Sönke Rothenberger & Cosmo–Making of Olympic Young Horse & Rider–Part 2
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Aug. 7, 2016
By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
Sönke Rothenberger at 21 years old and Cosmo aged nine have made as the youngest combination ever on a German team at the Olympic Games as much by instinct and what works riding jumpers as with classical dressage training.
But he credits Cosmo’s smarts, admitting he has a lot to learn despite growing up in a family with both parents Olympic medalists and side by side with two sisters with impressive résumés. And his team mates are all Olympic medalists–Isabell Werth on Weihegold, Kristina Bröring-Sprehe on Desperados and Dorothee Schneider on Showtime.
“If I hadn’t had Cosmo it would have been difficult for me with any other horse,” said Sönke who put his jumping career on hold while he competed for a spot on the dressage team at the same time pursuing a college business degree.
“He makes life easy for me. He’s like a clown, not a boring horse. You take him out of the stable, put the saddle and the bridle on and he’s a horse that always has surprises. Every day, he starts with such motivation it is such a thrill. He has a goal, he always wants to work. It’s like every day every thing is new. That makes it fun. Wow!
“He’s like an elastic ball who can explode. That makes his gaits so nice and you can’t punish him for what he does because that’s his mentality of being, you have to be ready for it. I think it would be wrong to tell him ‘no’ because that’s what makes him so special. When he comes out he has his ears pointed forward, it’s like a game to him… what brings out the emotions with this horse.
“It would be sad if he didn’t have that.”
Cosmo, a KWPN gelding with all jumper bloodlines (Van Gogh x Fruhling/Landjonker) was what drove Sönke to return to dressage after dropping after competing on ponies to take up jumping.
“I thought the feeling you got when you ride over a 1.60-meter oxer with a good horse you couldn’t get those goose bumps with a dressage horse.
“This horse certainly proved me wrong.”
His father, Sven, trained Cosmo through to beginning six years old but since then Sönke has been the rider.
The Olympic and championship experiences of his parents has been a big help because “all the mistakes they did I can learn from so hopefully I don’t make the same mistakes.”
But unlike his German-born father steeped in classical dressage, his jumping experience has led to a different approach to training.
“I ride a lot from how I feel and what I see,” he explained. “Of course there’s a classical approach. If half passes don’t work you go on a big circle and do shoulder-in and then my father tells me, ‘if this doesn’t work try this and this.’ But I just go into the half pass and if, for example, he’s falling too much into my inside leg I push him away from my inside leg… more like the pragmatic way. I think that’s the biggest reason I just ride him myself.
“We’ve kind of clicked this way and I don’t want to break this now or create misunderstandings.”
“When I got on Cosmo as a beginning six-year-old we were just starting from scratch,” he said. “I came from jumping and I just started riding him and it just felt amazing. Then it was, ‘let’s try this.’ When this worked then it was, ‘let’s try this.’
“I never rode one-tempi changes before. I said to my father and my mother, ‘leave me alone. Give me one day and we’ll try.’
“We went outside on the big jumping field and just started riding and tried one-tempis. I had no idea how to do it. I knew you had to go really fast with your legs… we had three, we had four and after 20 minutes we had 15 one-tempis.
“In that sense he makes it easy because he’s a really smart horse. It’s just trial and error. The horse knew how to do one tempis. He’d learned it with my father. That’s what makes it look so easy because of the way he does it but I’d never done it before.
“For passage you trot and have him forward then you take him back a little and see what happens and he just starts lifting his legs and that’s a good feeling.”
Along the way, he also had help from an unusual quarter.
As part of his college requirement to spend two semesters studying outside Germany, he went to university in the Netherlands 3 1/2 hours from home in Frankfurt. So he opted to go to the stables of Anky van Grunsven and her husband, Sjef Janssen, the former Dutch team coach, 25 minutes from school to “look over the shoulders of one of the most successful riders that we have had in dressage.”
“She gave a lot of very very good tips,” he said of the six months spent there. “It was a really nice time.
“The most essential thing I experienced was that at home at our stable we are only our family and we don’t see that many different combinations in training, but Anky trains a lot and Sjef trains a lot. Just by watching what happens you see things that you think are very very good and you see some things you don’t want to do but that’s what you have to learn.
“My parents were really nice and said, ‘I think this is really good to see different things. You’ve only learned from us so just widen your horizon, get a different perspective.’
“It was a really nice time. They are really nice people and I got along well with the children . It was fun, it was a good time.”
Now, he’s back to working with his parents at home where Cosmo is the star and once a week with the German national coach, Monica Theodorescu.
As the training has progressed and become more classical, much of his training is still by instinct.
Despite competition success, making the German Olympic team was a “sensation.”
He talked of the history of modern dressage–Anky competing Bonfire when the horse was nine years old and Gigolo at nine when Isabell Werth rode him in his first Olympics and went on to perform in three Games winning three team and an individual gold, and Nicole Uphoff aged 20 riding Rembrandt in the Olympics.
Like Gigolo with Isabell, Rembrandt with Nicole and both Bonfire and Salinero with Anky, Cosmo is at an age that he could compete in three Olympics–dressage is on the program for Tokyo in 2020 but the host city and program is still to be decided for 2024. With the spectacle of last year’s European Championships and retirement of Totilas midway through “health is the biggest criteria in our sport.
“If you have healthy horses that is good for our sport,” he said, “and we don’t want those pictures we had last year.”
It figures that as a jumper rider, Sönke can quote George Morris, the legendary American trainer: “You are either schooling or unschooling a horse when you get on.”
“When I get on a horse I always keep this in my mind. It makes so much sense to me because these horses we have today you can ride them with so little aids. You see horses on videos that we used to have and they look more like—I don’t want to use the wrong words—but like coach horses. Today they are so much faster, more refined.
“I think Mr. Morris makes the point when you sit on a horse you have to concentrate because you are schooling or unschooling your horse. Also you don’t want to give too many aids because they then become desensitized. You want to give small aids because that’s what dressage is all about—looking easy and achieving a lot. I think that’s a great quote of how riding works.”