“Seat, Weight, Leg, Reins” and “You can do it!” run through my mind like mantras. I can still hear these words in Arthur Kottas’ very distinct voice. I had become accustomed to a certain degree of excitement during a clinic ride - a certain amount of emotionality on the part of the clinician (possibly accompanied by some well-appointed screaming). Although able to tolerate this, I had most certainly never enjoyed it, and I find it very counterproductive to the learning process. What’s even more important, it hardly promotes relaxation in the horse. Not only was there none of this with Arthur Kottas, there was something about his voice and manner of speaking that was downright mesmerizing, which has an ability to bring both horse and rider into an immediate state of complete focus.
My horses are all emotional and sensitive by temperament. I had actually discontinued riding in clinics for some time, because clinics had become a serious source of anxiety for my mare (who is already a very tight horse). I would find it necessary to spend anywhere from days to weeks tuning her up after clinics, in order to re-school a proper response to hand and leg (yield and/or collect, rather than ‘run’ through the aids). Over lunch with Arthur the day before, I made a point of telling him about my mare’s clinic phobia. He listened tolerantly without saying a word. I sensed my words were completely unnecessary, but my compulsion to prepare him for the sake of my beloved mare pressed me on. As soon as I began riding the following day, I understood fully just how superfluous my words were.
Engendered in the word Master is both a sense of the ultimate technical mastery of a certain skill (to the point where the skill has become second nature and part of the person) as well as the expectation of a high degree of wisdom in the application of the art. One knows immediately and absolutely when in the presence of Arthur Kottas, that you have had the very rare and privileged honor to be in the hands of a true master. Not only did I not have the usual thoughts of, “Is this right for my horse” during clinic rides, on the contrary, my mind became utterly clear and focused as I listened with absolute trust to the gentle and melodic sound of his voice. I don’t mean to say that he didn’t criticize – as Arthur put it, “What would happen if you say Arthur Kottas has told me everything is nice, and does not correct”. And that’s what I loved the most – correct the rider first, then the rider may “invite” the horse to work to their potential.
To teach any subject can be quite challenging, as pupils have different learning styles and quite different aptitudes for the subject. To teach dressage borders a little bit on the absurd. Your pupils are not only of greatly differing aptitudes and temperaments, they are of two species. They are themselves working on developing a mutual language – or perhaps I should say a mutual sign language, as there are very few spoken words and the language is based solely on feel, muscle memory and conditioned responses to physical stimuli. I can find no better word to describe Arthur Kottas’ teaching style than to say that he is a ‘conductor’. That was my impression as I rode the geometry of the arena. Arthur stood presiding over the space very much like an orchestral conductor influencing an orchestra to play a symphony - with complete awareness of what each member and section of the orchestra is doing and what the proper timing and emphasis were in order to bring the disparate parts into harmony, so that they could become something greater than themselves - Music. I felt a tangible energy between myself, Arthur, the horse and the sacred space of the arena. What was utterly amazing to me, my horses obviously felt it too. Not only did my mare not have the customary panic attack three-quarter’s way through the clinic, she become more relaxed with each successive day.
I had decided beforehand not to ride my mare on Saturday of the clinic – partly out of a desire to give her a break from the work, and partly, because we would have approximately seventy auditors that day, and as the clinic organizer and host, one can become so busy or distracted with running the clinic, one’s concentration becomes divided and the ability to learn is seriously diminished. I had arranged with Arthur ahead of time for him to do an in-hand demonstration with my stallion on Saturday (who by chance, turned six that very day). I had also told Arthur that I would not ride my mare that day, in order to tend to the auditors. While going over the planned schedule the evening before, Arthur looked at me and said merely, “I think you should ride”. By chance, one of the riders had dropped out, so I took the first ride in the morning on my mare. I was just finishing my warm up when Arthur entered, took the microphone, and greeted the auditors with an air of inspiration. After some introductory remarks, he turned towards me, and before I fully realized what had happened, we were doing a demo. I think perhaps if he had suggested we do a demo, I would have been so full of nervous tension I would have found the anticipation of it quite burdensome. Not that I had not been a demo rider before – I had – but when it is your own venue, you feel a certain responsibility to perfection that is not at all realistic. In his wisdom, Arthur understood everything that I had not expressed: that it was my desire to make the auditor day as educational as possible, but that I was no less prone to nervous tension than my horses - so best to prepare me by setting me up as well as possible, and then allow me to find my own balance and poise in the moment, without the distraction of anticipation beforehand (a lot like horse training I suppose). As he directed me to ride different figures and lateral work, Arthur explained to the audience the use of the rider’s seat, weight aids, and leg position, and the principal use of the indirect (outside) rein while riding a trained horse – all of the fundamentals that I find nearly every rider who comes to me for lessons needs explaining, no matter how much experience they have.
After lunch, Arthur did the in-hand demo with my young Lusitano stallion, Dario. I can only find one word to describe my impression of this: Magic. My stallion himself is quite the personality. He has the boyish charm of young Latin lover, and is unusually quick and smart. It’s not easy to keep him focused, and it is easy to get ‘out of step’ with him if not entirely aware of his every movement and able to anticipate and re-direct if necessary. Added to this, one week before the clinic start, he had been bitten by a wasp while I was riding him in the arena. Neither one of us – neither horse nor rider- had come anywhere near to recovering from the utter horror of this experience. I literally sat on the edge of my seat as the flies bothered Dario and Arthur commenced the demo. Arthur had worked Dario in-hand the day before, but between the flies and the many spectators, I naturally assumed he would be poised for distraction and would need some discipline. But, just as a magician pulls tangible objects as if out of the air, by slight of the hand, Arthur had Dario so completely mesmerized by his body and voice, that the horse never once removed his eyes from him. It was literally like watching a dance, as the horse moved forwards, sideways and backwards in response the almost imperceptible movements of Arthur’s body and position. It was only then that I fully realized just how much in-hand work is like riding (and prepares the horse for the ridden work) and just how much of an art it is. I have never seen anyone ‘perform’ this work with such nuance, and I will admit that I am nearly mournful that this ancient, valuable, and highly developed art will likely be lost one day.
The following day when I rode Dario in the clinic, I was still under the very palpable influence of what I can only honestly call physical terror, due to Dario's explosions of the previous week, on successive days, in the area of the arena where the wasp bit him (this, despite a successful ride two days before and a peaceful demo the previous day). I looked at Arthur tentatively as I mounted. I was obviously tense (to put it mildly) as Dario and I began walking around the arena. We were half way around the arena (nearing the area of the explosions) when Arthur moved fairly close, looked up at me and said, “Don’t worry, nothing can happen to you while I’m here”... And, the amazing thing is: I absolutely and utterly believed him. It might as well have been the voice of God speaking to me. The memories of the explosions melted away and I began to feel the horse’s body and to ride him. From that moment to this day, we have not had a problem.
My final impressions: There was a certain wisdom and empathetic energy that Arthur possessed, which I can only describe as spiritual. I’m fairly certain that he would not himself choose this word to describe himself (about as certain as I am that he will never read this article, or I would not be so bold). I have only known two other people possessing his qualities – one was a Romanian Orthodox monk who spent many years in a Communist prison, and the other is a Japanese Master Gardener. I’m not sure myself what the point of this comparison is, but I felt compelled to make it. I would not normally comment thus on my impressions of someone I do not know well, but in this instance, the teacher is so much more than the sum of his knowledge, I could find no better way to describe the experience. Just what was it that I failed to grasp the day before the clinic? The culmination of 400 years of acquired knowledge, human creativity and spirit, embodied in one person, makes that person more than the sum of their knowledge. I suppose this is what mastery is all about. As the master is more than just an artist, and an artist is more than just a rider, and without either of these, we would have neither courage nor inspiration.
copyright Lisa Scaglione January, 2014