To the untrained eye, the million-dollar-horse Chardonnay looks like he’s suddenly decided to prance in place, flexing his hock and fetlock joints with great precision, then setting his hooves down delicately on the turf in the covered arena. His movements are dancer-like, rhythmic. Rider/trainer Julio Mendoza sits very straight but very still. He doesn’t appear to be doing much of anything.
A better understanding reveals that Chardonnay is performing “piaffe,” a step in the specialized world of dressage. Though the elite equestrian sport is practiced only for prizes today, dressage originated in ancient times, when horses were used in war. Depending on who you ask, piaffe might be based on the command for a horse to stomp on a fallen foe, or else it was a warm-up exercise — like running in place — to get ready for battle.
Though he appears relaxed, Mendoza is in constant communication with Chardonnay through almost imperceivable, unspoken body-to-body commands: the way he sits in the saddle, shifts his weight, subtly moves his hands and legs. Basically, it should look effortless — or as effortless as possible when a horse does a pirouette, a movement common to both dressage and ballet.
“When I’m riding Chardonnay, it’s like we are on the same wavelength. I think of a movement and he executes it, as if we are one. We share a deep bond,” says Mendoza.
The French word “dressage” translates to “training,” and is considered to be the foundation for all types of horse riding. Unlike high-energy racing, jumping, and hunting shows, though, a dressage exhibition doesn’t stir the dust or occur amid cheers and shouting. Showmanship is everything, and judging is extremely strict. Whips aren’t allowed, and spurs, while required as part of the strict equestrian dress code, can’t be used casually.
If all goes well at the FEI World Equestrian Games this month — when a projected half-million visitors are expected to descend on Tryon International Equestrian Center in rural Polk County — Chardonnay and Mendoza will have a shot at capturing the attention of the aristocratic sport’s premier stakeholders, catapulting the pair from the quiet North Carolina foothills into the international limelight of world-class competition.
It’s a feat just to have qualified. The two-week, ultra-elite event, which also includes jumping, endurance riding, and driving (i.e. carriage) contests, draws competitors, their animals, and spectators from many countries; the economic impact to the region is estimated at $400 million. Mendoza and Chardonnay have set a goal to get to the second round — the Grand Prix Special Test. With some luck, they may even reach the final round of 15 competitors for the freestyle challenge, where the purse is $38,000.
Unlike European riders who typically perform to classical music, Mendoza has put together a roster of current pop tunes, including songs by Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran, for the freestyle event. “I wanted something that fit my horse,” says the equestrian. “He has a bubbly clown personality, and is very vibrant in the ring, so I chose an upbeat, hand-clapping medley that the crowd can recognize and feel connected with.”
Mendoza is permanently established in the U.S. but still working toward citizenship, so he will ride for his home country, Ecuador. His dream is to make a name for himself in the sport — enough of a name that could take him and his “hero,” as he calls Chardonnay, to the 2020 Olympics in Japan. “He’s got a shot at it,” says his wife Jessica, who hails from Ohio.
By then, Mendoza will be in his forties — “but dressage is one of few equestrian sports that people ride into their old age,” notes Jessica, mentioning 77-year-old dressage Olympian Hiroshi Hoketsu.
The couple, who have three children, run Mendoza Dressage LLC, a barn and 20 acres of land in the hilly horse country of Columbus, 10 minutes from the Equestrian Center. The Mendozas bought the place ready made, with a much-need covered riding ring for their workshops and clinics, two years ago. They were lucky enough to get their spread just prior to the announcement of the big games coming — something that has since sent land prices soaring.
Despite being the first person ever to represent Ecuador in dressage competition at the World Equestrian Games, Mendoza is considered to be this region’s “local boy,” says Jessica. No other dressage riders who live in the Tryon area will compete. And even though 13-year-old Chardonnay was once considered to be an underdog, through training with Mendoza, he has become a much coveted animal. It’s common for international dressage mounts to sell for $2-$3 million or more. At the time, the Mendozas paid a very modest amount for part ownership of Chardonnay, and have since been offered more than $1 million for the gelding.
But they’ve declined to sell. “He is just too special, and we haven’t even hit his prime yet,” says Jessica. “He just finished his very first year competing at the Grand Prix level [in other local competitions and in Florida]. Usually horses are the strongest by their third year competing.”
With giant mirrors on one side of the covered riding ring — much like mirrors in dance studios — Mendoza and Chardonnay appear the perfect match. To ride dressage at the top tier, “you must feel it. You can’t teach it. You either have it or you don’t,” says Mendoza.
“It is a relationship between the horse and the rider,” explains the competitor, who carries cubes of sugar in his breeches pocket. Mendoza says Chardonnay “never complains” about the training, is always ready to work, and gives 150 percent of effort. He says his training philosophy is to focus on the relationship, rather than the gold.
He also calls the local support he’s received “incredible,” adding, “I am enjoying every minute of it. [WEG] only comes along every four years, and this time it is in my hometown.”The 2018 FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale) World Equestrian Games happen at the Tryon International Equestrian Center (25 International Blvd., Mills Spring) Tuesday, Sept. 11 through Sunday, Sept. 23. For a daily schedule of events and ticket information, see tryon2018.com.