Arthur with his daughter Caroline.
Arthur with his daughter Caroline.

When your horse is slow or reluctant to respond promptly to your leg aid, he’s not “in front of the leg.” We all know how much work it is to ride a horse that isn’t in front of the leg—it feels like no matter how early you prepare the horse for the upward transition, how much you indicate with your seat or squeeze with your legs, he still shuffles forward on his own schedule or ignores your aids altogether.

In his new book DRESSAGE SOLUTIONS, former First Chief Rider at the renowned Spanish Riding School and international trainer and clinician Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg explains the many causes of this problem. He also gives us clear and easy-to-implement ways to improve the horse’s reaction time and get him solidly in front of the leg.


Cause: The horse may not understand what is being asked of him, therefore is hesitant and lacks confidence, making him slow to react. Consider whether the aids are being applied correctly and with good timing.

Solution: If the rider’s lower leg swings around, the horse will feel it accidentally bumping his sides in different places. He thinks this is an aid, responds forward, but the rider pulls on the reins, not realizing he was the cause of it. This confuses the horse so that in future he does not know whether to respond to the leg in case it leads to another pull on his mouth. In this example the solution clearly lies with the rider and he must work on his seat position in the saddle to improve the stability of his lower leg. This could include work on the lunge without stirrups and ensuring that the lower back is supple so that a deep seat can be maintained at all paces.


Cause: Strong hands can be the root of the problem. Again the rider needs help with his seat, trying to improve his balance so that he does not use the reins to keep himself in the saddle. Only a rider who can remain in balance independent of the reins and stirrups for support can achieve good hands. Behind the leg can also be a tack issue—ask yourself, “Is the bit too strong for my horse?”

Solution: The horse may have a sensitive mouth and be afraid of going forward if the bit is severe and the rider’s hands are not subtle. An experienced trainer can advise whether a milder bit would be more suitable and encourage the horse to relax and go more freely forward from the leg aids. Our aim should be that our horses go happily in a simple snaffle bit with a cavesson noseband, or a correctly fitted drop or flash noseband if he opens his mouth. Later the double bridle can be introduced, but only when the horse is accepting the snaffle correctly and the rider has achieved a level of sophistication in his riding skills. The double or full bridle should never be used as strong brakes, or to manipulate the head and neck carriage into an arched position. When our horse has been trained to a level where all the work can be achieved harmoniously in the snaffle bridle, then the double can be used to add refinement to the aids.


Cause: A lazy or phlegmatic horse may be slow to react to our leg aids.

Solution: We can sensitize this horse to our legs by making many transitions, both between the gaits and within them. By doing this we focus the horse’s mind, and the frequency of the transitions will bring him onto our aids and can also make the hind legs active. If he is dull to our leg aids, kicking his sides is likely to cause resentment and further deaden his responses. Keep the legs light and, if he ignores the aid, tap him with the schooling whip by your inside leg. It is important to time this with the leg aid so that the horse associates leg and whip as meaning the same thing. This way we can teach the horse to respond to light touches from the legs. If the horse is feeling sluggish, then we can raise his adrenalin levels with some canter work. After warming up, try some canter in a light seat. Encourage him to make some tempo changes, whilst maintaining control and balance. The priority is to activate our horse, as it is his energy we channel when we put him on the bit, and without controlled energy we have nothing.


Cause: Some horses can become stale and lethargic if their routine never varies. For them we can vary the day-to-day work program.

Solution: Include some hacking in the country once or twice a week. Use some small cavalletti. This can be fun for the horse and sharpen his responses to our aids. It is also a good way to gymnasticize the horse, so that we achieve one of our aims in a different way than usual. Take your horse to different arenas occasionally. A different environment may make the dull horse brighter and easier to ride. Some horses thrive when they are worked in company and this may help improve his responses to the aids.


Cause: If the horse is young or physically weak, fatigue can slow his reactions to our legs.

Solution: Consider changing the work program to shorter sessions so that you can finish while he is still fresh and enjoying his work. If possible, ride twice a day but for shorter periods so that he can recover his energy in between. Continuing to work a tired horse is a mistake and can lead to evasions. Review the horse’s diet, to ensure he is fed a balanced regime that provides all the carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals he needs to perform his work. If you are not sure, then seek the advice of an equine nutritionist.


Both the new DRESSAGE SOLUTIONS and its predecessor KOTTAS ON DRESSAGE are available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.



Need help from Arthur Kottas in person? Riders and auditors can now sign up for his June 2014 clinic at Windhorse Dressage Farm in Sherborn, Massachusetts, and Bear Spot Farm in Acton, Massachusetts.



Tuesday, June 24, Wednesday June 25, and Thursday, June 26

Windhorse Dressage Farm

34 Great Rock Road, Sherborn, MA 01770


Friday, June 27, Saturday, June 28, and Sunday, June 29

Bear Spot Farm

276 Pope Rd, Acton, MA 01720


The cost per ride is $290 per lesson. Riders and grooms are welcome to audit all day for free.

The cost to audit is $30 per day ($15 per day for current NEDA members). Rider spots are assigned on a first come, first served basis. Contact Irene Greenberg with questions at either 603-770-0939 or