By Jessica Elsey, a working student at Ashanti Farm, who participated in a farm clinic August 16-18, 2001
Every once in a while a rider needs their passion for this sport refreshed. It is very easy to get into ruts when you are riding and training every day. Every rider knows what it is like to have a plateau in their progress, or worse to encounter one of the many setbacks that occur when working to improve your horse or your riding. I recently found myself in a bit of a lull in my riding and in need of inspiration. Well, thanks to a clinic held at the farm where I am currently a working student, I received enough inspiration to last a lifetime. In three days my love for the discipline of Dressage and my faith in the slow and steady process required to ride correctly were restored. In fact, in the five years that I have been a serious rider I have never felt this excited about hopping in the saddle.
I was six months into the one-year duration of my working student position at Ashanti Farm Inc. in Gordonsville, VA. The first few months had been amazing. I was learning rapidly and having huge “Aha” moments on a daily basis. My process had slowed significantly when the horse I was riding, a thoroughbred gelding named “Remington Steele”, injured himself after playing around in his paddock. Our work was limited to walk and trot for a few weeks, and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
Ashanti Farm Inc. was gearing up for a clinic given by Mr. Arthur Kottas, First Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. Before the clinic the staff was to receive lessons from Mr. Kottas. I had just resumed canter work with Remy, but he was still very weak behind. I walked into the ring for my lesson with butterflies the size of Texas in my stomach. I was so nervous that I was barely riding and I think Remy was nervous too because he was barely moving. Here was my opportunity to learn from one of the Greats and I could hardly get my horse to go forward. I left the ring feeling distraught and disappointed. The lesson had been informative and Mr. Kottas was very nice, but I knew I rode terribly and I dismounted with a sunken heart.
After that I didn’t think that anything could cheer me up. I felt like throwing in my spurs and taking a nice little job in retail or something. I could almost see myself saying “Would you like me to find you some socks that match that shirt?” when something amazing happened, something that changed me forever.
The first day of the clinic had ended and everything had gone extremely well. I was lucky enough to have gotten the job of ring steward so I got to watch all 13 riders receive their lessons. The riders ranged in skill level from Training to Grand Prix and Mr. Kottas treated each participant with equal attention and respect as he tried to impart his wisdom to the riders and auditors. I was extremely impressed with his patience and his humor as he answered countless questions and repeated countless instructions.
The riders and auditors had all gone home when I heard that Mr. Kottas was going to ride our Grand Prix Horse “Delacroix” to prepare him for the exhibition ride on the final day of the clinic. The staff was invited to watch and I was overcome with excitement to see what Arthur could do with “Dela”. “Dela” isn’t an easy horse to ride and he hadn’t been schooling Grand Prix very much due to an old injury, so I was in no way prepared for what I was about to see.
As soon as Mr. Kottas sat in the saddle I knew that this would be no ordinary ride. His position was flawless. He was relaxed but his upper body looked as firmly set in place as a flagpole. It seemed that the horse could have pulled on him with all of its might but Arthur would not have budged. I wasn’t the only one impressed with the way Mr. Kottas sat in the saddle, “Dela” walked off with a confidence I had never seen in him.
Silence filled the arena as Arthur rode half pass, canter pirouettes, piaffe and perfectly executed changes on a horse that, at this point, looked like a completely different animal. I was blown away! I had always heard my instructors talk about this kind of riding, but I had never actually seen anyone able to do it. There was no force, no tension and no misunderstood aids. “Dela” had a tendency to get nervous and excited when asked to perform more difficult maneuvers, but the horse I saw before me looked as relaxed as a feather blowing in the wind.
I was in wide-eyed amazement as Mr. Kottas took “Dela” down the centerline in one tempi change that were as straight as an arrow. The horse without question understood everything he asked “Dela” to do. It seemed like they were talking to each other, or maybe they were just intently listening to each other. Either way what I saw was flawless communication.
What moved me the most watching Mr. Kottas take Dela through Grand Prix movements was actually one of the most elementary maneuvers done under saddle, the down transition. Arthur would go from medium canter to walk as smoothly as a wave rolling on the ocean. There was no moment of hesitation, no loss of rhythm and absolutely no tension. Even the piaffe to walk transitions were smooth and relaxed. I can honestly say that I had never witnessed a perfectly executed down transition before this day.
When the ride was over the small crowd fortunate enough to be an audience to this tremendous ride broke out into applause. We were all moved, inspired and grateful to be in that time and place. I had goosebumps and I couldn’t wait to ride my horses. Just by watching this man ride I learned so much! I learned that I need to be more still in my riding so that I can be quiet enough to hear my horses. I learned that nothing beautiful can be achieved by force and that the horse is able and waiting to do whatever you want it to, you just have to ask correctly. Finally, I learned that nothing is more important than remembering that Dressage is an Art and when we ride we should be Artists and not just Athletes.
I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to watch Mr. Kottas ride and teach at our three-day clinic. I know that my horses appreciate my new outlook towards their training. Whenever I feel tension creeping in or frustration rearing it’s ugly head when things don’t go as planned I just think back to that day. I remember how Mr. Kottas sat so quietly, how all of his aids were applied with clarity and ease and how peaceful and happy “Delacroix” looked with Arthur riding him. After this image washes over me my riding improves immediately. Thank you Mr. Kottas and Ashanti Farm Inc.!