riding deep in to my corners that I didn’t realize I wasn’t helping my young horse find his balance and his maintain rhythm. Ever since the clinic I’ve ridden my diagonals this way, but I think the biggest improvement has come in riding the counter canter. It’s made all the difference in the quality of RC’s turns on the short side, not to mention the confidence it gives him because he can do the counter canter without tension or loss of balance.
Developing the horse’s confidence is something Manolo also talked about. He said it’s important when teaching the horse something new or difficult, that we as riders and trainers make frequent changes rather than doing the same thing over & over. And when you do challenge the horse, you should then bring him back to something he does well. By riding him in his comfort zone, you reward him for trying, give him confidence, and prevent making him stiff or tense. As Manolo said, if consistently ridden this way, the difficult things become easier for the horse and he will soon forget they were difficult.
We finished with canter work, which reinforced much of what we had done at the walk and trot. The emphasis was on getting RC to stretch through the neck and shoulders so he can use his body more freely. He has a tendency to carry his head too high, thus developing the muscles under the neck, or to curl up behind the bit. We worked on getting him to bring his head lower so he can stretch through the neck, shoulders, and back and open up his stride. Within the canter we also worked on taking longer and shorter steps on the circle, which will help RC develop carrying power in the hindquarters. Again the balance between the rider’s aids is very important so the horse maintains the canter, but slows the tempo. RC can only hold the shortened steps for a few strides before breaking to trot or taking longer canter strides, but I’m confident that over time he’ll get stronger and one day we’ll be doing canter pirouettes with ease!