Close-up: Per Waaler
Ambition and creativity are the driving forces of development, and patience is the key to absolutely everything. We met legendary dressage expert Per Waaler at his farm on the Swedish east coast.
By: The Editors
This feature is also available in Norwegian: “Tett på: Per Waaler”
He is known to be uncompromising. Maybe even reactionary in a world of old school traditions and double bridles. He does not believe in submission as a result of a power struggle. Not because he is naïve, but because he thinks that good results are more than the score given by a subjective judge.
– When a child starts at a riding school, it is far from the world of whips and spurs. Most start wanting to earn the respect of the horse naturally, rather than force obedience. I think that today’s way of judging puts this obedience above how the horse moves naturally and destroys the mutual respect between the horse and the rider.
He speaks a mix of Norwegian and Swedish and seldom stops talking. Not annoyingly, where you never get to respond, but so that you just want to listen to all he has to say. In the same way that he uses all his energy to listen to his horses.
Patience is key
He never stops talking about patience when riding the horse that has taught him the most about that. Wilma, or Welba, as is her real name, and some days – Lisbeth Salander.
– Today I sense that she is not on top. Then I adjust the training accordingly. If I push too hard, or do something that she doesn’t want to do, she will let me know. One time in a competition I pushed her way beyond her limits, and she finished our round by turning her head and bite my boot. Yes, Lisbeth Salander has lots and lots of personality. Just the way I like it.
Per depends upon the horse’s consent – the relationship is built on almost a human kind of interaction. When he asks for something, he must get acceptance, and before he asks, the horse must accept him. Stress Is never fruitful. You must always consider how the horse is that day, and also how you’re feeling yourself.
He doesn’t use his hands to control the horse. That is not how he learned to ride. He lets the horse decide where to position its head. Using the reins changes the horses balance, he thinks, and should not be determining how the horse carries itself.
– Imagine having a bit in your mouth, and reins to control you. Who would you allow to take control over them? Who do you trust enough to do that? I would guess that your list is quite short. It is based on trust – and trust is based on experience.
Wilma spooks as an elderly man in a blue overall passes a corner of the outdoor arena. Per sits calmly on the horse, greets the passing neighbour and tells us that Wilma always spooks when the neighbour, Allan, walks past. Then he goes on to do some flying changes ending in a double pirouette. Everything while talking effortlessly. Everything seems so easy. He talks about how he continuously analyses the horse’s body language. How he never uses force to punish them.
During the buffet lunch we discover that Per and his wife Helen are vegans. Buffet! The Swedes love buffet. The fact that they ended up just here, in Asarum just outside Karlshamn in Sweden, is a coincidence. The place formerly used as a tree farm, the Waalers made into a compound with two indoor arenas, one outdoor arena, a stable with a walker and, for half of the boxes, direct access to huge, grass paddocks. Horse welfare comes first at the Waaler Farm, no question about that. We also notice that the majority of horses are red, fiery chestnuts.
– Love them. They are so direct. They are easy to interpret. Probably because my system and way of working is about getting feedback from the horses. Which is why I allow them to do what others may consider to be wrong. I do not consider it to be wrong, but as information necessary to proceed the work with each horse. The result cannot be better than the horse’s DNA – and the work I put in. I always have a line I do not cross with each horse. Communication is key, and the line is set by the horse itself.
Per almost never becomes frustrated. All his philosophy is patience and long-term work. What really frustrates him, though, is the subjects that have made him both loved and intensely debated within the world of dressage.
– The way of judging is the reason behind everything that is negative in this sport today, in my opinion. The riders want to win prizes, and as a result the sport takes form after the judges way of thinking and way of doing things. For example, you cannot amend lack of self-carriage in a horse with bigger spurs. It’s a mental thing in the horse. It creates activity, any you need a good activity to have active hind legs, which is the main part of collection. Dressage is hard. In the end it is about the horse’s DNA, which is why it is difficult to compare one horse to another. To only look at the scores alone is not something I do.
Young and promising
Per is back on another horse, this time a 4 year old he thinks has Grand Prix qualities. We wonder what he looks for when he searches for new horses such potential.
– When I look for a potential Grand Prix horse, the limiting part is the horse’s back-side, as well as what’s between its ears. A horse that does not naturally lift its hind legs from the top of the knee will always have a difficulty carrying itself. When it comes to the training of the horses, I don’t care that much about the hind legs. You can’t force the horse’s hind legs to come under, not from the seat, spurs or whip without causing other negative reactions. You must focus on what is stopping the hind legs from coming under. Partly, it can be physical, from the horse’s construction. And it can also come from mental tension, which has a destructive effect on the horse’s movement. Tension usually comes from bit-rein-hand, sometimes from an poorly adjusted saddle, or other issues that create pain, discomfort or irritation.
The 4-year-old stamps his hind leg after the training is over. A bandage has slipped a bit. Per hurries to take it off. Laughs and tells that it is usually Helene that does the bandaging. She makes them sit better – and look better – than him. He scratches the horse behind its ears and tells it repeatedly what a good job it has done. He tells us that this is a horse with a cold mindset. Per talks about the horses as what they are. Living creatures, all with their own unique personalities.
That he is commonly considered to be a bit alternative is not something that he worries or thinks much about.
– Usually, everything that is not mainstream is considered to be alternative. I don’t consider myself alternative at all. I try to understand the horses’ body language as best I can, and to treat it and act accordingly. I don’t find that to be alternative. I always ask to get the most difficult horses to work with when I am giving clinics. And I also find it important for the audience to see that I don’t always succeed. I never push the limit to where the horse becomes afraid or tense because of me. I build a basis for next time. Next time is always more important than right now.
The leaves are starting to cover the arena that Per earlier today cleared with the tractor without brakes. It just runs until it stops. At the Waaler Farm even the tractor seems to have a will of its own. It’s another sign of Per’s unique philosophy; he is both stubborn and goal oriented. Strong and humble.
– I am a nerd. I love math, physics, and systems. Dressage is to a large extent about systems and analysis. It suits my personality very well. I never say no. I rather try to ask; can you do something else?
Read our interview with one of Waaler’s favourite dressage riders, Danish Daniel Bachmann Andersen!