Book Review: Kottas on Dressage

This book by Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg, former First Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School, outlines his philosophy on dressage training, focusing on the development of the gaits and explaining lateral work and advances movements. Reviewed by Mary Daniels for Dressage Today magazine.
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This book by Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg, former First Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School, outlines his philosophy on dressage training, focusing on the development of the gaits and explaining lateral work and advances movements. Reviewed by Mary Daniels for Dressage Today magazine.

By Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg & Julie Rowbotham
Hard cover, 224 pages. Published by Trafalgar Square Books.Available at HorseBooksEtc.

Kottas on Dressage is filled with the classical training tradition of the Spanish Riding School (SRS) of Vienna by an impeccable authority, its former First Chief Rider.

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This knowledge has not always been accessible to the public at large. It is my understanding that after hundreds of years in practice, this school of riding is not written down anywhere, but passed on orally from experienced riders to the trainees, to avoid error. Having it at hand in a book, one that is beautifully organized and highly readable, is a great privilege.

There are various reasons why I loved this book, but a main one is its extraordinary clarity, in part a result of that organization. As it progresses from the basics of starting a young or green horse to the ultimate piaffe and passage, I never once had to go over a sentence repeatedly, trying to figure out, 'what did he mean by that?' Every sentence is clear and precise and made me appreciate the mind from which this book originated as having a compassionate and deep understanding of the equine psyche.

Another appealing point is that many books on dressage--and all are valuable--give a how-to for obtaining a result, i.e. do X, Y and Z and you will get A. Kottas does this, too, but in addition devotes additional detail on what to do when you might get Q or V or B, which often occurs when training a horse.

Obviously, much of his expertise stems from his many years at the SRS, and from his further experience with European sporthorses.

Kottas begins with his philosophy, which in a nutshell is: "The horse must be physically and mentally fulfilled and understood by the rider. I always see the horse as a partner. He must be trained slowly and patiently. Every new horse is a new experience." I was much taken by the word "fulfilled," one I have never heard before with horses in mind. He follows with his reasons why the rider needs a good position: "It is the major aid; everything else is ancillary."

The training of the horse begins with "The Walk is the Training Gait." Sounds as though it should be simple, but he addresses a slew of frequently encountered problems (as he does for the trot and canter) Again; he doesn't leave you hanging, but gives good advice on how to deal with every one of them. I especially liked these sections, as they made me feel as though he were right there on the scene, talking the reader personally through the snags and setbacks that lie along the path to our goals. "If there is something that does not work well, take a step back," he advises.

The first part of the book deals with many basics. However, even when the text touches on topics to which I have been exposed, I was never bored, as my reaction was an affirmation: 'oh yes, I was taught that, and good, he says it is right.' For example: "Legs! Legs! More legs! NO! Legs that are soft, attentive and reactive--YES!" And: "Touch your horse, whether with calf, heel or spur, with an electric touch, lightly, fast like the pinch of a guitar string, and immediately take the leg away." Again, the analogy of the guitar string is one that will stay with me.

I am sure for every reader there will be a special chapter that speaks to them with more impact than others. For me, it was the section on flying changes of lead at the canter, from the single to the tempis. I have always loved flying changes more than any movement. Flying changes were what I looked forward to in every lesson, and I begged to ride the advanced horses that did them well. I was able to ride up to changes every two strides. But as much as I yearned and sweated I could not do the every-strides, and could not truly understand why.

I used to study the tapes of Grand Prix riders trying to figure out what they were doing, but still didn't get it--until now. Reading the very clear micro-details of the aids described by Kottas, including but not limited to, I understand how quick and accurate the timing must be, and how much more collected the horse must be. Mystery solved: For the every-strides, "Obtain a very good cadence, a nice impulsion in your canter, just a little faster than for two-time changes," he says. "The third change must be super-fast, but above all more refined than the two preceding ones. Therefore, there is a tendency to exaggerate it too much or to ask too hard," and that is to be avoided.

If for some reason I was forced to abandon my considerable dog-eared dressage library and was allowed to take with me only a single book, this one would be it.