Cosmo 59 (Van Gogh X Lady by Landjonker) is an 11-year-old bay KWPN gelding campaigned by Germany’s Sönke Rothenberger. Family history has brought rider and horse together. Sönke is the middle child of Sven Rothenberger and Gonnelien Rothenberger-Gordijn, who both competed internationally. Together, they were part of the 1996 Dutch Olympic team that won silver in dressage. Sönke and his siblings, Sanneke and Semmieke, have grown up riding in Germany and are known for their natural, intuitive riding style and competitiveness in Young Rider and German Pony Championships.
The branches of Cosmo’s family tree intertwine with Sönke’s: his sire, Van Gogh, was owned by Sönke’s grandfather and his dam, Lady, was owned by the family’s veterinarian, Stan Serrarens. Over the past several years, Sönke and Cosmo have been building a presence on the world stage: Notable placings include team gold and individual bronze at the 2014 European Young Rider Championships, 19th place individually and team gold at the 2016 Olympic Games (Sönke was 22 and Cosmo just 11), and individual silver and team gold at the 2017 European Championships. This year the pair made headlines by winning the German Grand Prix Championships.
For analysis of Cosmo’s breeding, we spoke with the Netherlands’ Bert Rutten, chairman of the KWPN Stallion Selection Committee for Dressage Horses, and Natalie DiBerardinis, managing director of Hilltop Farm in Colora, Maryland. Rutten has a direct personal tie to Cosmo, having purchased him as a foal from Stan Serrarens. Rutten trained Cosmo until the age of 5, then sold him to Sven Rothenberger. Rutten also owns Dimare, Cosmo’s full sister, who has competed through Grand Prix dressage and is a successful broodmare. She’s the dam of Habanna, a KWPN-approved stallion. DiBerardinis oversees Hilltop’s elite sport-horse breeding program and facility, whose current stallion roster includes notable KWPNs, such as the U.S.-based Olivi, and imported semen from Negro and Glamourdale. The facility hosts stallion and breed inspections throughout the year. Active in multiple breed organizations, DiBerardinis is a member of the KWPN-NA Stallion Committee and co-chair of the USDF Sport Horse Committee.
According to Rutten, “Even as a foal, Cosmo was a special animal and he stood out more and more as he grew. Early on, he caught my attention because of his presence, his movement and because of his dam line. His mother, Lady, has produced three Grand Prix horses, Van the Man (2002), Cosmo (2007) and Dimare (2008). Zhivago (2004), another of Lady’s foals, has also competed through the upper levels. This is really impressive for one mare.” DiBerardinis says, “With a first glance at this pedigree, I notice it’s not a particularly modern pedigree, but rather features older, proven, very athletic lines. One might say, this horse is jumper-bred, but it’s still not a surprise to see he’s turned out to be a dressage horse, as we’ve seen a lot of successful dressage horses from these lines over the years.” DiBerardinis says Cosmo’s appearance reflects his pedigree. He’s strong, has an intelligent expression and athletic movement that is naturally elastic and supple.
Because of the importance Rutten places on dam Lady’s quality and influence, we’ll look first at the bottom side of Cosmo’s pedigree. Lady’s sire, Landjonker (also known as Frühling in Holland), was an Oldenburg licensed in multiple studbooks. He competed internationally in show jumping and his offspring are known for their jumping ability. Landjonker’s Holsteiner sire, Landadel, was regarded as one of Landgraf I’s most important sons and a great producer of both jumpers and dressage horses. (In 2001, Gonnelien Rothenberger competed at the World Cup on one of his sons, Leonardo de Vinci.) Rutten points out: “Going back through Fanny, we also see the sire Aktion—a powerful gray stallion who competed in dressage at the Olympics and World Cup. He was approved for breeding for both dressage and show-jumping specializations.”
DiBerardinis adds that heavier-built Aktion is a good example of how an older type of horse influences Cosmo’s pedigree. “Aktion is actually 25 percent blood, but he has a heavier build. He was an amazing freestyle horse who was bred early on in Holland, but then spent much of his life in Hungary where his rider was based. Aktion was not a terrifically prolific stallion and it’s his daughters who have carried on his influence more so than his sons.”
On the top side of Cosmo’s pedigree, sire Van Gogh was a successful international show jumper. DiBerardinis points out that Cosmo was among the first foal crop for this stallion, who scored high marks on his stallion test: 8.5 for take-off/jumping talent, 9 for scope, 9.5 for canter, 7.5 for walk and 7 for talent for dressage. (See sidebar at bottom on Linear Scoring.) From this first, very successful crop of foals, both Cosmo and Cool Water went on to become Grand Prix dressage horses and numerous others excelled in show jumping and eventing. Through the success of Cosmo and his half-siblings, breeders have taken note that Van Gogh tends to throw offspring with talent for collection, piaffe and passage. Rutten says, “Van Gogh himself looks like a dressage horse [very much built uphill] and has an exceptionally good canter.” His dam, Movera, descends from a strong Dutch mare line noted for successfully producing dressage horses. DiBerardinis says, “As we track mare lines, Cocktail, Charmeur and Zuidenwind stand out as dressage horses who descend from these mare lines. Movera’s grandsire, Ramiro Z, was an exceptionally successful international show jumper. A prolific stallion, he’s known for passing along athleticism and a great canter.” Ramiro was KWPN’s Horse of the Year in 1992.
We ask Rutten about the prevalence of show jumping lines in Cosmo’s pedigree, a trend in the breeding of all the KWPN horses we’ve featured (Valegro, Nip Tuck and Verdades). Rutten explains, “It’s important to remember that the KWPN’s specialization of breeding for show jumping or dressage only started in 2006. So we’re just a generation or two in. It’s therefore logical that the dressage lines are still selected from jumping lines, especially on the dam side. Over time, this will change.”
DiBerardinis says a pedigree like Cosmo’s might give a breeder pause for thought on specialization: “While this is a pedigree that slants strongly toward show jumping, we have to see that these older lines tended to be quite versatile. Stallions like Burggraaf, Landadel and Landgraf were exceptional athletes who passed athleticism to their offspring. Cosmo was born in 2007, just a year after the transition to specialization began. Over the next 10 years or so, we must pay attention to the effects of specialization. For example, KWPN and several German studbooks no longer free-jump dressage stallion candidates. We must pay attention to what the impact of that may have on the next generations of sport horses. The jumper blood in a pedigree like this one is a contributing factor to Cosmo’s hind-end activity and really good canter.”
We asked Rutten for a final word about Cosmo’s pedigree and the horse himself. Rutten says the importance of the mares Lady and Fanny cannot be underestimated: “A dam who produces three Grand Prix horses and a granddam who has produced two is pretty extraordinary.” Rutten says the mare line is “where it all starts,” which is why the KWPN organization places such high priority on collecting specialized data on broodmares—both what they and their offspring accomplish.
Rutten reminisces: “Cosmo is super intelligent, willing to work and highly consistent. Even as a young horse, he never made any trouble with work. He loved it. Everything we asked of him seemed so easy for him—like he thought it was a joke.”
Since the mid-90s, the KWPN studbook has utilized a system called linear scoring to evaluate young horses at the time of inspection. According to KWPN’s website, “Linear scoring means that each individual horse is compared with the average KWPN dressage or jumping horse on all relevant characteristics included in the breeding standard.” The linear score form lists various traits related to conformation, movement and jumping separately. For dressage horses, 28 separate traits are evaluated in relation to the average of the specific traits.
For example, dressage horses are evaluated on trot in four different ways: length of stride (long, short), suppleness (elastic, stiff), impulsion (powerful, weak), balance (carrying, pushing). On the score form each trait is evaluated on its own line with nine checkboxes. By choosing a checkbox for each trait, the inspection jury passes on information to owners as to whether a certain trait is average or leans more toward one extreme or the other.
Each horse’s results are entered into the KWPN database. Because the KWPN database links all horses to their sires and family members, breeders can reference these scores to glean good insights into what traits a stallion tends to pass along to his progeny.