Manolo Mendez Dressage

Clinic Report by Lynne G. Echols

Some Observations on Manolo’s work in hand, riding and bodywork – 2005 Clinic Report by Lynne G. Echols

 This report was written by  Lynne Sprinsky now Lynne G. Echols, back in December 2005. Lynne is a student of Walter Zettl, Erik Herbermann, Karl Mikolka, and Egon von Neindorff and a graduate of the BALIMO™ Program which is based on the work of German Ph.D. kinesthesiologist Eckart Meyners. She is very aware of the importance of creating healthy posture in horses and riders alike

I observed between six and eight riders over the course of two full days (a scheduling conflict forced me to skip the third day, which I still regret), and it would be impossible for me to tell you what happened with every one of them, mostly because my aging memory doesn’t hold that much (“DISK IS FULL” syndrome), but also because it was too cold to take off my gloves for note-writing. So I am just going to give my impressions, together with a few details that have stuck with me during the intervening week.

Several of the horses that were presented had, it seemed to me, been accustomed at some time in their training to go with the very round, on-the-vertical profile that seems to be winning nowadays in the dressage arena. Others were green enough to still be finding their balance and tended to go with a dropped back and high, hollow profile. Manolo rode many of the horses (particularly on the second day) and worked some of those in hand. Others he worked in hand and then the owners rode. With a couple, the owners or trainers rode the horse for all or most of the session.

I was particularly struck by Manolo’s facility with the in-hand work. He outfitted the horses with a serreta, the Iberian equivalent of a longeing cavesson, but equipped with a single ring in the center of the nose.

Manolo had a package of a dozen slim bamboo garden stakes – yes, garden variety bamboo stakes! – about as thick at their thickest point as my little finger, and tapering slightly towards their tips. They looked to me to be about 5 ½ to six feet long – I didn’t get a chance to measure them. [ IF you do not have access to bamboos you can customize, garden variety bamboo stakes are an option. The same rules apply however. They must be thin, dry, smooth and hollow so they are light, relatively stiff and do not sting the horse ]

He used these in several ways: as a wand to touch various parts of the horses’ bodies, including their hooves and lower legs, as a riding whip, and as his own “front legs” on the ground when demonstrating movements. He held the bamboos and used them together with his own legs to demonstrate how the angle of the horse’s body to the path of travel affects the ease or difficulty with which it can execute lateral (crossing) movements. His own legs served as the horse’s hind legs, and he spent quite a bit of time demonstrating the arc taken by a horse’s paired diagonals (one of his legs in back and a bamboo stake in front). I had not previously fully appreciated how critical this element is in helping to supple a horse laterally.

The degree of bend within the horse’s body required explanation because of a ridden exercise that Manolo used with every horse, whether he was riding it or the horse was being ridden by its owner or trainer. He didn’t give this exercise a name (or at least, if he did, I didn’t pick up on it), so I am going to give it a working title: the “Candy Cane: Half Circle and Shoulder-In to the Wall.” It seemed to be extremely useful in increasing a horse’s ability, willingness, and ease in crossing its hind legs while moving sideways and forwards at the same time.


Shoulder-In Out or the Candy cane is an exercise Manolo uses daily and adapts to each horse he rides by modifying the size of the circle he starts with. You would start with a larger half circle, see below.

Here is a description that was written by Monica Whitmer, a trainer, clinic participant and keen observer:

“Shoulder-In Moving Out” also know as the Candy Cane exercise. This trademark pattern is one Manolo has horses work on as soon as they are working with some balance in the shoulder in on a diagonal.

Manolo also calls it a Shoulder in (moving) out. If you are tracking right, you would ride a 15 meter (approximately) half circle right at H and then just before you complete the half circle, when the shoulders are pointed towards B, you ride a shoulder in on that diagonal line. It might SEEM like a leg yield but the main difference is that the horse is bent, not straight, the shoulders are leading, and the legs are crossing on 3 tracks. The leg yield is on 4 tracks and in Manolo’s opinion 4 tracks disconnects the body.

In his opinion, the horse cannot really cross the hind legs without hitting himself, unless he rotates his pelvis backwards to make room – this then encourages a hollow back which is the antithesis of what he wants to develop in a young horse. So shoulder in is better as a first lateral exercise. You could try to just teach shoulder in along the rail, but then the young horse runs a risk of hitting the rails, and he is drawn to the rail, so you are fighting his natural tendencies.

By riding the Candy Cane, you cash in on the horse’s desire to get to the rail, since he already wants to move in that direction, you get to simply shape how he moves there. So with a very green or stiff horse, you might even start with an 18 meter circle, so you do just a few simple steps of the Shoulder in moving out.

As the horse understands the exercise, and develops his muscles, you can do a 12 meter half circle, and eventually even a 10 meter half circle.

It is important to ride this pattern correctly. You do not ride the complete half circle, because then you would break the line of travel. You come out of it early, so the horse can move on one steady bend. It is also important that the riders sit towards the line of travel.

Too often a rider over works the inside leg and gets their body folded with their shoulders leaning away from where they want the horse to go. It is also important that the inside leg be applied AT the girth. If the leg is placed further back, you move the hind quarters.

Some horses already naturally run quicker in the back, so letting the leg slip back only worsens that. The hands lead the motion. For a shoulder in traveling to the left, as in the example above- the hands shift so that the right hand is near the withers, the right leg is close to the girth, and the riders body weight is to the left. As you finish the movement the rider should soften their hands and look for the horse to offer to stretch down and out – opening the topline as you come onto a straight line making sure your hands are even and looking straight ahead. You do not want to work at too steep an angle or the horse will lock up. Manolo says the shoulder in moving out is like breaking ground with a grader, it breaks the ground at an angle…”

It is extremely important that as the horse reaches the track the rider STRAIGHTEN THEMSELVES and the horse and rides the horse straight forward equally in two reins, encouraging the horse to lengthen and stretch its topline.

The most common mistake with this exercise is the rider forgetting to straighten themselves and the horse, and riding the shoulder in with too much contact so that the horse gets crooked instead of bent.

Manolo used this exercise in both directions, with the half-circle beginning at various parts of the ring but always allowing the horse to return to the opposite long side before the corner.

The second thing that Manolo used repeatedly and that has left a vivid impression on me is in-hand work. It was evident that a number of the horses had had previous encounters with the bamboo stick: these lifted the hind legs or forelegs when they were tapped with the stick, performing a few steps of more elevated passage-like or piaffe-like movement. I don’t use the term “-like” to indicate that these movements were a parody of those classical movements but rather to indicate that they were beginning attempts at them, but not yet perfected.

Some horses didn’t react as enthusiastically as others and brief whispered inquiries seemed to indicate that these horses had either had no previous work in hand, or only one or two exposures to this kind of work. Even the “newbies” were not made nervous by it, however.

With the newbies, Manolo didn’t go directly to tapping legs; he spent 20 or 30 minutes accustoming the horses to being touched by the stick, stroking their backs, rumps, and necks with it. Once they were okay with that, he would tap them lightly on the near side and praise them when they moved away. Then he would extend the stick over their backs and tap them on the off side and praise them when they moved their haunches towards him. In the same way he ‘explained’ to them to move their near shoulders away from him, etc.

A novelty for me (I’ve not seen much in-hand work in person) was a technique in which Manolo, standing at the horse’s near shoulder, would reach back diagonally under the horse’s belly and tap the off side of the hind leg on haunch or gaskin. The horse would then move the hindquarters towards him, while keeping the shoulder relatively stationary or moving it only very slightly away from him. In this way Manolo would execute turns on the forehand and haunches, in motion, but tracing a fairly small, hoola-hoop sized circle.

He was ambidextrous in this work, moving easily and frequently from one side of the horse to the other, and eliciting quite vigorous but obedient responses from the horses with no force or upset. Even when reacting enthusiastically the horses were not being boisterous or unruly in any way. They seemed to be tuning into Manolo with great intensity, eyes soft and ears flicking constantly in response to his changing influence.

In addition to doing these lateral-suppling exercises, Manolo would also work the horse in a larger circle and on straight lines, running lightly beside the horse at times, while touching with the stick to elicit an increased response. Sometimes he would tap the croup, sometimes above the hocks, sometimes the cannon bones, sometimes the hoofs, and he’d alternate front and hind legs. Always mindfully. I do not pretend to understand precisely what was happening with the horse that prompted him to change from one spot to another but I was fascinated by the way the horses knew what he wanted!

One particularly impressive (to me) exercise on Manolo’s part was to run lightly alongside a swiftly trotting horse, tapping the front hooves or cannons with the stick, alternating left and right. It happened so quickly that I couldn’t see which part was being contacted, but I could hear the “tick, tick” of the stick. I asked Manolo later whether he was actively tapping the front legs or whether the alternating motion of the leading forelegs impacted the stick on their own; that is to say, was Manolo moving the stick from left leg to right leg, or was the stick held in the same place relative to the horse and the horse ‘kicked’ it as it trotted forward? Both, he replied. It depends on what’s happening.

Caution~Artist at Work!!

In either case, the result was that the horse’s gaits became more and more lofty, until a horse that was cramped and quick in its trot at the beginning of the session bloomed and got taller and more regal and its gait gained more and more amplitude. It was absolutely amazing to watch.

Even more telling was the fact that at the end of each in-hand session, Manolo would remove the serreta , coil the line in his hand, and tuck the stick under his arm, and every single one of the horses would follow him around the arena, at liberty, and then stand patiently and quietly at his side as he talked to the owner or trainer, expanding on what the horse needed from that point forward, and even answer a few questions from the auditors. The horses had clearly acknowledged him as their leader. I joked that they were all asking, “Do you want fries with that?” by the end of the session. Their calmness and relaxation was clearly evident. I was in awe of Manolo’s ability to engage the horses’ willing cooperation while allowing them to maintain a relaxed and attentive demeanor.

When Manolo rode, his effect on the horses was clearly beneficial.

I have already said that in many cases, the horses he was riding had come from a background of a short, tense neck and tense back/ribcage with trailing quarters. I suspect that this is why he was so soft in the rein contact: to encourage the horse not to lock on the bit, tense its jaw against the contact, or otherwise try to escape the effect of the rein.

What he did do with virtually every horse was FIRST to get its hindquarters moving: in some cases the tempo seemed to me a bit quick, but was moderated once the horse was truly in front of the leg and whip. SECOND, he would request a forward/down and out neck and head carriage if the horse’s head was so high that it would biomechanically result in a dropped, hollow back. THIRD, when the horse complied by lowering its head and neck, he would immediately push the hand forward a bit to encourage the horse to reach forward to the bit.

Manolo was adamant that it was forward, down and OUT, repeating over and over that the throatlatch must be OPEN or the gaits will suffer. With several horses the effects of this change – from closed throatlatch to open, from on or behind the vertical to distinctly in front of the vertical – were quite marked, the gaits going from ho-hum ordinary to, “Oh my goodness! Will you look at that!” or even “Wow! That horse can really move!”

I suppose one could carp and say that a horse that far in front of the vertical couldn’t win in today’s competitions, but I would respond by saying that Manolo’s task here was to start retraining the horse’s body and changing its posture, which takes time, regaining the horse’s trust in a giving hand, and re-training it to go forward to the bit.

Another thing that sticks in my mind about this clinician’s abilities was the uncanny aptitude he showed for discerning where physical blockages within the horse’s body are interfering with its ability to perform. He did various types of massages and limb range of motion and stretches.  He did caution us against trying any of this on our own, with the exception of some simple massage. But in every case, the horses appeared to adore what he was doing with their bodies. The eyes were soft, the ears floppy, the lower lips drooped, and several of the geldings “dropped.”

Another thing was about the adjustment of bridle cavessons. Manolo (like many of us) railed against the prevailing habit or fashion of snugging up nosebands so that the horse cannot open his mouth. In every case he checked the noseband of the horses as they were presented at the beginning of each session, and in many cases loosened them substantially, so much that the noseband not only had the old-horseman’s-adage of two fingers space, but would also rotate easily on the horse’s nose, left and right an inch or so. I was so happy to see that!

I just remembered something else that struck me: Manolo examined the sweat patterns of the horses he worked that broke a considerable sweat even on that cold day. On a few, the hair was not uniformly smooth but had a circular or ‘cyclone’ pattern on the neck. This prompted him to massage that area. When I asked what the connection between the hair, sweat, and muscle knots was, he explained that when the underlying muscle fibers are aligned well, the hair above them lies flat and smooth, but when there is a knot, the hair above it reflects that and lies in a ‘cyclone’ configuration. This was a new one to me, but the horses seemed to validate it in that they initially reacted by showing some discomfort as Manolo rubbed and kneaded the area with the ‘cyclone,’ gradually relaxing as he worked out the knots.

There was much, much more that when on during those two days – and I didn’t even get to watch the third day! I will go back to watch Manolo whenever I can, and hope to be able to ride with him one day. The horses told me I should!

– end –

Scroll to Top