Spurred by ballet

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Dressage is the ballet of the horse world, and few know this better than the Danish Grand Prix rider and highly sought-after trainer Rune Willum.

Photography KAMILLA BRYNDUM Text MARIA GRAAE / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.3 2012

He is 46, a father of two and wearing an engagement ring: Rune Willum is soon to be married to his partner Joachim Thomsen, who like Rune is one of the most popular and charismatic figures on the Danish dressage scene, and a former national team member riding international Grand Prix mount Mikado Engvang.

Rune Willum has a reputation for being a tough-as-nails trainer, so when you meet him his charm can be disarming: You’re not really prepared for his warm dark brown eyes and boyish smile. He’s wearing tasteful cognac-coloured patent leather boots, that tell their own story of countless hours spent in the saddle. When it comes to tack and equipment, he’s quite basic and old school: he prefers a straightforward bridle to bling, boots to bandages and a plain white saddle cloth, although you can be perfectly sure that his horse and equipment are groomed and cleaned to perfection.

THEJOURNAL3_782Likewise there’s a back-to-basics edge to his approach to riding and training. “I’m actually not a big fan of the double bridle,” he says, “so I only use it once or twice a week. I much prefer the feeling I get when I’m riding with just the single bridle – somehow it’s a more genuine and honest feeling.” He describes his philosophy as “quite classical, although I’m always on the lookout for new inspiration. I often find it at shows watching other riders in the warm-up arena. I attended the European Championship in Rotterdam 2011 as the trainer of the acclaimed Danish rider Sune Hansen. It literally gave me goose bumps watching the riders, because I fully appreciate the many hours and years of training leading up to that moment.” Like everyone else Rune needs help and inspiration from time to time, and last year he attended an Edward Gal clinic. “I was very impressed by how sensitive, subtle and light he wanted the aids, yet he was still able to accomplish such gaits, impulsion and submission. It was quite an experience.”

As a rider Rune is fiercely competitive: he believes he has to be to set a good example. “I can’t very well demand that my riders are hardworking if I’m just lying about on the couch. No matter which horse I’m riding or which show I’m in, I always give 100 percent. Even though I’ve never been a very courageous rider,” he laughs, explaining that he leaves that to Joachim. Others may consider him a hard task master, but how does he assess his own reputation as a trainer? “I know some say that I’m tough, that I demand a lot,” he admits. “I’d like to think that I’m basically a straightforward guy – at least that’s what I’m trying to be. I’m doing my best to be both loyal and trustworthy.” He pauses, “do you think I can say this without sounding pompous?”

“I’m always honest – I say what I mean,” he continues. “Even when it isn’t easy I always speak the truth. And I never take results for granted: You always have to give it your very best shot, and hope that your best is good enough – and quite often it isn’t, so then you go home to review.” I ask him to explain his training philosophy in laymen’s terms. “When both the speeder and the breaks are working, you can feel the horse is being honest, so then you can ride without using strength, relying solely on feeling. It takes time to learn, and it’s difficult even to explain – but once you’ve got it right, you are never in doubt.” It’s a vast and complex subject, but he continues, trying to keep the explanations simple. “The rider changes the horse’s balance, so one of the most important things is to shift the balance towards the back, in order to get the horse to take more weight on its hind legs. This is done by doing a half-halt, a momentary increase of collection, or an effect of the aids.” His final tip is about appearance and how proper dressage should seem like dancing. “It’s about making an impression and communicating with your horse. It should look like ballet: the rider’s use of aids – legs, seat and reins – should seem invisible.”

Born in the summer of 1965 and raised in a suburb south of Copenhagen, he started at the local riding school at the age of 10 where his teacher spotted his talent. She convinced him to turn professional at 15 and commit to the six-year education as a trainer. He was lucky enough to spend the final three years of his apprenticeship under the legendary Danish trainer Børge Rasmussen. “Børge is very pleasant, a true horseman with an air of respect about him,” says Rune. “I’ve never once seen him use any violence towards a horse, and it was very important to him that we learned how to teach.”

He speaks of his days as an apprentice with great warmth, describing what an eye-opener it was to suddenly be able to do flying changes on his difficult horse, simply after being given the correct instructions by Børge.“In the beginning we would teach the same rider together side by side. Later on we would stand at separate ends of the indoor teaching arena, but he would always pay attention, and wouldn’t interrupt or correct in the middle of things. I learned how to do things right, speak up and take responsibility.” The most memorable experience of his career wasn’t winning his Nordic Silver Medal, but when one of his students, the young rider Cathrine Dufour, won two medals in the European championship held at the amazing Linsenhoff equestrian centre in Germany. Even though he’s still ambitious as a rider, he simply loves teaching. “There’s a tendency that riders who apply for the trainer education do it in order to ride,” he says. “The truth is you should apply if you wish to teach – that’s the only reason to do it.” Ten years ago he became a national trainer for the Danish junior and young rider teams.

For this interview, we meet at his home a hours drive away from Copenhagen  near Køge where he and Joachim run their successful private training stable, Dressurstald Willum-Thomsen. Along with Cathrine Dufour, the Grand Prix rider Anne Troensegaard and Sidsel Johansen are among those talented young people benefiting from his mentorship here: both are on the Olympic Long List of seven Danish combinations, fighting for the four spots in the 2012 London Olympic Games. Not long after finishing his exams, Rune got married to “a nice girl who was into horses” and settled down. They had two children together. “Having kids is an amazing experience,” says Rune, “and my daughters Figne and Cæcilie, now aged 18 and 21, are an important part of mine and Joachim’s life. They have both ridden occasionally throughout their childhood, but I’m so thrilled that neither of them are committed to horses or riding; this means we can spend our time together in a meaningful way, rather than on the road, travelling to yet another horse show.”

Joachim and Rune met through their shared passion for horses in 1994 and moved in together the following year. “Joachim is a great rider: he’s simply amazing on a horse. And his attitude to training is incredible – he’s truly committed, and such a hard worker.” When I ask him about Joachim’s qualities in other areas of his life, Rune immediately bursts into laughter. “There’s no such thing!” he laughs. “It’s all about the horses.” He pauses to think about what makes the two of them such a good match. “There’s just something about him. Even though we’re quite different, we’re somehow in sync.” •