Each morning as Julio Mendoza pulls on his polished riding boots, he knows he’s living two dreams—the American Dream and his dressage dream. He came to the States with $20 in his pocket, and now he’s heading to the biggest horse competition known: the World Equestrian Games. “If you believe in yourself and in your horse, it’s very hard to make it, but if that can happen, it’s a dream coming true,” says the Grand Prix rider, his Hispanic-tinged English a proud pointer to his past.

Julio’s great-grandfather was a rancher in Spain. The 39-year-old grew up a fourth-generation horseman in Ecuador. He summons a story he’s heard many times. “My father said the minute I saw a horse, for me, that was the more happy moment of my life. I don’t really remember, I was three, but he said I was crying until I could sit on the horse.” Life kept Julio centered in a saddle. He tried jumping, but found far greater satisfaction in dressage, a discipline originally designed to train military horses. “You develop this relationship between you and the horse. I have a lot of respect for people who jump, but it’s not for me.”

The counter-cantering horseman’s seamless harmony with his steed is undeniable. That connection is what caught the eye of his wife when she saw him for the first time. “He was teaching students, and I loved his partnership with his horse,” she recalls. “They looked like one. He was beautiful to watch.” Jessica is from Ohio, but one college semester in Ecuador grew into years abroad after meeting the congenial equine instructor. “I didn’t really speak much Spanish, and he didn’t speak any English,” she shares with a hearty laugh. “Everyone says we must have been speaking a love language.” 

“Dressage is like people dancing in a ballet. It’s very beautiful, very elegant. I try to be as still as possible. Chardonnay knows what to do.”—Julio Mendoza

 

The couple shares a love of each other—and horses. In 2007, they moved to the States in search of steady equestrian opportunities for their family—they have three children. In 2016, they bought their 20-acre farm in Columbus, North Carolina. Julio competes and teaches, while Jess runs Men-doza Dressage operations, which includes training, boarding, and breeding. “I don’t ever see this changing, really,” the 31-year-old mother predicts. “It’s something we both love so much and it’s neat to be able to share it with each other. Dressage is also one of those sports that you can do well into old age, as long as you’re healthy enough to ride.”

In middle age, there’s no reining in success for Julio. This past spring, he and his Oldenburg gelding, Chardonnay, became the first dressage duo from Ecuador to qualify for the world champion-ships. And the fact the competition is ten minutes beyond his barn makes him optimistic. “I don’t have to travel. I don’t have to go to another country in the airplane,” he explains excitedly. “Chardonnay knows that ring, and he’s home. He’s competed in that ring before.” The two were contenders at the Pan American Games in Toronto in 2015, and the Bolivarian Games in Bogotá, Colombia, last November. Julio’s greatest wish is to take Chardonnay to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. “My first time I saw Chardonnay, I saw the kind eyes that he have, the good brain, and he tries so hard every time. So, it was my goal for him to compete with him and go to the Olympics.”

When the pair takes to the ring near Tryon this month, Julio hopes their ride, with its serpentines, pirouettes, and flying change of leads captivates spectators. “Dressage is like people dancing in a ballet. It’s very beautiful, very elegant. I try to be as still as possible. Chardonnay knows what to do.” Afterward, Julio will give his trusted mount some small apples. He’ll press his forehead against the Oldenburg’s blaze, and whisper a mix of Spanish and English. “I tell him he’s a good boy, it’s a good day, and I love him.” Man and beast will ride off into the sunset, hopefully, with gold glistening from a ribbon around Julio’s neck.

For more on the FEI World Equestrian Games, Sept 11–23, see Mane Event