2016 Longines FEI Rising Star Sönke Rothenberger is a man who likes to keep his options open. He might have been born into a family of world class dressage riders, who run a successful breeding and training yard out of Bad Homburg in Southwest Germany, but that does not necessarily mean he will follow in their footsteps. The gentle mannered Rothenberger always listens to his parents, whom he credits with being the most influential people in his life, but he is undeniably the master of his own mind. This was very much in evidence in 2009 when the European pony champion made the sudden and rather unorthodox decision of riding competitively in both disciplines, dressage and show jumping, with a little accent on “experiencing the thrill of riding over an obstacle course”.
However, despite enjoying notable success over some of Germany’s famous obstacles, only four years later he reverted back to dressage when it became clear that the then six-year-old gelding Cosmo, who had been trained by his father Sven since he was four, was extremely talented and possibly his ticket to reaching that elusive Grand Prix category that every rider dreams about. “Riding a horse like Cosmo is a chance in a life-time,” says Rothenberger, who had travelled to Tokyo for the FEI Gala Awards Ceremony together with his proud parents Sven and Gonnelien. “It’s a unique chance, which I would have been foolish to ignore. However, I think that my background in show-jumping has played a strong part in our success, because Cosmo can be quite a handful. He likes to gallop and can be, let’s say, a bit exuberant. I know him well and that is part of his mentality. You could not and I would not ever punish him, as he would take it badly. I understand he needs his freedom and so we are a good match.”
Rothenberger likes to think outside the box and his training methods might not always be based on the most traditional approach. And while he is a bit of an adventure junkie who is into Snowboarding and Skateboarding and who would love to ride a horse like American Triple Crown winner and 2015 Longines World’s Best Racehorse American Pharoah, very little seems to rattle his cage. In fact, when he was selected for the German dressage team in Rio de Janeiro, he was excited, but not nervous. Today, after returning with a Team dressage Gold medal, he admits: “I don’t think I really realised what was happening then. My parents both rode at various Olympics and won medals, so it’s always been part of my life, but it is only afterwards that you become aware of what it really means.”
Success at the highest level has come with an unprecedented amount of attention. Standing tall at 1.93 m, equipped with a shock of blond hair and an almost constant smile on his face, it is not hard to see why Sönke Rothenberger has become a firm favourite in the sporting world. He is not that impressed though by all the attention, realising that not everyone who seeks his friendship is doing it for the right reasons.
But he did enjoy being the only man in an otherwise all-female team. He laughs and corrects: “Don’t forget that Hubertus Schmidt was the reserve rider, so I was not quite on my own, but I do admit, it was nice to ride with the girls. And they did all look after me. We spent a lot of time together and got on really well.” He pauses and then adds: “They are all a bit older than me and kind of knew what to expect. We had lots of interviews and balls and functions since then, but my life hasn’t really changed. When I first got back from Rio, people recognised me when I went to the movies and such, but that is all now fast disappearing. What is fantastic though is that we met Ralph and Marga Westhoff through Rio, who are passionate about dressage and who are now the co-owners of Cosmo.”
Nine-year-old Cosmo, who was the youngest horse to compete at the 2016 Olympics, had attracted numerous offers in the run-up to Rio, but the tightly knit Rothenberger Family managed to hold on to the KWPN gelding, who has a jumper pedigree as he is by Van Gogh out of Frühling. “Cosmo is like family,” pursues Rothenberger. “He is the heart and soul of the stud and a real clown, who amuses everyone. We don’t want to sell him. It would be like selling your dog. You wouldn’t do that either, would you?” Currently in his final year at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, where he studies International Business Administration, he knows a bit about risks and investments and says: “I’m passionate about riding and am grateful that I am able to ride a horse like Cosmo. I try not to think about risks, because otherwise I would just pack him into cotton wool and never even let him out of his box. And I’m also interested in banking. Both can go hand in hand, can’t they?”
He doesn’t like to be tied down, but for a twenty-two-year-old he is remarkably focused and grown-up. A product of a family whose values are based on team work, passion and love, he is enjoying his dual career as a world class rider and student. “My parents always wanted me to have a good education and finish university,” he confides. “They are very level headed and always said that with the equestrian sport anything can happen and it’s always good to have another leg to stand on. They also said that once I have an education I can do what I want.”
At the moment, thanks to determination and prioritizing, he is managing to ride and study without too many problems. So all the options remain open. Even a return to jumping, as he is eager to point out, seeing that there is a mare bred by his beloved grandfather, who is doing rather well. However, even if he is strong minded, it might just be that the very talented, exciting and progressive Cosmo will make the next career choice for him. Whatever happens though, Sönke Rothenberger is sure to do it with a great big smile. [Liz Price]