Since taking up the role of chef d’équipe in March 2017, Rodrigo Pessoa has turned Irish show jumping on its head and guided the country to its second-ever FEI European Championship title against all the odds in Gothenburg, Sweden, last August and restored the hopes and dreams of this horse-obsessed nation. Now the 45-year-old Brazilian has even bigger goals in mind with the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games just a few weeks away at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, North Carolina.
The team has been named and includes three riders who base in the United States—Darragh Kenny on Babalou 41, Paul O’Shea on Skara Glen’s Machu Picchu, and Shane Sweetnam on Chaqui Z, as well as Cian O’Connor and Good Luck, who is consistent competitor in the States as well.
COTH: How is the preparation going in the lead-up to the WEG?
Pessoa: The team was second in Samorin [Slovakia] and sixth in La Baule [France], which was so-so, and then there was a long break, and we spent a lot of time during that month and a half thinking about how we were going to address the triple-header [of Nations Cups at Falsterbo, Sweden, Aachen, Germany, and Hickstead, England] and then Dublin. We also had Langley [British Columbia] in the middle there, which didn’t really count, but we won. And then there were some Division 2 legs. So we put all the names down, about 20, and started moving them around according to specific horses and the things we wanted to see them do, taking into account their own programs as well.
We have 11 riders on the [Longines] Global Champions Tour, and these are riders whom we want and we use all the time, so the question was how to manage all of that, prepare for the WEG, and secure our Nations Cup spot in Barcelona [(Spain] for the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup Final in October]. The last thing I wanted was to arrive in Dublin and have another ball in the air—like we need to be first or second to get to the Barcelona final—but we are already qualified, so things are good.
COTH: Any hiccups along the way?
Pessoa: It went right to the line in Falsterbo where we were shuffling people around until the last minute. It’s great to have a plan, but horses don’t know you have a plan. They are like, ‘OK I’m going to have an abscess today; I’m going to have fever; I’m going to go lame; I’m going to jump poorly!’ When I started at the beginning of the summer I thought I had the three teams, but it changed five times, so you need to stay calm and make the right decision.
We finished second in Falsterbo. Little mistakes, we could have put it away earlier because we had a really great first round, but we were forced into a jump-off, and we lost by just a little bit. I think we were basically robbed of our victory because the Dutch did step on the tape [at the open water]. In our sport there’s too much at stake to have someone there in the heat of the moment going yes or no for a decision like this. Everyone is human; everyone can make a mistake. We need cameras—in tennis they clock balls at 200 mph, so how can we not clock the foot of a horse?
Anyway that was a good performance. Then we went to Aachen with a team we believed was good enough to win. We came really close. We knew the Germans would be strong because that’s their championship team. We lost by 2 points, so that was pretty good, and then we went on to Hickstead. Completely different ball game, but we wanted to try new combinations. We could have put it away early as well there, but we were forced into a jump-off and won it.
What I take from the triple-header is we used 12 different riders and 12 different horses. No other team in Europe can do that; no other team in the world can do that! So I think it shows the depth we have.
COTH: Tell us about your management style.
Pessoa: From the beginning I wanted to make clear there’s an opportunity here for everyone. This team doesn’t belong to anybody. Anyone who has a horse that jumps 1.60 meters, you guys will be called one day or another. For me it’s important to give that feeling of it’s anybody’s game!
It’s about fairness. If you start from a blank sheet like I did—I had no connection to the Irish whatsoever, I just knew them to say hello and goodbye—so I didn’t like one more than another, none of them were my best friends. This kind of transparency is unique; it’s a privilege. And even if the country was known for back-office politics, me not knowing all of that and not knowing the players and not caring about it—it’s the cleanest sheet you can have, and you can’t ask for better!
There are always going to be unhappy people. There are some who won’t be going to Tryon, but there’s an explanation for everything. I present them with the facts, and then they’ll either agree or disagree. We’ll level it out.
COTH: Which is more important: a medal at the WEG or Olympic qualification?
Pessoa: The two go hand-in-hand: If we win a medal or miss by a little bit we are still qualified for Tokyo, but we’re not aiming at coming sixth; we’re aiming to win, and if we don’t win, to come second or third. And if everything goes wrong, and we finish over sixth then we have a real problem. Then we didn’t do our job.
COTH: What are your memories of winning the individual world championship title in 1998?
Pessoa: It was a childhood dream come true when I won the individual title in Rome. Qualifying for the final was already fantastic. Then once you’re in a horse-change like that anything can happen. If I’d finished fourth I’d have been disappointed but still proud of getting that far and being the youngest to have achieved it. Fortunately things went my way, and it was my day. It was just a very special moment. Out of all the wins I’ve had I’m really proud of that one. I got that horse [Lianos] in January, and things happened very quickly. To get to ride three other big-time horses and against people with a lot more experience was really something. You are world champion forever. That’s something pretty special.
COTH: What are your thoughts on no longer having a final-four horse change?
Pessoa: I can see both sides when it comes to the change-horse format. I was fortunate enough to do two, so I’ve lived both sides of the spectrum, winning it and coming fourth! In 1994 at The Hague I watched Franke [Sloothaak], Ludger [Beerbaum], Michel Robert and Sören von Ronne, and I thought, “This is my dream,” and four years later I did it. So as a spectator I can understand that it’s fantastic. On the other hand there’s the risk to the horses, and also you are awarded the world championship over a lesser course riding three different horses you have never ridden—is that really the world champion horse and rider?
[At the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (France)] Patrice Delaveau until Saturday was the winner; that’s really the world champion. And then on Sunday he mis-rode one horse, and [Jeroen] Dubbeldam pulled it together. To his credit, that’s the day he had to ride three other horses, but he’s then the world champion.
You can’t take anything away from the people who won, but it’s not really about the pair, and at a time when the sport is lacking partnerships like John Whitaker and Milton, Pierre Durand and Jappeloup, Nick Skelton and Big Star, Eric Lamaze and Hickstead, to have someone now win a horse-change is not the same. With this new format hopefully a great combination will win.
COTH: Will you stay with the Irish team?
Pessoa: My contract is finished at the end of the year, and if we can find an agreement I’ll stay if they want me to. Even if I get a better offer from somewhere else I won’t go to another country. I’m happy with the Irish, and I don’t see why we should change. If I don’t continue it would be because I find an owner or a horse I can compete myself at the highest level, or maybe this is even compatible. I’m still riding, and this is not a full-time job.
But I am a competitor. I like to ride. Last year I had a horse I built up quickly, got good results with him, and the horse got sold, so I really believe I still have something to offer at a good level. But I’m fine not doing it for the moment. If something were to come up I’d take it; it would have to be someone ready to share with Ireland, or it would have to be so great that I would want to be in the Top 10.
COTH: How do you find working with the Irish riders?
Pessoa: I have to understand what their plans are and then work backwards from there, so the horses are fresh and ready when I need them. Of course when Cian [O’Connor] after Aachen tells me the horse feels good; he just needs to jump one or two more shows but prefers to jump on sand twice with him, and on the same weekend as Dublin he has to go with kids to the Europeans—yeah, I get it. It’s a shame I couldn’t have the horse in Dublin, but for me the most important thing is the preparation of that horse. How is he going to be at his best in Tryon? And I have to understand that Cian runs a business. Flying over from the Pony Championship to ride isn’t a good idea. They’re an irreplaceable combination; he’s got a lot of experience; he’s my anchor rider, but this gives a new opportunity to someone else. It’s all fine.
COTH: Are you surprised by the Irish passion for horses and for representing their country?
Pessoa: Horses are part of the Irish culture, and I’ve ridden some great ones. From the outside I could see the riders really want to compete for their country, but I didn’t understand it the way I do now. They would kill someone to ride on the team! It’s a pleasant surprise. You have other countries where guys are really not that interested, and they prefer to do other things, which is fine, but if you’re a chef d’équipe you really prefer this type of guy to that one!