By Dani Moritz-Long
“Believe in yourself and follow your dreams.” These are the simple but sage words of wisdom fourth-generation horseman Julio Mendoza’s grandfather left Julio with shortly before passing away.
“That’s something I’ve carried close to the heart,” Julio explained. “I’ve had many opportunities and doors slammed in my face time after time in my life. I’ve struggled with confidence growing up and self-doubt, but I didn’t give up and had to build courage. Through that courage, I realized many of those challenges I faced only made me stronger.”
Throughout Julio’s life journey, these challenges have manifested in countless ways. Growing up in Ecuador, Julio recalls being the odd one out — ridiculed by his peers for preferring the art of dressage over more fast-paced, “masculine” disciplines like jumping or bull fighting. Later in life, he faced immense challenge when his ambitions to grow and develop as a dressage professional meant selling everything — down to his wife’s hair dryer — and immigrating to the U.S. with only $20 in his pocket.
“We moved to Maryland, where we started working at a farm that bred and sold Friesian horses,” Julio said. “I was hired as the head trainer and my wife as the farm and breeding manager. After about two years there, we branched off on our own and started Mendoza Dressage. That was a big step for us, and the best decision we ever made.”
The Mendozas weren’t fond of the harsh Maryland winters and decided they wanted to move south but not so far south that the summers would be unbearable. “We settled on either North Carolina or South Carolina and started searching for a farm to buy,” Julio said. “The only problem was we didn’t have the time to take off and go see the farms. My father- and mother-in-law were godsends. They traveled through both states looking at farms for us and they came across this gem of a farm in the Thermal Belt of the foothills of North Carolina.
It was the very first farm we looked at and that’s all it took. It has a great school system for the kids – the people here are so friendly, the cost of living is low, the equestrian community is warm and large and the scenery and outdoor activities incredible. The icing on the cake is that we are only 10 minutes away from the Tryon International Equestrian Center!”
Living the Dream
A far cry from his days as a self-taught rider in Ecuador, today Julio is realizing his equestrian dream as owner and head trainer of Mendoza Dressage. “I feel very blessed to be able to do something that I love every day,” he said. “I get to wake up, walk outside a few feet to my workplace and do what I love each day and share it with my wife. I thank God for this every day. My life is full, I have my health and I am living my dream.”
At his facility, Julio employs the wisdom of his family’s multi-generational experience with horses as well as his compassion and determination to benefit both horses and riders.
“I spend a lot of time teaching — nearly as much as I spend in the saddle,” he said. “Many people come to me with major problems they’re experiencing and feel they’ve hit rock bottom. I find myself trying to help others understand not just what the problem is, but why it’s happening and how we can fix it. It’s a very important part of helping them have clearer communication with their horse and achieving consistency.”
Patience is key to Julio’s training. “We must be willing to continue to learn and be patient if we want to have harmony with the horse,” he said. “I believe in a lot of ground work and long-lining exercises to build the horse’s confidence and correct muscling when learning new things.”
Fortunately, Julio’s dedication, innate ability and stamina have led to his success. In particular, Julio says, he’s proud of training horses who have successfully competed in international competition.
“It’s been a great joy to be part of the journey of bringing the horses up the levels and not competing with already-made horses,” he said.
Looking back at his career, he most fondly recalls taking the first Friesian horse, a 9-year-old stallion named Ivan, to the 2011 Pan American Games held in Guadalajara, Mexico. More recently, he’s proud of helping the Ecuadorian team earn team gold in dressage at the Bolivarian Games — which is a multi-sport event in Santa Marta, Colombia.
At the games, he was the highest-placed individual and earned an individual gold medal aboard 12-year-old Oldenburg gelding Chardonnay, whom Julio co-owns with Chardonnay’s breeder, Sheila O’Keefe — adding yet another impressive accomplishment to his resume.
“This year at the Bolivarian Games, it was historical for Ecuador to have all three gold medals in dressage — team, individual and overall — for the first time in history,” Julio said.
A Family Affair
Managing stable operations and competing internationally, of course, can be exhausting work. Fortunately, however, Julio shares this work and excitement with those he holds dearest — his family, which includes his wife, Jessica, and three children.
Fondly describing his wife as his number one fan, best friend and a super mom, he says Jessica plays a pivotal role in managing stable operations.
“People are always saying we’re crazy when they hear that we live and work together 24/7, but I’m the luckiest man in the world to have found Jessica,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything she can’t do, and she somehow manages to do everything all at once. She’s a super mom, great cook, she’s always on top of taking the kids where they need to go, yet also somehow has the time to help with every aspect of the farm. Some days she’s helping me ride, others taking care of the horses or cleaning stalls. She organizes my whole schedule. I don’t know how she does it. My daughter laughs and sometimes pokes fun at me when they leave to go grocery shopping and, after five minutes, I’m already calling Jessica to see how they’re doing. I can’t imagine my life without her.”
Similarly, Julio is grateful for the opportunity to share his passion with his children — who often help with chores around the house and the farm.
“They love being around the horses and living on a farm,” he said. “They also enjoy coming to the shows and are my biggest cheerleaders. They’re very active in sports and have been more interested in their school sports than horses at the moment, but our middle child showed up to Third Level when he was 12 with scores in the upper 60s. I think he may get back into it when he can do the Young Rider tests.”
But whether his son resumes his riding career or not, Julio will forever be grateful to live the life he has in the U.S. surrounded by the horses and people he loves.
“Once my day in the barn is complete, I always look forward to coming home and having dinner together at the table with our children,” Julio said of his favorite way to end every day. “Family time is very important to me, and every day I am in the house by 5:30 p.m. to spend time with them — a very heartwarming way to end the day!”
For more information, visit www.mendozadressage.com.