Clinics are often a tricky business. If you’ve been taking lessons from someone consistently, suddenly having a new trainer stirring things up can be confusing. Or, you can go to a clinician, with their new and different way of communicating, and finally understand what someone else has been telling you for ages. And if you find a really gifted clinician, who is a superb teacher, those people can be downright transformative. Not only can they convey the basics well, they can also spot details and nuances that your regular trainer may not be tuned into because they see you so often.  And their one seemingly small insight can propel you forward in your progress.

Enter, Julio Mendoza. I’ve been trying to get a lesson with him for ages! Two of the dressage riders at my barn take lessons from him fairly regularly, and can’t do anything but rave about his teaching abilities.  I tried, unsuccessfully, to get into that loop.  So when the opportunity to invite myself to be a guest at someone else’s clinic arose, I jumped on it!  I figured one clinic was better than none.  And with a little luck, if things went well, perhaps I could turn this into a regular thing.

Clinic day came, and Charlie and I hauled ourselves out to SAS Sporthorses in Poolesville, MD.  Shera Solomon, the owner and head trainer, has a lovely facility focused on dressage and eventing.  She won me over at her circular driveway that prevented me from having to back my trailer anywhere.  She met me as we pulled in, and pointed us to a place to pull off under the trees, and invited me into the indoor arena for some coffee and to meet everyone.

Two of my friends, Leah and Isabelle, had carpooled out together, so I knew there would be at least a couple of familiar and friendly faces in the gallery. To my surprise, I walked in to find familiar people and horses: Andrea and Frankie; Sarah and Angus; and Jen and Thistle. Our host, Shera, rode two of her own horses. Other people came to watch or help out: Sofia who came to groom for Frankie; Alex who is currently suffering from a broken foot; and Lauren who now trains across the street from SAS. It was a supportive crowd and a welcome sight.

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Julio, getting his point across.

And then there was Julio. He’s a little bigger than life, with an energy and a smile that light up the room wherever he is. He talks fast, so you have to listen and pay attention to keep up with him. He’s very physical in his communication, making gestures all the time to go with his words. He’s kind and supportive, but he won’t let you off the hook for anything. You’re immediately at ease, but you definitely don’t want to disappoint him.

I left Charlie on the trailer for a bit, and watched a couple of the other students before our turn came. Julio spotted a rider with a super strong right leg, which caused her spur to constantly nudge her horse. Both Julio and Shera saw it at the same time, and had the light bulb moment about why that horse was constantly moving with his haunches to the left. Another rider was encouraged to talk to her horse more — both as a calming mechanism for the rider (you can’t talk if you’re holding your breath) and as reassurance for the horse.

When our turn came, Julio asked about Charlie’s background: 17 years old, Friesian cross, doing low level events, but I often feel like I’m working harder than he is. With that, I was sent out to show him walk, trot and canter. We went to the right. I offered to go again to the left, but Julio said he saw all he needed to.  Uh oh!  Is that good or bad?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have a tendency to tip forward too much. I know it, and I fight it constantly. I can occasionally win the battle, but I’m definitely not winning the war on this one. My focus in fixing things is to keep my shoulders open and back. But eventually, I wind up pitching forward again.

When we stopped in front of him, Julio told me my leg was not in the right place. I took that to mean the usual too far forward or too far back, which I struggle with all the time. He said, “No, it’s not laying on the horse right.”  At that point he physically pulled my leg away from the horse, rotated my thigh, and set my leg back on the horse.  Then he told me to keep my back flat, and sink lower into my seat.  That completely opened up my hip flexors in a way that I’ve never experienced before.

Then out we went to do some exercises, both to help me solidify this new leg position, and to help Charlie understand the now somewhat new aids that were coming from my new ‘dressage leg.’

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A smile this big from both of us after 45 minutes of super hard work? Yeah, it really was that good!

We also worked on keeping Charlie’s head down and his body more rounded. Julio noticed that Charlie likes to run around with his head higher than it should be — not quite like a camel, but too far up to be rounded so he moves through his top line. Our exercise became getting him to drop his head, and then move forward. When he moved and kept his head down, we released the tension and continued. If he remainded tense against the ask, then we dropped back a gait and began again.  Halt, round, walk, release tension, continue walking, trot, walk, halt. If anywhere along the line Charlie got tense and put his head up, we stopped and started the progression again.

So between my ‘new’ leg, and Charlie’s more rounded carriage, we looked like a totally different pair by the end of our clinic. Even my chronic tipping was much improved. Julio said it was because with my leg now in the right place, that put my seat in the right place, so now my shoulders were in the right place. It really was an ‘Ah ha!’ moment.

Sadly for us, Julio is moving to North Carolina at the end of the summer.  But I’m hoping I can get a few more lessons in before he goes. And with a little luck, maybe we can convince him to come back and do some more clinics.  I know I’m a fan!