Welcome to the Circus - Part III - Georg Wahl: From the Spanish Riding School to the Circus

Mon, 01/30/2023 - 15:35
History & Education
Wahl and Knie exhibiting on two Lipizzans in Spanish walk :: Photo © Archive Circus Knie

This article is a continuation of "Welcome to the Circus" - A New Series on Classical Dressage and the Circus and Part II - "Dressage Needs to be Visualised Love"

It is probably pretty unique that a talented rider leaves the Spanish Riding School for a life in the circus. It was exactly what Georg Wahl (1920-2013) did. He is best known and remembered for having been the lifelong trainer of Olympic Champion Christine Stückelberger and her internationally successful horses.

Headhunted for the Spanish Riding School

Wahl was born in 1920 in Upper Silesia where his father worked at the Stud of Kosel. In 1939 Georg became a member of the cavalry in the German Wehrmacht,  the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany. He quickly became a sergeant and a year later competed at the show in Insterburg (today Tschernjachowsk) in East Prussia. There Alois Podhajsky, the head of the Spanish Riding School as of 1939, spotted the young talent. Podhajsky was competing internationally in dressage at that time on Nero xx.

Subsequently Wahl was detached to the Spanish Riding School in Vienna where he met the bit older Franz Rochowanksy, who would also later become a respected international trainer of dressage Olympians in Great Britain. Georg Wahl showed extraordinary talent working with horses.

Wahl on Siglavy Brezovica in 1943
In 1941 Wahl he was allowed to ride in the quadrille on occasion of an exhibition which the Spanish Riding School gave to benefit the German winter relief. This benefit supported the poor in the population in Nazi Germany. As member of the school Wahl was lucky not to be sent to the ongoing war for most of the time, but it was also a very moving and disconcerting period for the world famous institution he belonged to.

He experienced the bombings in Vienna as well as the evacuation of the whole school to Upper Austria in order to rescue the horses from Soviet occupation. For the Lipizzans it took a decade until they could finally return to Vienna in 1955. For Wahl it meant a farewell from Austria’s capital for a much longer time. After taken part in foreign journeys of the SRS to Switzerland and the USA, he decided to leave the Spanish Riding School for a life in the circus.

Stückelberger Looks Back on Wahl's Time in the Circus

Eurodressage's Silke Rottermann interviewed Christine Stückelberger about the reasons for leaving the SRS for the circus. In Switzerland Wahl learnt a new level of horse training in his  year-long collaboration with Fredy Knie senior.

Fredy Knie senior and Georg Wahl before one of the
shows. Both men, the same age and blessed with passion
and feeling for horses in abundance, learnt a lot from each
ED: How did Georg Wahl and Fredy Knie senior meet each other at the beginning 1950s?
CS: The Spanish Riding School was at the same time in Switzerland when Circus Knie had shows. Georg watched one of the shows and thought that the horses showed nice piaffes, also in the sense of the horses being calm and supple. He really liked it.

ED: But wasn’t it a certain contradiction that one of the most talented young riders of the SRS left this world famous institution for the circus?
CS: At that time Georg was discontent in Vienna which had nothing to do with the institution itself. He returned there as chief rider in 1967. So when he got the opportunity to change to Circus Knie, he took it with both hands.

ED: You often read both men had learned a lot from each other. In which regards?
CS: Fredy Knie was a circus rider his entire life. From Georg he learnt the truly classical equitation. I mean the degree of submission which we dressage riders want. Back then Knie’s horses of course showed all the circus movements, for example the Spanish walk besides other High School movements. From Georg he learnt how to systematically supple the horses so that they work through their whole body.

In 1951 Wahl left the SRS to work for the Swiss
National Circus Knie. Fredy Knie senior on Siglavy Trompeta
who gets a treat from Wahl.
Georg in turn learnt from Fredy something which he had not learnt at the SRS and which absolutely fascinated him: To work horses in liberty and to absolutely project the horses’ thoughts, to totally empathize with them and therefore be truly able to communicate.

And then how to touch the horse in hand. At the SRS Georg had learnt how to touch the hind-legs, but not to touch elsewhere. On the croup, at the tummy, on the back, at the front legs to make the horse show the desired reaction. He had not known this variety of spots before and it truly fascinated him. For example if the horse did not lift the front-leg, that one touches here and there, that there were different spots which worked and helped the horse to understand what he wanted.

ED: Did both men stay in regular contact after Wahl left the circus?

Wahl and Knie Sr. in discussion at Circus Knie, early 1990s
CS: Georg went from Knie to the Municipal Riding School of Berne which he managed for many years. Fredy Knie senior visited him there often and Georg went back to the circus and visited the morning training. I myself was a small girl back then who took riding lessons at the riding school. Sometimes I was allowed to come with Georg to the morning training and watch and once I was even allowed to sit on Fredy Knie's famous Othello. Later when I began to compete Fredy occasionally came and watched me. But yes, both men had a very close friendship all their life, a thick man-to-man-friendship until Fredy’s death in 2003.

ED: Did they also sometimes exchange ideas about handling problems in the training of certain horses?
CS: Not in the sense that they phoned each other to ask advice from the other in a special case. But when they met, they exchanged and explained. That way they discussed certain horses and their training.

ED: Some deride circus riding, but Knie was generally widely respected. What was the reason and how did Fredy Knie senior muster the classical and the spectacular?
CS: Knie’s riding and his training were highly respected because it was based on classical principles. The horses were submissive and supple. The riding was absolutely beautiful and Fredy had a lot of feeling. He truly brought classical dressage riding and the spectacular, which is typical for the circus, together.

In 1979 Wahl finally had his own training stable,
Hasenberg near St. Gall. His old friend Fredy Knie senior
came for the opening party. Here with Christine Stückelberger.
ED: How did you get to know him as a horseman?
CS: He was a horseman through and through. I always admired him. He was not only very skilful, he was also able to explain it. He was open minded and loved to share his knowledge.

ED: Which influence did Fredy Knie senior have on dressage competition in Switzerland?
CS: Ulrich Lehmann was his student in the first place, but he also helped several other Swiss riders. Today this is unthinkable that a dressage rider would turn to a circus rider for advice. On the other hand there is also almost nobody to turn to anymore.

ED: Fredy Knie senior died almost 20 years ago. What remains of his legacy?
CS: What remains is the beautiful and soft riding. Beauty and harmony still play a major role at Circus Knie. You can recognize it in Fredy Knie junior’s grandson Ivan, he has incredible feeling.

Chief Rider at the Spanish Riding School

Wahl at the SRS in Wels on Conversano Capriola
Georg Wahl left Switzerland again in 1967 to become chief rider at the Spanish Riding School under head Colonel Hans Handler who had asked Wahl to return.

When the combination of working for the institution and training his competing students became too much, Wahl went independent near Salzburg.

In 1979 he bought his property „Hasenberg“ in East Switzerland where he lived with Christine until his death in November 2013.

By Silke Rottermann for eurodressage.com.
Rottermann interviewed Christine Stückelberger for Eurodressage in Heimsheim on 27 March 2022.
Photos kindly provided with permission of Knie Media and © Elisabeth Weiland

Related Links
"Welcome to the Circus" - A New Series on Classical Dressage and the Circus
Welcome to the Circus - Part II - "Dressage Needs to be Visualised Love"
Eurodressage Photo Database: Georg Wahl