An Article by Ewa Rot with photography by Anita Walkowska-Hopcia


This year’s clinic with Manolo Mendez was attended by riders: titled dressage riders, trainers and riding instructors, as well as enthusiasts of classic dressage and about two hundred observers. We could observe pairs performing elements of the Grand Prix level (so we could see the training and developing of piaffe, passage, canter pirouette), as well as horses at various stages of training, with different experiences and personalities. Let us add that in the previous clinic, we admired a rider who was riding with a cordeo, and – with the help of Manolo – presented a beautiful passage on the third clinic day. This all shows how versatile a coach Manolo Mendez is, and how much he has to offer to: sports riders, trainers of various disciplines, passionates of classic dressage, lovers of natural riding, and every rider who is still looking for their own way. Let’s break the secret and reveal the pillars of the Manolo’s training system and why it is so effective in helping riders and horses at various levels of advancement. Lunging and work in hand There are many myths have accumulated around lunging horses and many people treat it only as a way to let a horse run around, commonly known as “letting the energy out”. Nevertheless, neither running a horse faster and faster out of tempo, nor letting him travel on the lunge in the wrong postures, has anything to do with lunging in the classic system. You could see how much this stereotype is wrong at the clinic with Manolo. First of all, when Manolo takes a horse to lunge, he interacts and makes a connection with him and builds a relationship based on respect and trust. Secondly, Manolo evaluates the horse’s movement: in which direction he bend easier, which limbs work better (with more flexion), whether the energy flows from the hindquarters to the front, in which parts of there is body stiffness, and also: how the horse reacts to signals, how he learns and whether he willingly carries out commands, given by means of lunge and bamboo. Already at this stage, Manolo can determine how the horse will work in more advanced gaits and selects appropriate exercises. Thirdly, Manolo lunges horses to straighten theirs body, develop their flexibility, activate their hindquarters, improve their cadence and improve collection. Manolo mentioned that this way of lunging allows the trainer to develop the horse’s musculature and even has a rehabilitative dimension, while working with the horse on the lunge in an incorrect position teaches him incorrect movement patterns and often develops and exaggerates his asymmetry. He also emphasizes that he never lunges a horse to tire him. Manolo does not lunge in one place, he uses circles but also ovals and straight lines, sometimes away from the horse, sometimes close to the horse depending on what the horse needs. He uses a cavesson to lunge as well as work in hand, without side reins and other types of reins. The cavesson makes it easier to keep the horse in the right flexion and bend, and the lack of side reins allows him to change the horse’s position in motion, freely. The horse, which is not limited by side reins, can look for a comfortable position, he is easier to relax, and if, for example, he raises his head or changes posture in another way, he signals a stiffness, blockage or tiredness in the body … or – on the contrary – when he offers cadency and collection, he shows that he is ready for it! Instead of the traditional lunge whip, Manolo uses a bamboo as an extension of the hand. It is more practical than regular lunge whips. Different length of bamboos allows handlers to work more effectively on the circles with different diameters – the horse can move on a smaller or larger circle, and the trainer can easily correct his position. In addition, the feel and sound of a bamboo stick is more friendly for horses.

Straightness and bending – the foundation of dressage

Manolo when lunging the horse looks for a correct bend and flexion with a long, supple neck, an open throat latch, the nose in front of the vertical and no tension anywhere in the body. Correct bending in which the whole spine of the horse fits into the arc of the circle which the horse follows, is a key gymnasticizing tool that allows progress in dressage from the basic level to the Grand Prix. We need correct bending when performing corners, circles and voltes, in shoulder for/in, in traverse, half pass, canter pirouette. But to have a correct bend (on both sides), we have to have straightness – that’s why we lunge the horse. A horse that is naturally crooked to the right, usually has a problem with bending to the left, he is stiff on the left or breaks down at the withers, while offering too much bending to the right. He appears resistant on the side his muscles are hypertonic because he is constantly in a bow posture – the inside of the bow is contracted, the outside of the bow is over extended. This is why proper lunging is so important, it can help the horse become symmetric and bend evenly in both directions. Manolo’s dear friend Dr. Kerry Ridgway explained that correct lunging can help the horse become ambidextrous. The source of many problems associated with the shoulder/hindquarter falling in/out may be the lack of straightness and this is a problem that applies to riders at every level of advancement. The less experienced rider notices that he has a problem with leaving the corners or circles, and the advanced rider, who has already put a lot of work into the horse to eliminate asymmetry, may have a bigger problem with making a canter pirouette to one side. The straightening work on the lunge, which Manolo showed, is the first step to systematically reducing asymmetry. “I show the horse how to move, make him comfortable. If you do it correctly, the horse will be better and more beautiful after every training” Manolo explained. When he was working with riders on canter pirouettes, he recommended nothing but straightening and bending the horse, for example: making a sequence of figures: a few steps of travers on the circle, straightening, again few steps of travers on the circle, straightening again, or first moving only one, then two steps of the pirouette. The trainer’s work clearly showed that straightening a horse is not only an exercise for novices, but also the basis of the most difficult dressage figures. Work on the basics is the domain of the masters!

The “small steps” method

Manolo points out that the observation of the horse’s reactions whether in his posture or in his behavior is crucial to success in training. Allowing a very gentle and gradual increase in the difficulty of exercises is key because if the horse is not ready for it physically or mentally, he will stiffen his body or get nervous. Both of this makes it impossible to perform any figure correctly and the exercise loses its gymnasticizing benefit. Manolo emphasizes that the horse should repeat exercises in a good emotional attitude (repeating does not mean drilling – you can do an exercise a couple of times, do something else and then do the exercise again, but not too many times, you can always ask tomorrow), and the rider should appreciate and reward even the smallest tries. Sometimes you even have to settle for a really small thing – for the horse it can be a big effort. In addition, you cannot ask your horse for perfection and you cannot expect the movements will be performed immediately in the parameters of the Grand Prix. “Piaffe and the passage is simple – Manolo says – the most difficult is to build the right musculature so the horse can achieve the highest level of self carriage and collection while remaining healthy”. We build this slowly, taking into account the horse’s predispositions. When he was teaching the piaffe from the ground, he explained that he showed the stages of the process, which normally took a few weeks just to let the rider know how to conduct the training alone. When he was working with more advanced horses from the saddle, he tried to explain to them gently that they needed to step under and flex their hind legs joints more. When he was working on a canter pirouette, he did not require making a whole pirouette, but he advised the riders to do preparatory exercises, for instance: travers on the circle, reduce the diameter of the circle on which the travers was performed, performing one and then two steps of the pirouette and moving forward – for the horse to finish the exercise well, with beautiful lightness instead of falling apart or getting stuck. The same principle applied to working on flying changes in a series, so that the horse was able to make them in good balance and not get lost. He used the method of small steps with the same success when working with less advanced horses, suggesting for example: a sequence of figures, gradually increasing the degree of bending or collection, longer moments of them, intertwined with prizes in the form of work in a longer frame. “A horse is like a seed, and training a horse like planting a seed. You sow them and you can not see anything at first. Then it germinates, grows, develops with each passing day. Just like a horse that develops with each training, he improve his musculature, coordination, and mind. And then you collect the fruit”- explained Manolo.

Lengthening neck and relaxed poll – the way to success

Proper lunging work is not just about making sure the horse is straight. According to Manolo, an indispensable element of effective and ethical training is that the horse should move in a relaxed FDO (forward, down and OUT posture) with a long neck, open throat latch, nose in front of the vertical, swinging back and correctly engaged hindquarters. Manolo does not train horses behind the vertical, he does not use LDR or hyperflexion. The eye of the horse should be between the point of the hip and the stifle depending on the stage of training of the horse and his conformation. In this elongated and balanced posture, the horse uses his entire body and back more easily. It is not too low, so the horse does not overload the front legs, nor is it too high, so that the body does not stiffen. This position of the neck and correct flexion (supple poll, nose in front of the vertical) are the key to achieving regular, symmetric, even gaits, both during lunging and while riding. The angle between the jaw and the neck should ressemble the inverted letter U, rather than a V. At the same time, Manolo emphasizes that it is important to train in different postures, because working in one posture always leads to stiffness. This does not mean riding behind the vertical but instead lengthening, gathering, extending, collecting the horse according to his level of training using all the gait variations within the gaits also according to the level of training (for example do not ask a learning horse for extended trot but ask for a few steps of lengthening when appropriate, do not just canter, use gallop as well and vary the degree of collection in canter up the levels. The suppling of the poll is also served in the shoulder fore and shoulder in exercise performed in-hand when Manolo, standing face to the horse’s head, first encourages him to supple his poll, and then to step with the inner hind leg under the center of gravity. This exercise looks like nothing significant when walking with a horse, but when it is performed correctly, it has a huge gymnastic value. The request for lengthening the horse’s neck also appeared many times during the ride and concerned all the gaits and all dressage elements, regardless of the level of collection. A seemingly small change of posture allowed the horses to carry themselves in better balance with better engagement of the hindquarter and, as a result, allowed them to shift their balance and collect more easily in the piaffe or passage, which are movements which require a higher degree of collection. So that’s exactly what we need in dressage from level L to Grand Prix. Manolo strongly emphasizes that the optically longer neck coming out freely from the withers (and not pressed in) and the nose in front of the vertical line should not mean in any way the loss of contact, or riding the horse on the forehand. During the training it was possible to see that horses in such a frames are still moving in self- carriage, and what’s more they looked much more effective.

Learn to wait

“Learn to wait” is another, very extensive topic that appeared during the training with Manolo many times. And it was not only to wait with the introduction of more demanding figures until the horse is ready for it (physically and mentally), although it is one of the foundations of “Training for Wellness”. The word “wait” sounded like a chorus, but each time it had a little bit different meaning. And these were not slogans, but very practical advices. Problems in transitions? The basic tip of Manolo was: “Do not ask for a transition if the horse is not ready, because he will not do it well. Please, wait for the right moment when the horse is in good balance and then ask for a transition. Lightness and transition. It was worth to wait for this moment! ” Problem with collecting a horse? “Look for a good working trot, and only when you have it, can you start gently shortening it. Do it gently, the horse has to shorten the whole body, not just the steps. Then the horse will feel good in it, this is the place from which the collection is beginning. If you shorten only his steps, there will be tension in his body. “Problems with transition to canter? “Wait and go ahead, when you’re ready.” The horse is in a hurry? “When the mare wants to hurry, you release. You and she must have time. A slow walk on contact is a job that every horse needs, including a Grand Prix horse. ” Stiff horse?? “Wait. Before you start any kind of figure and work, you must be calm. The horse must go in a good frame, otherwise it will be a waste of time. ” “Wait” – this word also appeared many times, when Manolo started in-hand work, introducing elements of massage and active and passive stretching and releases. Waiting for the horse to relax, letting him loose the stiffness; it was the key not only to get a better job under the saddle, but also to provide the horse with comfort in movement. “We are always waiting for a moment of relaxation, then we do not waste time!” – said Manolo and this sentence can be referred to both work from the ground, riding, and working manually with the body.

Something more than a feeling

When Manolo takes a bamboo in his hand and gently shuffles it on the ground, the horse makes a beautiful shoulder in on the circle. When he rides a horse and asks him for lateral work, frequent changes in flexion, everything runs smoothly and effortlessly. He emphasizes: “A horse must understand what you are doing so that he can help you. Because you act gently, he understands you. ” When Manolo makes canter pirouettes it looks so easy, as well as other advanced exercises like halfpass – everything seems to come to him effortlessly with horses he has never seen before. This is the mastery and it consists of both: A perfect classic seat, a delicate giving hand, many years of experience allowing him to feel the correct movement of individual parts of the animal’s body and feel, which seems to be more than a “normal” feel of riding. Manolo feels the horse with his whole body – his movement, breath, intentions and mental states. He has an above- average sense of perception and the ability to see many telling details. An integral part of training with Manolo are the moments in which he unravels the horse, he looks carefully at his body, noticing not only asymmetry or muscle tension, but also stiffening joints, symptoms of stomach ulcers, problems with hooves. He works very intuitively, choosing techniques depending on the needs of the horse. Applies massage elements, passive and dynamic releases, stretching, point pressure. Sometimes he takes the rasp and corrects the hoof himself. He checks whether the saddle is fitted, sometimes he loosens nosepieces that are too tightly adjusted or suggests to change a bit. He pays attention to the position of the hair on the body and the direction in which sweaty hair is laid, and not only under the saddle, but in various parts of the horse’s body. He can indicate which muscles are painful and where the inflammation is. The holistic approach that he presents completes what could be called the “sixth sense”. Manolo can draw conclusions about the horse’s past experience, he senses horse’s attitude towards the current and former owners, and with some horses he works – as he calls it – “more mentally”. The holistic approach that he presents, combined with great sensitivity and empathy, and at the same time technical skills, makes horses change beyond recognition in just three days. That’s what we saw during the clinic. And now everything is in the riders’s hands because – as Manolo said – “I would like to be here with you to help you along this path. Unfortunately I can not but I’m sure you can handle it. ” See you in next year’s clinic, Manolo!

Fundamental Principles of Training for Wellness

  • That the horse is not damaged in the body or mind by his training;
  • That the training is a partnership between horse and rider, with horse and rider equally willing to learn from one another;
  • That each horse is trained according to his strengths and weaknesses as an individual, and never pushed beyond what he is physically and mentally capable of;
  • That the horse’s beauty and strength increases, not diminishes, over the years of training, so that at fifteen he is better and fitter than he was at five.

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About Manolo Mendez

One of the six founding riders of the Real Escuela Andaluza Del Arte Ecustre in Spain (one of the four Classical Riding Schools in the World) and an EFA (Australian FEI) Level 3 Dressage Coach, Manolo is a seasoned horseman with over forty five years of experience spanning classical dressage and every riding discipline from dressage to puissance jumping to polo and doma vaquera. Recognized worldwide as an expert in training or re-training the 3 Ps: Piaffe, Passage, and Pirouette without coercion or force, Manolo is dedicated to a soft, sympathetic and thorough training method which prepares horses physically and psychologically for each stage of training from training level to Grand Prix. Over the years, Manolo has become sought after by riders and equine wellness practitioners including veterinarians, equine physiotherapists and osteopaths for his holistic approach to training, developing and rehabilitating horses, which incorporates his unique brand of body work, in-hand and riding. This versatile three-pronged approach gives Manolo the ability to straighten and release tight, stiff, crooked horses, introduce new movements, develop and enhance gait quality and help horses work through physical or mental blockages without stress. Manolo’s dedication to the good of the horse and his proven ability in developing healthy, focused, performing horses using traditional methods have made him a highly sought-after clinician around the world.