There’s something strange happening in dressage at the moment; the young riders are taking over. Alongside major players like Laura Graves, Cathrine Dufour and Charlotte Dujardin is yet another young rider waiting in the wings ready to make history: Sönke Rothenberger.
At only 24, Sönke boasts a medal tally and series of titles that many riders twice his age would give a kidney for. Not only are Sönke and his fabulous mount Cosmo 59 one of only five horse-and-rider combinations to ever score above 90 percent at Grand Prix level, but this up-and-coming German rider already has a few enviable titles to his name; European silver individual medalist, team gold medalist at the Rio Olympics, team gold medalist at the European Championships in Gothenburg and German National Dressage Champion, to name but a few. In the summer of 2018, he dethroned Isabell Werth and Weihegold at the German Championships and in September 2018, he took home the team gold medal at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina.
After his recent succeses, Sönke seemed uniquely positioned to give out some sage advice on how young riders can make it to the big leagues. When we asked for his top tips, he was more than happy to share his knowledge. If you’re an aspiring young rider, you’ll want to take notes.
1. Always listen to your horse.
“This is the best piece of advice I can give to any young rider,” Sönke says. “Always really, really listen to your horse. Let the horse be your teacher. If something isn’t working or the horse isn’t doing what you want, stay calm. Maybe try a different approach and see what’s best for your horse and don’t be too set on one approach, especially if you aren’t getting anywhere with it. Really vary things in terms of your approach and different exercises and see where your horse gives you the best reaction.” If you’re training young horses, Sönke says that always being good to your horses is super important. More important than anything else.
Before Sönke took the ride on Cosmo, he was jumping at international level and credits his flexible approach in part to that. “I don’t always do things the old, traditional way like some dressage riders—I just like to see what works for the horse and do it like that.”
2. Don’t neglect your personal life.
Unlike many riders who insist that the only way forward is to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of your horse career, Sönke is more moderate. “It’s not all or nothing” he says. “I’ve been around horses long enough to know that horses go lame and get injured, they get sick, you have to miss shows or rides.” He goes on to say that if you do make it to the top, you’ll want a strong support system to rely on; whether that’s family or friends. So continue to nurture your relationships outside of horses as well, but find a circle of people who are supportive and who encourage and understand your hobby. Sönke says he’s lucky that his girlfriend loves coming to shows and supporting him, but he still makes time in the afternoons or between lessons and shows to connect with the people closest to him.
3. There are (two) other options if you don’t have lots of money and support!
Despite growing up in an equestrian family surrounded by quality horses, Sönke doesn’t believe in putting all his eggs in one basket. He’s currently studying business, and thinks that riders who lack the means to be competing on pony teams and at high levels by a young age may have to focus on getting there in less traditional ways. “I think if you don’t have huge funds there are two different ways to go if you’re not lucky enough to have the money to buy top horses.”
The first option is to study hard and choose a career path which will afford you the luxury of keeping and competing horses at a later stage. “I think it’s very important to focus on studies. You can get a good job and finance your horses that way.” Of course, you could go full-time with horses but the extra benefit of studying is that you have another career option too, because “nothing is really guaranteed with horses.” Anyone who has ridden or worked with horses will know that Sönke is right on the mark with that.
“The second approach is to work very hard and find a good stable with a good trainer. But you have to be really into working hard!’ He admits that “you probably won’t start off as a rider, but even starting off as a groom can lead to great opportunities if you’re willing to learn. Top Dutch rider Hans Peter Minderhoud started out as a groom for Dutch Olympian Anky van Grunsven, and nothing was ever too much for him and he was always eager to help out.”
“So,” he says, “that is the other way, to develop from a groom to maybe a young horse rider and then building from there. Through this path you might be lucky and come out a very good rider at the end.”
4. Remain open to criticism.
Sönke saved his best piece of advice for last and finished by stressing that any rider who wants to improve must “always be ready to receive criticism.”
This stays crucial to your development whether you’re riding at Grand Prix or First Level, Sönke believes. “To improve, you have to really want to always go further, always be better and always challenge yourself. If you’re working with trainers and other horse people, you can learn a lot by always being ready to receive criticism, working hard and taking it on board.”