Walking the Course with Frank Rothenberger – Course Designer of the €1,500,000 Rolex Grand Prix CSI 5*

Aachen, Germany – July 03, 2022 – Ahead of €1,500,000 Rolex Grand Prix CSI 5* this Sunday at Aachen, the Course Designer of the event sat down with Rolex Grand Slam for an insight into his job, life and the Grand Prix itself.

What do you like to do away from show jumping?

I sail a lot, sometimes three or four times a year. Six weeks ago, I went to Croatia, and later this year I’ll go back to Croatia, and also visit Mallorrca, the Mediterranean, Thailand and the Caribbean. I go skiing with some of my friends, who are riders, including Lars Nieberg and Otto Becker – as junior riders we did the German Championships together when we were 16, 17, 18. We’re now planning to go to skiing in America, but two of the team are a bit older and a little bit sceptical, but I said to them, ‘if we don’t go now, we will never go’.

What does a typical day for you at a show look like?

I get up every morning at about 5.30am or 6am. I arrive at the showground at around 7am, depending on when the first class will start. Generally, we prepare for the following day, so if I come in on Wednesday morning, we will be preparing for Thursday. All the work for today is done – all the plans are organised and supplied. Measurements and distances and sponsors’ jumps – these are all the little things we have to organise. We supply the course plans the night before, so during the day everybody knows what to do. We have almost 50 people in five groups in the arena, mostly all course designers. It’s a good atmosphere, and everybody works very hard. We have four nights where we must build during the night – last night the class finished at 10pm and then we worked until 1.30am this morning. We will do the same tomorrow night.

What advice would you give to a budding course designer?

Someone wanting to be a course designer should be a rider first, to know the feeling of how to ride a course. Then you need a lot of passion; you must love it. If you just go into course designing to make money, it will not work. My daughter is becoming a course designer at the moment – she’s doing the FEI level two seminar this year, and she’s doing some small international shows with me. She is also doing some big events; she assists with the European Championships. She was in Aachen last year and is doing a show next week on her own. My advice is that you must continue course designing permanently – not just once or twice a year.

How do you see the future of course designing?

Course designing is always developing – it runs parallel to our education around horses. As the riding improves, the strides are getting smaller, so we have to adjust the distance combinations between jumps. I’ve done this job for 40 years, and when I started, we had big bulky jumps, but this has almost gone. Now we have smaller, more open jumps with light poles. The length of the poles has reduced to 3.5m here in Aachen, when before it was always four metres. We changed this about six or seven years ago, so the jumps are much lighter now. It’s very difficult nowadays to get the right number of clears. Years ago, out of 40 riders, 10 could win the class, but nowadays 30 are sometimes in contention.

What’s your favourite course designing memory?

I remember here at Aachen, we once had 25 horses in a class and the course we built had every jump down except one. Out of 25 horses! That was a really, really nice course and I always remember it. Another memory was when I was in Calgary, and they asked me to supply the course plans before the show. I said, ‘no, I haven’t been here before, so I must see the ring, the arena, and the position of the cameras first’. And then they forced me to do the course plan. In the end we had to change everything because we had a lot of rain overnight so the plans no longer worked, so we had to prepare everything all over again.

When and where was the first course that you designed, as head course designer?

I believe it was a national show, and I built a course with 20 jumps, but that was maybe 40 years ago. I remember when I built my first Nations Cup course in 1992 in Poland. I wasn’t actually allowed to build it because my name wasn’t on the list, but a Polish course designer put his name on paper, but I built it. That was really funny. I’ve done 97 Nation Cups so far – and really hope to reach 100.

Which course designer has inspired you the most throughout your career?

I worked for 10 years with Olaf Petersen and at that time he was the most outstanding course designer in the world. Nowadays, we have lots of good course designers, which means we have very good courses all around the world. I’d say we currently have nine or 10 top course designers on the global circuit, so it’s difficult to pick just one.

Tell us about this Sunday’s course and who you think will win the Rolex Grand Prix?

The riders are all really well prepared, and I expect to see some horses on Sunday, who haven’t competed previously this week. I just hope we don’t get too many surprises, like too many clears or not enough clears! The Grand Prix course is really technical and enormous, but as ever it will be over two rounds, with eighteen pairs advancing to the second round. For me, a good result would be to end up with between 10 and 13 clears from the first round, and then three or four double clears. This is my wish. All this makes our sport so interesting – you just don’t know the result beforehand, and it could work out very well. Sometimes you don’t have a jump-off, but the class can still be absolutely thrilling without it!

Source: Press Release from Rolex Grand Slam

Photo: © Rolex Grand Slam / Peggy Schröder