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Westminster rider to compete at Pan American Games

Julio Mendoza and his horse Chardonnay will compete in the dressage competition at the Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada July 10 through 17.

Gracefully gliding around the ring, Julio Mendoza and his horse Chardonnay move like dance partners.

"You feel complete when riding," said Mendoza. "You feel excited that you achieved something after you're done. You're asking your horse to do something and when he does it for you, it's a good feeling. I'm able to make an animal that is thousands of pounds dance."

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Mendoza and Chardonnay will compete in the dressage competition at the Pan American Games, the world's third-largest international multisport event, from July 10 through 17 in Toronto. Dressage originally developed as a method for training military horses. The specific purpose is to develop a horse's natural athletic ability and maximize its suppleness and attentiveness, all while fostering ultimate harmony between horse and rider.

Mendoza, who moved to Westminster in November, will represent Ecuador in the Pan American Games.

"Representing my country is an honor. It's a dream come true," Mendoza said.

Mendoza moved to Union Bridge in 2007 with his wife, Jessica, to train horses. He is an Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) trainer and instructor with over 24 years of dressage experience; the FEI is the international governing body for all Olympic equestrian disciplines.

The couple rents Morgan Run Stables in Westminster and trains 15 horses.

"Any horse can do dressage if it's healthy, but not all of them have the quality to be a competition horse," Mendoza said.

For five years, Mendoza has competed in the International Cup, always placing in the top five. In 2010, Mendoza earned a United States Dressage Federation silver medal. The next year, he earned a USDF bronze medal and qualified for the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. In 2013, Mendoza earned a USDF gold medal. This year, he competed in Florida and Toronto to qualify for the Pan American Games. They are surpassed in size and scope by only the Summer Olympic Games and the Asian Games.

Mendoza said dressage competitions consist of a series of individual tests, each with an increasing level of difficulty. At the Pan American Games, Mendoza will compete in the "Small Tour," which includes the Prix St. Georges and Intermediare level I.

"A horse competing at this level must be at least of 7 years of age. The Prix St. Georges requires riders to do walk, trot and canter work as well as multiple flying lead changes and half-pirouettes," Mendoza said.

At the Intermediare level I, Mendoza said, the horse and rider perform the Prix St. Georges movements as well as musical freestyle.

"There are letters all around the arena where they do movements, and up to five judges watch the test to get different views of the horse and rider," Jessica Mendoza said.

The Mendozas worked with EquiChord, a production company in Westminster, to come up with a musical arrangement for the freestyle portion of the competition.

"What we like to do is really look at the personality of the horse and their strengths and their movements," said CeCe Maddlone, co-owner of EquiChord. "Ultimately, it's determined by what the horse likes to listen to."

Maddlone said the music fits Chardonnay's personality.

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"We wanted something that would make him shine. The focus is to make the horse as fluid and on beat as possible. This particular music is a medley of U2, and it was more fun and light. It seemed to fit him and his character," Maddlone said.

Maddlone said Mendoza is a pleasure to work with because he understands choreography.

"It's very rare to find somebody who really understands putting the music with the movement. He has exceptional technique. He's a natural," Maddlone said.

Sheila O'Keefe, of Tranquillity Farm in West Virginia, is the breeder and co-owner of Chardonnay, a 10-year-old Oldenburg breed.

"Julio is a phenomenal rider with a lot of experience and tremendous feeling and sensitivity for the horse," O'Keefe said.

O'Keefe said Chardonnay is very highly trained athlete.

"He has a heart of gold and never says no to his rider," O'Keefe said. "Seeing a horse that I bred compete at this level is extremely rewarding to me as a breeder."

In preparation for the games, Mendoza wakes up at 5 a.m. to work with the horses. He said he takes a break in the afternoon and trains again at night when it's cooler.

"Before you go into the ring, you have to be physically and mentally ready," Mendoza said. "To do the best performance, you have to make sure you don't make mistakes but always have fun. No matter what your dream is, you need to work hard."

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