2015 has been Jessica Mendoza’s year. The only 19-year-old British starlet jumped her way in to showjumping fame through impressive Nations Cup and Grand Prix performances, and by eventually claiming a much sought-after spot on the British team for the European Championships in Aachen – the latter an almost impossible task when up against world no. one Scott Brash as well as the entire Whitaker-dynasty.
The icing on the 2015-cake came mid-November when Mendoza received the Longines Rising Star Award, a distinction that emphasized her achievements throughout this year.
It’s not only the results for this year that speak in favour of the British rider. Three years ago she came off ponies, moved on to juniors – before she quickly skipped the young rider-levels and went straight on to face much older and more experienced competitors. In comparison, Michael Whitaker – one of her team members in Aachen this year – is 55-years-old.
In a sport dominated by men, many of them twice Mendoza’s age – she is quite a sensation. “Although there are not that many women in this sport, I think we do pretty well for our number,” she says when asked about how it feels to be a girl on the international showjumping scene. “As to my older team mates, I have to say they are very funny – they joke around a lot. I really like them.”
With a pony and junior career like Mendoza’s it was perhaps not a big surprise that she would move on to to be a successful senior rider. What was the real surprise, was how fast it all happened. Even Jessica herself seems blown away by the year that soon comes to an end.
“When I got Spirit two years ago she was meant to be my junior horse. I still remember my first show with her; I jumped a 1.35 class in Spain and won, and I was over the moon with that win! I never ever thought she would make it to this kind of level. Not the three and four-star level, let alone the five-star level!”
Jessica’s luck was perhaps that in Spirit, she found the equivalent to her super-pony Tixylix on whom she won a team gold medal at the 2012 European Championships. At 18, Tixy – as Jess calls her – is still going strong, and picked up two more medals this summer at the pony Europeans in Malmö with her new rider in the saddle.
“If I had a horse similar as Tixy, it would be Spirit. With Tixylix I could go into any ring and believe that I would go clear. It is the same with Spirit; every time she wants to do it for you, and it was the same with Tixy,” Mendoza smiles.
It was the time with Tixylix that gave Jessica the real taste of the sport, and a wish for more of it. “Having been competitive and winning with her, she definitely gave me the inspiration to do the sport professionally,” Jessica says.
Spirit – who the Mendozas found through Peter Charles – proved to be a good match for Jess. Together they went to the European Championships for juniors both in 2013 and 2014 claiming team silver the first year and team gold as well as individual bronze the second year. “The last click between us was really formed over the last year and a half,” Jessica said. “It was not that I tried her and thought she was amazing straight away. It has been about building a partnership, now she wants to do what she does for me.”
Jessica and Spirit have moved up the ranks together, growing similarly along the way. From the two-stars, to the three-stars, then the four-stars and finally this year breaking through on the five-star scene – recently continuing their superb year with a second place in the World Cup in Helsinki.
“I think one thing that makes Spirit so good is that she wants to do it. Whether it has been a 1.30, a 1.40 or a 1.50 she has kept trying her hardest. In the beginning, she would almost always be in the top three in a two-star Grand Prix. Then we stepped her up to do the three-star shows, and straight she won the big class the first day. The same happened when I took her to the four-star show in Antwerp in 2014; she went in and won the 1.50. Each time I stepped her up, she carried on wanting to do it,” Jessica says.
Although being stepped up by the young British rider, Jessica was also wise enough to step the mare down in between – ensuring that the confidence level remained untouched as the pair climbed the ranks.
“I guess we have a special bond in the way that we trust each other,” Jessica says when asked about her relationship with Spirit. “She is so brave, she never spooks at a fence – and if I am slightly far away she will just jump a bit bigger. If I have a fence down with her, it is usually my fault. Her bravery shows in the way that she perhaps does not have that last bit of scope, as some of the horses out there do, but she still does it. Spirit is a horse that just tries to get around it from her own will.
“Although a fighter in the ring, much like her rider – Spirit acts like a diva in the stables. “She wants to have her food when she wants to have food, otherwise she starts screaming. You can’t really ride her around meal times unless she has eaten before,” Jessica laughs. “And if she wants to go in the field, she will go crazy in her stable!”
Currently, Jessica’s stable and home is in the little town of Mierlo in the Netherlands. The yard has been the Mendoza-family’s base for the last one and a half years. “We moved here when I had just turned 18. Living in England and competing internationally was hard because we had to travel eight hours to any show, and moving sort of became the clear thing to do – and my family was also really up for it. They love to do it, just like I do – so it was an easy decision to make,” Jessica explains. “Without my mum and dad I would never be were I am today.”
Mendoza believes that without the move, her career might not have looked the same. “I don’t think it would have been as easy to get to where I am today without living here. I have been able to go to shows every weekend, whether it is a two star or a five star. That has also helped me bring up some younger horses, and ‘back up’ horses for Spirit. Being here has also allowed me to be seen on the circuit every weekend, and it has opened a lot of new doors for me. We have so many shows around here, also training shows every week that are a five minutes drive away – and there are several good trainers in the area too. I find that it is really good facilities here, and the horses also really like it too,” Jessica reflects.
Jessica never dreamed of 2015 turning out the way it did. “At the beginning of the year I thought I would do a few five stars, and then drop it down in between. The Masters in Hong Kong was one of my first big shows for the season, and Spirit was runner-up in the big class the second day there. She jumped with one down in the Grand Prix, and I thought that was quite amazing. Then I took her to Arezzo for the spring tour, and she won a three-star Grand Prix there. At the Longines Global Champions Tour in Shanghai – our next five-star show - she was clear in all three rounds in the Grand Prix, and I was completely over the moon with that.”
The results did not go unnoticed. Jessica was selected for the British team heading for the five-star Nations Cup in St. Gallen; her debut on a senior team. “We were clear in the first round, and had two down in the second. But, then Spirit came 4th in the Grand Prix so Di Lampard asked if I could go to Rotterdam two weeks later. Spirit was great again, jumping with four faults and then clear – with Britain winning. She just started producing more and more consistent rounds,” Jessica smiles.
It did not stop there. After two more brilliant performances in the Grand Prix in Estoril and the Longines King George V Gold Cup at Hickstead, Mendoza was selected to represent Great Britain at the European Championships in Aachen. “I was a bit lucky,” Mendoza smiles about the selection. “A few things fell into place for me; like getting into some bigger shows. It is not that easy as I have quite a few British riders ahead of me on the ranking.”
Representing her country at such a big occasion has been a big honour for Mendoza, but she could also feel how it came with a lot more pressure than anything else she had done before. “You are not just jumping for yourself, so it is a different experience. I do enjoy the pressure that comes with though,” she says. “I don’t get that nervous when I compete; perhaps a bit when I get into the ring – but it disappears when I come to the first fence. I try always to not let any nerves get the best of me.” In Aachen, Jessica found that she the first days of the championships ended up watching too many rounds. “Then I found myself being almost too over-analysing; ‘Should I do six strides, seven strides…?’ The last day I watched three four horses instead, went to have a sleep and came back for my team – and then I was much better,” she smiles. “2015 has been a big learning year for me.”
After getting a real taste of the top sport, it comes as no surprise that Mendoza now has her eyes set on Rio next year. Her goal comes with a very realistic approach though. “I am going to try,” she says “but I know how hard it will be.” That is why she will not over-focus on the Olympics, but just give it her best shot. “I will not set all into it, and save Spirit for the Olympics only and then not get there – but I will not over-jump her everywhere else either in case I do make it. I will try to not do too much and not too little.”
Mendoza knows exactly what she is up against, and is honest about it. “I feel if I want to get on the team, I must almost do double as well as all the others – I have to be a lot above them to get on the team so to say, as they are all so good and experienced. For me to be noticed and be picked for the team, I have to work hard.”
Jessica is definitely a very focused and determined athlete, a real fighter. Watching her horses, it seems that they all are a lot like her. “Yes,” she laughs. “I really like a buzzy and sharp horse going forward, that wants to take me to the fence. If they are not like that when I get them, I try to create that in them. For me it’s important that they have that will to jump; a trier and a brave horse – that is what I look for. If they have these qualities, I think you can sometimes add the scope – a trying horse will do that little extra for you.”
One that fits this bill is the six-year-old Jonker van Sombeke, who the Mendoza’ co-own with the well-known breeder Luc Tilleman. “I tried Jonker as a five-year-old, and fell in love with him the moment I tried him. It was a bit difficult to begin with, he was quite crazy. At the shows he would jump one fence, and then just gallop off. He did not even jump it with a great shape, he would just go really high and set off. But, I could feel he had the power in him so I kept on going and now he is getting more sensible. I think he will be an amazing horse,” she smiles.
Managing the horses daily routines, Jess focuses on the horses’ happiness. “It is the most important thing for me,” she reflects. And it is not just something she says. While we are visiting all her horses are out enjoying the sun in the fields, peacefully eating grass – including her super star Spirit. “I like to do a lot of varied work with them; maybe flatwork twice a week, the race track twice a week, then hacking out on the roads once a week – they go in the field every day. After a show they usually have a week off. When I ride them I always I try to get them light for my aids and working a bit on their own engine.” At home it is usually Jess’ father that helps her out – “He seems to see a lot of things from the ground, and he never gets too complicated,” she says.
It’s a simple approach, but what Mendoza is doing is clearly working. And if something does not go her way, it’s equally elementary. “Of course, I get upset – and probably my dad more than me,” she laughs. “But I always aim to learn from my mistakes, and that is the most important thing you can do.”
Photos / text by Jannicke Naustdal - copyright © worldofshowjumping.com 2015.
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