Masters Insider: Frank Rothenberger, course designer

  • Monday 18 May 2020
  • 8:00 AMLongines Masters Series
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Every week, we’ll meet Longines Masters’ players and learn about their experiences through exclusive interviews. In this new edition of the Masters Insider, meet Frank Rothenberger, course designer and creator of the courses for Season IV of the Longines Masters. World-renowned as one of the best in the industry, German Frank Rothenberger looks back on his experience at the Longines Masters.    

I’m 62 years old and I’m a level 4 course designer. I have designed courses since I was 15 years old. First of all, for my own use, then I started officially designing courses when I was 22. I mostly do championship and 5 star shows. So far, I have done about 85 Nations Cups, as well as the World Equestrian Games, European Championships and the World Cup Final.

“First of all, for me to be able to design my courses, I need the schedule from the show, then I can see what types of classes I have to design. Then I write a list, a table with combinations. So, I start with the Grand Prix, and I do the triple combination for the Grand Prix. Then for the second biggest classes and for the third biggest classes and then the medium tour, for young horses.

So, before I start to design a course, I already know what type of combinations I will have planned throughout the weekend. Then I need an exact drawing of the arena. It’s easy if you do it in an indoor. It’s like 35x75 meters. That’s simple. But the biggest difficulty is when I have to design courses with permanent obstacles like water jumps, trees, stone walls, etc.

I start doing the design for the first day. I do it my normal way, except for a really big show, I do it at the show, the day before, when I arrive. I do the first designs, normally the smaller classes, for the first day; it’s just a warm-up class, or for younger horses or medium tour. When I do the first big class, I watch all the horses compete to see the level of the horses and riders, basically. Then day by day, I work to get a really good feeling about the level across the riders, and finally, I do the Grand Prix. Normally on Friday. I know the horses and the level they are at and I design the Grand Prix on Friday or Saturday morning. Sometimes, I have to do it a little bit before that because the TV people want to get a hold of the course plan to make the animation. In that case, I have to send them my course plan two days prior to the Grand Prix or the qualification class.

I work with Professional Parcours Design. This program was written by General Course Designers about 20 years ago. It is used by course designer’s worldwide. The good thing is you can measure the courses on the computer, but we always have to remeasure them in the ring with the correct size of the arena. I print out the course plan and then I write the height of the jumps on it, the distance between the jumps, the start and finish lines, and the type of the material.

Then I divide the courses into four parts because we normally work in a group of four. I have an assistant course designer that works with me on the computer, and then I have four more courses designers, normally national courses designers, and they each do one of these four parts with 3-5 workers who carry the jumps and then every group leader builds 3-4 jumps.

First, we do the layout with the pools. We position the pool and where we’re going to put the jump later. I check and correct the position with my assistant and then we start building. Sometimes we only have 10 minutes, sometimes we have an hour, depending on the show’s schedule.

I have to take into consideration some particular jumps, especially for Longines, because normally Longines has a triple combination in the Grand Prix, but it’s not a must. It’s written in the contract with the organizer but sometimes, you have maybe one, two or three individual jumps that have to be in the main arena. It always depends on the position of the TV camera. So, I view it along with the Longines people, the TV people, the producer, and the cameraman, and then I present my course and we decide the position of the sponsored jump.

Everybody wants the best place. It’s always a big fight, but I must ensure that the sport will always come first. Sometimes, I have a special position for a sponsored jump, and I must find the right position. It takes a lot of time.

You should know that I have run a company that produces jumps for 40 years. My company produces a lot of Longines jumps as well. Sometimes, organizers rent jumps, and when I’m the course designer, many times they will rent them for me. Sometimes I need to build some new jumps especially for that show. Sometimes, I get an idea for a new gate, or a wall, then, my company can produce it and I can take it with me. Some of the shows rent the jumps from other places. In those cases, I need a list, so that I can go through it, so I know the types of materials used. I also give some advice on new jumps, new colors and new designs.

Sometimes I have constraints or restrictions when I’m building a course. They come mainly as a request from the organizer. TV people also come and ask for a special position for the camera, to position the slow capture camera etc. I try to stick to them, but sometimes it’s not always possible. Sometimes, it’s difficult when the arena is not very large. I lose out on space and don’t have a lot of options. We have to hold our own, because otherwise, the track doesn’t work. So, we are always in discussion with the organizer, sponsors and TV people and it takes a lot of time.

I can understand their requests, it’s very important for everybody. But if I end up with 20 clear rounds, they would kill me and say: “This is your job, you made a mistake! Etc...”. So, I first have to make sure that I deliver a good class, good sport, then the second thing I can follow are the requests of the organizer. This is a hard job sometimes, especially when there’s a lot of money invested.

Regarding the Longines Speed Challenge I designed in 2018; it was one of the most difficult tracks I ever built. Because, we had some weak riders coming through first, and the Longines Speed Challenge is a class where you can choose your line, inside or outside, and you must ride very correctly and very precise, otherwise, you can’t do it. Most of the time, the first 5-6 riders always try to take the inside lines, but then they lose a lot of time, because they have to stop the horses’ momentum to turn in. 90% of the time, the winner is the rider who just takes 2-3 inside options. They just go a little bit faster around the jumps. There was another class, where there was a lot of money to win, and the special rules were that there were only 2 seconds per fault.

We had to be very precise: if there was one flower or one tree in the wrong position, they couldn’t do the inside turn or make the other turns. You need special jumps, very narrow jumps, two-meter posts, that riders couldn’t make at home, so we had to build a very tricky and difficult track. Another challenge I’ve had is that we planned to use the same course 3 times over: once in Paris, once in Hong Kong, and once in New York.

The Longines Grand Prix of Paris 2018 was a classic class: one round and one jump off, with a triple combination. It was a really big class; we had a good result in the Grand Prix because we had seven in the jump-off. Edwina Tops-Alexander was the best rider of the day in that class.
If I have to speak about the pressure I’m under building classes… No, normally I don’t have any pressure. I‘m always relaxed. The pressure is present moreso with the time allowed for the course that I have designed. And, in my position, I just feel the pressure when there’s a German rider coming, like Markus Ehning or Daniel Deusser, and they are over the time or have a time faults versus others. Because people expect German riders’ to be successful over my courses. I always stand behind the judges and make comments.

I need to be very careful with the time allowed. It’s very difficult because I have to measure it very precisely. If I make it one second too long or too short, instead of having six clears, you have 15 clears - for just one second. The time allowed is very important.”