Interviewed by: Holle Abee
Julio Mendoza has held many jobs in his lifetime – all dealing with horses. He’s been a groom, a stable hand, a farrier, a veterinarian, a trainer, and a farm manager. As a youth, he mucked stalls for the military. Julio has pretty much run the gamut in the world of equines. He comes from a long line of excellent horsemen, including his father, who started a riding school in Ecuador; his grandfather, who was a famous trainer in Colombia; and his great-grandfather, a skilled horse trainer in Spain. Now a successful trainer himself, Julio also plays the role of builder, dancer, and psychologist.
He can be considered a builder because when training, he first lays a strong foundation, then adds to it gradually. He’s found that if his foundation is sound, his training plans will not crumble. If there is no strong foundation, however, any subsequent training is likely to fail.
Julio’s grandfather, Bienvenido Loor, a renowned horse trainer, taught the young Julio to “dance,” explaining that teaching the movements of dressage is like dancing and that the horse is his partner. Julio has never forgotten this sage advice and always sees himself as the horse’s dance partner in the training ritual, with each interpreting and reacting to subtle nuances of the other.
Julio also acts as a horse psychologist of sorts. As he puts it, “I get into the horse’s head, reading and understanding him.” As each animal is an individual, sometimes it takes Julio weeks to achieve this integral component, and at other times, it may take only hours, depending on the horse. No matter how long it takes, however, Julio patiently learns what makes each of his equine students “tick.”
Julio grew up in Ecuador and came to the US in 2007. In the South American nation, horsemen who have a good working knowledge and respect for horses use natural horsemanship methods when training, according to Julio. Others, especially the Indians and “country folk,” often rely on the old style of “breaking” rather than “gentling.” They force their animals into submission. Julio disagrees with these techniques, stating, “My father, grandfathers, and teachers taught me to always respect the horse and create a bond and partnership with him before starting to train him.”
When asked to describe his basic philosophy on training, Julio replied, “I believe in lots of ground work first and foremost when training a horse. You must first gain the respect of the horse on the ground before he will respect you on his back. If you want your horse to do certain exercises well, whether it be transition, piaffe, passage, or collected canter, they must do it well on the ground first. I like to incorporate cross training in my training program with all horses and disciplines. I do not just train and ride the horses in the arena but also take them out on the trails, do cavaletti work with them, long-lining, in-hand, and ground work. Hill work is great for muscling, stamina, and overall well being.”
In Ecuador, Julio learned the importance of employing natural horsemanship methods when working with foals. Typically, when a foal is born, he handles it right away so that it will not be afraid of him. He gets it used to having its feet picked up and wearing a halter. At six to eight months of age, the foal is weaned and taken to the country, where it’s released into a huge pasture with other youngsters. The foal is given time to mature and to just “be a horse.” They still receive regular handling, trimming, and veterinary care, but no actual training yet.
When the young horse reaches the age of two and a half, it is brought in for training, first in the form of ground work. It becomes accustomed to stalls, cross ties, wash stalls, different people, and trailers. At the age of three, Julio would start longing, with the walk, the trot, and canter transitions. Once he gains the animal’s respect, he begins ground driving, and the saddle and bridle are introduced. Julio would begin riding the horse when it reaches the age of three and a half.
When asked how he establishes trust with a new horse, one he didn’t raise as a foal, he explained, “When I have a new horse to work with, I always create a bond with him first. You must always have a deep understanding of your horse. I will spend time brushing him, walking him, catching him in the field, and talking to him – letting him get used to my voice, touch, and scent. I will take him out for hand grazing, and I will give him lots of praise and rewards. I learn to read him – you can learn a lot about body language between the horse and you if you are looking for it.”
With any green or new horse, Julio believes that trust is paramount. Once he gains the horse’s trust, he begins longing, ground driving, and long lining, and finally, riding. When Julio deems the horse as comfortable, calm, and happy, he decides whether or not the animal is ready for another rider.
While Julio has occasionally trained a green horse and rider together, he does not recommend this practice unless the rider is confident and experienced. “A green horse and a green rider do not go together,” he explains. “It is a match that usually never benefits the rider or the horse. The horse is learning and needs to learn from someone with experience to bring him along and not confuse him with bad cues or inconsistency. When training a horse, you must always be consistent!”
Julio adds that an inexperienced rider can best learn on a schoolmaster mount and build confidence. Once the rider is ready, his horse in training will be ready, also, resulting in a happy pair.
Julio goes on to stress the importance of properly starting a young horse. Bad habits are difficult to “un-train.” Once a horse has learned bad habits, they get used to repeating them. These misbehaviors can be very difficult for even an experienced trainer to “un-do.”
Furthermore, Julio is a firm believer in the importance of dressage. “Dressage is the most important work to train any horse first. The purpose of dressage is to develop a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to work in a calm manner, making him supple and attentive to his rider. Learning the basics of dressage will help a horse in any discipline!” Julio attributes much of his success in jumping to the fact that his jumpers are first trained in dressage.
When asked about any especially difficult or challenging horses he’s trained, Julio related the story of an Argentinian horse he worked with in Ecuador. It was a Selle Francais, a breed often considered the world’s best show jumper and France’s most important sport horse. The breed is large and powerful and generally has superb athleticism. This particular horse’s owner had purchased it with high hopes of it becoming a jumper. The equine was very “hot,” with too much energy and spirit for its beginner rider and owner. By the age of three, the horse was known as “Houdini” because it could escape from any confinement. It would jump out of any pasture, stall, or arena that attempted to hold it. The owners were running out of farms and stables that would agree to boarding the equine escape artist. Out of frustration, the wily horse was sold to a large ranch in Ecuador that promised to give it a good home.
The new owners felt sure the horse would make a good bull fighting mount because of its intelligence, its courage, and its incredible athletic ability. They began training the horse with a harsh Spanish bridle called a “serretta.” A serretta has metal teeth in the cavesson that puts a great amount of pressure on the bone, thereby giving the rider more control of the horse. This particular horse would not submit to its rider, even with the use of the serretta. The rider was always fighting with the horse, and the animal was punished daily. The owners decided the horse was too dangerous and undependable to take into a ring with a bull, and again, out of frustration, the horse was put up for sale.
By this time, the horse was viewed as totally unmanageable. It broke every halter that was placed on it, and no one could catch the horse. The frightened, mistreated steed broke the bones of its handlers, and once it even bit into a worker’s arm and shook him around. No one wanted anything to do with the horse, and it became neglected. Its feet were never trimmed, nor did it receive proper basic care.
The horse had gained an infamous reputation, and word of it eventually reached Julio. He decided to go have a look at this nefarious equine. When he did, the owners told Julio the horse was a lost cause and would never amount to anything. Yet, before the end of the day, Julio had the horse on his trailer, and he brought it home with him.
Julio spent two years getting the horse back in a healthy physical condition and healing the animal’s mental and emotional condition. Julio turned the troubled horse out into a large pasture. He brushed the horse daily and took it on long walks. He spent months talking to the animal and gentling it, and by the end of the two-year period, Julio had finally gained the horse’s trust and respect.
At that point, Julio started working the horse under saddle, with ground work and dressage. When Julio began riding the horse on trails, it natural jumping ability and its heart for jumping became apparent. According to Julio, “The horse would jump for joy! There would be no logs around, but he would jump with all four feet off the ground out of happiness when you took him out of the ring. I realized he was now a very happy horse.”
Julio started jumping the horse, and its potential soon became evident. As the training progressed, so did the animal’s jumping ability. Julio won many jumping competitions astride the once unmanageable horse, including the 2002 Annual Wall High Jump – an impressive six-foot tall jump – on a horse that everyone said would never amount to anything.
In closing, Julio offers advice and inspiration to all horsemen: “Everything is possible. You have to believe in yourself and your horse. I recommend for people who have problem horses to always have patience, respect, and trust – even if it seems like no matter what you do or try, nothing works. Never lose faith. Always check the basics, too, like if the saddle really does fit your horse, and if the bit is the right one for your horse and fit. These are basic but important things that surprisingly, most people forget to check. There is no one-size-fits-all. Every horse is uniquely different.”
Currently, Julio is the trainer and riding instructor at The Stables at Rolling Ridge, located in Laytonsville, Maryland. He specializes in competitive dressage and in dressage-based horsemanship. In addition to working for Rolling Ridge, he also takes on his own clients and shows Friesians extensively. He’s placed in the top five for five straight years in the prestigious International Cup, and in 2007, he placed third in the SA Rolex, out of hundreds of horses and riders.
Julio’s wife, Jessica, is a skilled horsewoman in her own right and helps her husband in the care and management of horses. Their two-year-old son, Justin, is following in the footsteps of his parents and ancestors, and already loves being around equines and helping out around the stables.
Julio and Jessica are also active in the Mid-Atlantic Friesian Association and are members of the Friesian Horse Association of North America.
If you ever have the opportunity to watch Julio work with horses, you’ll echo the sentiments of other horsemen who have nicknamed him “The Latin Horse Whisperer.”