Rodrigo Pessoa Is Still The Face Of International Show Jumping

Dec 16, 2010 - 11:51 AM
Rodrigo Pessoa has benefited from his father Nelson Pessoa’s experience and expertise. “At competitions we are always two heads thinking about the same problem,” said Rodrigo. Photo by Kit Houghton.

He may have been disappointed with his fourth-placed finish at the Alltech World Equestrian Games, but he’s still got as much potential ahead of him as he has history behind him.

There’s a prominent sign off the highway to Rodrigo Pessoa’s barn, and you certainly need it. The approach to one of Europe’s most influential show jumping hubs is up a nondescript, residential lane, and when you arrive at the forbidding electronic gates to Haras de Ligny your first impression is that you’ve made a mistake; surely this is a business park.

The modern complex—with training arena, stalls, offices, meeting rooms and staff apartments all under one capacious roof—is sunk into the ground, and as its purpose is not apparent, it’s tempting to drive on in the expectation that something more traditionally “horsey” will appear.

But once inside the Haras (the French word for “stud farm”) it is true horse heaven. It’s no small wonder that the 38-year-old Pessoa has garnered so much competitive success out of a facility he designed and built himself and where the horse and its care most definitely comes first.

The “team” is a big thing for Pessoa. “As the rider, I am only the last piece of the jigsaw, and every success is owed to the team at home who do all the work you never see,” he said.

He commands a lot of loyalty. One of his riders, Jos Kumps, has been with the Pessoas for 25 years. His main traveling groom, Kate Forsen, has been with Rodrigo 11. Another long-standing staff member is Brazilian Nicolas Mignon, who helps with the riding when Rodrigo is away. There are two regular farriers—Robbie Bongers and Pierre Renault, who travels over from France. So does veterinarian Marc Suls, who has been “an important part of my operation for 15 years.”

Pivotal to it all is his father Nelson “Neco” Pessoa, a legendary show jumper himself. “He is still the most important part in the puzzle,” said Rodrigo. “In the beginning it was the experience he had to pass on and to be able to put his career on the backburner to push me forward, because he realized I had the possibility to achieve great things. Not many people are willing to let someone have their place. You may think it’s easy for a father to do that for his son, but the person has got to want to do it without anyone having to ask.”

Today, said Rodrigo, that relationship is different. “I have my own experience,” he said. “I can try a horse by myself and know if it’s good for me. We have different tastes but have the same eyes in that we want to give every chance to the horse. He maybe has more patience; I would judge a horse quicker. I had ridden two or three other Baloubets before Baloubet Du Rouet came along. You would not, as a 4-year-old, think he was going to be a freak, a supernatural. Neco could see that. I could not!”

Though now both busy with separate enterprises, father and son speak four or five times a day. “And at competitions we are always two heads thinking about the same problem, whereas other high-profile people like Ludger [Beerbaum] and Marcus [Ehning] are just one,” Rodrigo said.

A Meteoric Rise

Rodrigo showed his intention to follow in his father’s famous footsteps early. He joined Neco on the Brazilian team for the 1992 Olympic Games at the age of just 19, and in 1994, Rodrigo and Neco led the Brazilian team to gold at the Pan American Games. In 1998, 1999 and 2000, Rodrigo made history by winning the FEI World Cup Final three consecutive times, riding Baloubet du Rouet.

Rodrigo earned his first individual championship medal in 1998, when he took home gold from the World Equestrian Games riding Lianos. And in 2000, Rodrigo led the Brazilian team to a bronze medal at the Sydney Olympic Games. He followed that up with individual gold at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games aboard Baloubet du Rouet.

With such a remarkable résumé compiled in his first 25 years, it’s understandable that Rodrigo would be a bit disappointed with his fourth-placed finish at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. “Having gone to sleep one night at WEG [in silver medal position], it was hard to come home with nothing, but that’s the sport, and someone has to be fourth,” said Rodrigo. “People only remember the last four rides, but the others made mistakes earlier.

“It was disappointing not to be in the medal ceremony, but afterwards I realized it was still an achievement,” he added. “I can go to the Pan Ams now with no pressure.”

The Pessoas have bounced back from Rodrigo’s disappointment at the WEG, quickly gearing up for the next big targets: the Rolex IJRC Top Ten Final, FEI World Cup Finals and Pan American Games.

An Accident Of Geography

At WEG it was widely noted that the final four show jumping riders—Pessoa, Eric Lamaze, Philippe Le Jeune and Abdullah al Sharbatly—were either from or based in Belgium.

They’re not alone; European champion Kevin Staut moved to Belgium last year from the Atlantic coast of France in his bid to become world No. 1. Brazil’s Alvaro de Miranda has set up his own barn at nearby Valkenswaard, just over the border in Holland, after 15 years with Pessoa. Bernado Alves has been at Ligny eight years. Lauren Hough has been at Rodrigo’s since April and was due to return to the United States in mid December.

Belgium is so small that it’s dwarfed by all but 10 of the U.S. states, and it’s simply an accident of geography that makes it so desirable to the jumping community. Squashed between Holland, Germany and France, Belgium’s highway network means you’re rarely more than a five-hour drive to numerous four- and five-star shows, now a critical consideration for anyone wrapped up in the intensely nomadic business of European jumping.

“Being from Brazil, we would find ourselves better suited to the climate and cultures of Italy, Spain or the south of France,” said Rodrigo. “But then it would make the horses travel way too much and would take too big a toll. Our life is for the horses, and the sacrifice we make for them—if you can call it a sacrifice—is to live here. Belgium is a good place for our other businesses [which include the Pessoa saddlery and organizing the Brussels and the Paris Gucci Masters five-star shows], because you can get almost anywhere very quickly.”

From 2004 to 2008, the Pessoas organized the successful Audi Equestrian Masters show in Brussels, hosting the Rolex IJRC Top Ten Final in 2008. In 2009, the Pessoas moved the show to Paris and picked up Gucci as a title sponsor. This year, they ran both the Gucci Masters in Paris and the Audi Masters Brussels.

A deep thinker and proficient in seven languages, Rodrigo has also become a vocal leader in the sport, serving as the President of the International Jumping Riders Club and as the rider representative on the FEI Show Jumping Committee.

The Pessoas will always regard Rio de Janeiro as home, but Neco moved his young family to Chantilly, north of Paris, France, in 1965. Rodrigo was born in Paris in 1972, and the family relocated north to Belgium. They rented a barn until the late 1990s when an eight-hectare land parcel came on the market just outside Charleroi with the option to rent extensive turnout across the street. Charleroi has a small international airport, is a half-hour’s drive from the capital city of Brussels, and was in the French-speaking region of Belgium where the Pessoas prefer to live.

Neco promptly bought it, but building permits were difficult to obtain, so they had to design a complex with a roof no higher than street level—some undertaking, because they wanted staff accommodation and other facilities on two upper floors.

“We had no choice but to dig down,” said Rodrigo. “The groundworks alone took three months. The daylight is mostly gray in Belgium, so we decided to keep everything inside. It’s functional, and you can just shut the weather out and make it nice for everybody.”

Rodrigo likes to get horses out of their stables several times a day. He is an advocate of treadmills, which will soon be supplemented by an aqua-trainer.

“When these machines were created we had them immediately. The horses are on them half an hour every day. I really believe in this for building and consolidating the muscles. The riding in itself is not enough,” he said.

He also installed a 500-meter undulating canter track, importing a product called MC Ecotrack from the United Kingdom after it impressed him at the 2009 European Championships at Windsor. “Being a ‘waxed’ surface it’s easy to maintain and drains quickly, which is important with the amount of water we get in Belgium!” he added.

There’s a great sense of community between resident riders, although two long lines of 50 American-barn style stalls are broken into units of six and 12, each with separate tack rooms, solaria and wash boxes, to offer independence. All lead directly into the indoor arena at four separate points, and there’s another jumping arena outside.

Integral to the Haras is its well-equipped, on-site veterinary clinic. Veterinarian Eduardo Felix of Portugal has been a permanent staff member for five years. His is a principally preventative role.

“The veterinary and rehabilitation side were not thought very important 20 years ago, but nowadays it’s a tough program for the horses. With all the intensity you don’t want to get to the stage where you have broken them,” said Rodrigo.

“It’s all about saving time. When you have 50 horses, you don’t want to be taking them off to the clinic when you suspect something is happening, so we set up our own clinic to gain time,” he added. “If we can find the problem quickly, we can treat it and ideally bring the horse back sooner.”

A Dream Owner

Rodrigo and Neco live close to each other, though both are a 25-minute drive from the Haras. Rodrigo can’t imagine a life without horses, but he’s happy to have none at home and to make a clear distinction between riding and family.

He and his second wife, Alexa Weeks, expect their first child in January. Already named Sophia, she will be born in the United States and become a sister for Cecilia, who is now 6 and living in San Diego, Calif., where, according to Rodrigo, she is preoccupied with “tennis, tennis, tennis.”

Rodrigo speaks openly about the pressures of keeping a long-distance relationship with Cecilia, or “CC,” who was born during his first marriage to U.S. show jumper Keri Potter.

“Her mother wanted to move back, and I respect that decision,” he said. “It’s not easy, but divorce is always difficult for anybody, and you have to deal with it in the best possible way. We are fortunate to have the money to be able to travel and meet halfway. We’ll have Christmas, and there is skype chat in between. It was a bit rough in the beginning, but that’s normal. Now it is good.”

Their transatlantic visits also give Rodrigo the chance to catch up in person with his principal backer, Hunter Harrison of Double H Farm, the “dream” owner in many ways apart from having a generous horse budget.

“When I started with Mr. Harrison he didn’t have a rider, and I didn’t have a horse,” said Rodrigo. “I’ve been able to deliver the goods for a number of years, and we make a good team. Even today there is no contract, just a handshake and that’s it.”

Rodrigo joined forces with Harrison in 2006 and rode Double H Farm’s Rufus to team gold and individual silver at the 2007 Pan American Games and competed in the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong. Rufus and Rodrigo also placed ninth in the 2009 FEI World Cup Final.

“He’s very competitive and likes to win,” Rodrigo said of Harrison. “Because he’s an important businessman and has been CEO of a big company [Canadian National Railway], he knows there will be tough times. When we’ve had a bad week—a lame horse or a fence down—you can call him, and he will understand. But he will be open and say, ‘OK, but what can we do better?’ ”

Rodrigo’s WEG ride Rebozo has some “interesting” 4-year-old progeny in Mexico, and the Pessoas will make him available in Europe shortly, though it seems unlikely any progeny will be competed by Rodrigo in the foreseeable future.

“I have no time to bring on a young horse, [and] Mr. Harrison has no patience,” said Rodrigo. “He doesn’t want to wait four years to jump a grand prix when for an extra zero he can buy a horse and see it jumping in grand prix the next month. I have a couple of small, young horse projects, but I don’t think he even wants to think about that!”

Rodrigo revealed that Harrison allowed him to sell Night Train–“this is not a championship horse for me”—even though he was a personal favorite. He also “did the business very quickly,” securing Rebozo for Rodrigo in February without him first being tried.

“In 2006, when Baloubet was in top form but hurt himself jumping just a small fence, I had nothing else that could go to the world championships,” said Rodrigo. “Without the horses, nowadays you cannot be No. 1, No. 20 or even No. 100. He’s given me the tools to do it. I don’t know yet who I will ride in the Pan Ams. It may be a horse I don’t even know yet. But being able to chose is a problem I don’t mind having!”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of “Rodrigo Pessoa Is Still The Face Of International Show Jumping” ran in the Dec. 17, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

Category: Horse Shows
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