FEI Rising Star award winner Sönke Rothenberger stands out in the crowd. Not just because he’s 6’4”, but also because he has an aura of serenity not usually displayed by your average 22-year-old. But then no one average takes a few years off to go show jumping, returns to dressage to compete in their first Olympic Games, and comes back with a gold medal – especially when they are only just out of young riders.
Sönke does have dressage nobility in his lineage. Both parents, Sven and Gonnelien, were members of the Dutch team which won silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, where dad Sven also won the individual bronze. German-born Sven switched to riding for the Netherlands after marrying Gonnelien, although Sönke and his siblings Sanneke and Semmieke have been representing Germany since they set forth on their international careers.
The family has been based at Gestut Erlenhof, a 65-hectare stud farm in Bad Homburg at the foot of the Black Forest, since 1994. Thoroughbreds have been bred here since 1922 and in 2013 the estate was approved as an EU stallion station.
Two years before Rio, Sönke and the then seven-year-old jumping-bred Cosmo didn’t even register in the world rankings. Their rise has been nothing short of meteoric. After CDI Hagen 2015, where the pair scored in the mid-seventies in the Under-25 division, astronomical amounts were bandied around for the purchase of the horse, but the family stood firm, believing that potentially Cosmo has three Olympic Games in him.
In a “horrible” week before we spoke, the Rothenberger family suffered the trauma of losing the 18-year-old Favourit, veteran of European Championships, World Cup Finals and the 2010 WEG, who had to be euthanised after fracturing his pelvis in a barn accident. The grand prix schoolmaster had been ridden by both Sönke and his sister Sanneke since his purchase in 2012, and only weeks before, Sönke and Favourit had won the Grand Prix and Special at CDI Weisbaden.
Life must be pretty hectic; what is a typical week like like?
We have about 35 horses on the yard at various stages of training, plus some pensioners and young horses in the fields. I train three or four myself daily and if I’m not competing at the weekends I will go with my sisters to their competitions and watch and support them. I’m studying for my Masters in business management at Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, which is only about a 20-minute drive from home, so during term time I will go to uni two or three days a week and ride in the morning or the evening, depending on when my lectures are. Before that I was going to university to earn a degree in international business administration, and before that, Frankfurt International School, where I graduated with the International Baccalaureate.
How did Sönke Rothenberger get started with horses?
From a very young age I went to competitions with my parents, who were both competing then at the top level. I have very early memories of hacking my pony through the woods, but my most vivid memory was watching Dad compete in the 2004 Olympic final and thinking to myself, “I want to do that.” After ponies I decided to try another sport, so I spent my junior years jumping, representing my country on Nations Cups. As a young rider I even finished tenth in the German Championships. I went back to dressage when Cosmo entered my life, taking over his training from my father when he was six.
Can you identify a turning point in your career?
I really knew I wanted to compete at the highest level when I saw Dad in Athens, but I knew I could actually do that when I first sat on Cosmo. I knew then that he had so much potential. He was, and is, the most generous horse in every way. He is a very special character and I mean that in a positive way. He’s very “self-aware,’ very aware of his surroundings. If he wants attention he gets it. He’s not a horse that just stands around. He keeps the whole barn busy. He’s also extremely smart. We have this boredom ball that horses need to figure out how to get treats through an opening. It takes ages for some horses; Cosmo figured it out in no time.
What sacrifices did Sönke Rothenberger make along his career path?
Sometimes I felt I wasn’t able to give my full attention to my exams or I would miss lectures because of competitions, or miss out on going places with friends, but those sacrifices have paid off with the success I have managed to achieve so far.
Is there another ingredient besides horsepower that gives you an edge?
Commitment. I am very committed once I have set a goal for myself. It would take a lot to dissuade me from achieving a goal or interrupting my path towards it. I don’t give up easily.
How would you or your friends and family describe your character?
They would say that I look like I don’t take things too seriously. I don’t get stressed before competitions. I definitely am an optimist!
If life hadn’t taken you where it has, what profession would you have followed?
I think whatever it would be, it would be connected to the horse world. Horses will always be part of my life; they are my passion. If not competition, then possibly breeding or the racing industry (I followed American Pharoah’s phenomenal season). I did an internship at an investment bank which I found very interesting. Perhaps my future will show how well I can combine business and horses.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
Capri in Italy. It’s an amazing island setting and I love the food and the people are great.
Where would you most like to go that you haven’t been?
Malibu, California. I love Three and A Half Men – I must have watched every episode of every season twice – and Malibu looks like a fun place to be.
Do you have a fitness regimen?
Nope. I don’t work out. I may go for a run through the woods once or twice a month, but not regularly. I keep pretty fit just by riding.
If you were given three wishes, what would you wish for?
That’s a tough one. I guess number one would be for the health and safety of my family, friends, and animals. I would also wish to always be fortunate to have good horses and that I would always have fun with them.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Haribo sweets. I eat a lot of them. I stick five or six bags in my tack box to take to the shows and by the end of the weekend they are gone. I once ordered nine kilos off the internet and that didn’t last me long!
What’s on your playlist?
I listen mainly to pop music and whatever is at the top of the charts.
If you had a life lesson to share, what would it be?
I would tell people not to give up before the war is lost. Okay, you may lose a few battles along the way, but you never know how it will all turn out unless you stick with it. Before I went to Rio many people doubted it was the right time for me to be going for the team, Cosmo was too young, too inexperienced. But I knew it was the right thing to do and the right time and so I worked diligently to make it happen and our success proved it.
Money or medals for Sönke Rothenberger?
You can’t earn much money from competing in dressage, but you can earn a lot of money selling horses. Medals are absolutely more important. Even making the team for Rio was the highlight of my career, a dream come true. Coming home with the team gold medal was the cherry on top. How much it means took a while to sink in. It wasn’t until afterwards, when the announcer said my name at a show and prefaced it with “Olympic medalist” that I realized what an achievement it was at such an early stage of my career.
If you were hosting a dinner party and could choose four guests, living or dead, who would you invite?
I would invite my grandfather, because he passed away before he got to see my career with Cosmo. He owned Cosmo’s father and his vet bred him from Van Gogh. I would have George Morris, because he is inspirational and it would be fun to listen to his philosophy on horses and riding; and Steve Jobs, who was a visionary in his field. I am not sure about the fourth … could I invite Cosmo?
What is your burning ambition?
To be in Tokyo in 2020. I had to go to the city to collect my FEI Rising Star award and I loved it. I really want to go back. The timing will be perfect for Cosmo; at the height of his training and with his experience, we could get the best marks possible.