Nelson Pessoa is a living legend in the sport of showjumping; during his career as a rider he won several championships and over 150 Grand Prix’s in Europe. WoSJ was lucky enough to get an interview with this exceptional horseman.
Pessoa keeps himself busy with his yard Haras de Ligny outside Brussels, where he keeps sixty horses. At the age of 75, Nelson – or Neco as he is often called – still does quite a lot of coaching. His son Rodrigo, Olympic Champion Eric Lamaze and the winner of this year’s Global Champions Tour in Doha Alvaro de Miranda, are among the riders who are lucky enough to take part of his wisdom. “We also have riders who come in for one or two weeks at a time – often they are junior or young riders. They come from all over the world, but many of them are from North or South America,” Nelson explains.
Nelson came to Europe back in 1961, but has never considered moving back to his home country of Brazil; “No, I’m not going back to Brazil. I teach there two times a year and it’s nice for that and a holiday,” he says. “But neither did I ever consider changing nationality to compete for Belgium; I had no interest in that really”.
The riding itself is not something Pessoa is missing; “I ride very little nowadays; I’m almost fed up with that by now,” Nelson smiles. “It was not a hard transition for me to go from riding to coaching, as I’ve always been a coach. You see, as a rider I was supported either by sponsors or through income from being a trainer – I never did any horse dealing,” Pessoa lets us know. “Also my transition from being a rider to becoming a coach full time was made smooth by Rodrigo, who has been riding and competing all along”.
Breeding has also become a small part of Nelson’s life. “I don’t do it on a big scale, but I breed two to three foals each year. I mostly use Baloubet [du Rouet] on my mares, and I have two really good homebred offspring from him. One is Palouchin that is ridden by Rodrigo, and the other is Born To Win – who Pedro Veniss rides,” Nelson smiles. “Palouchin won some classes in Wellington this winter and Born To Win recently won in Lummen,” he continues. Nelson also tells us that he has a few nice three and four year olds coming up at home, and that he also keeps two to three of his young homebred ones in training.
Nelson is of the opinion that riders should stick to the basic and classical riding. “With time things change, but the technique is the same. I like tradition and I’m quite conservative in that way. That’s what I work from when I coach,” Nelson smiles. “I think we see from the sport that this is also something that the riders miss a little nowadays,” the Brazilian says while watching McLain Ward do his round. “But look at him [McLain]; he has it.”
‘Evolution’ is the key word when Pessoa presents his views on the sport today. “There are more shows than it used to be, and the sport has become more professional. I think the promotion of the sport that we see today is a positive evolution, but it has its drawbacks,” Nelson says seriously. “There are more people in the sport now than earlier and a bigger majority of people are approaching the sport. But; a lot of them lack the necessary discipline. That’s why many miss out on success in this sport. They don’t ride as well, and they move on to quickly in the hunt for success. Most riders used to be good horsemen before, and I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” Nelson says firmly.
Pessoa points out some ingredients that he thinks are the key to become a successful rider. “I think many riders have a lot to learn when it comes to their training; they have to separate the good teaching from the rest. It’s up to the young people in the sport to be good students; they need to listen, be modest and be patient,” Pessoa explains.
Taking the time needed is something Nelson values highly; “If you go to fast and don’t respect the laws of the horse you will not succeed. Stick to using the time needed, and don’t crave for success straight away,” Nelson says. “In this sport you see riders arrive on top from nothing if they stick to this philosophy,” he continues. Nelson also believes there are a lot of differences between the continents when it comes to riding and training; “The level on the European and American riders is high. Sometimes I think riders from other continents lack the discipline that we see in Europe and US,” Pessoa says.
The Brazilian points out that it’s not only the sport that has changed – but also the breeding. “The breeding has moved on. Holland, Belgium, Germany and France produce some really nice horses – but you’ll also find some nice ones from South America,” he says. “In the past I used to like the Irish bred horses, but in Ireland they have lost a lot of the important lines and the right blood has disappeared.”
Through his career Nelson has had a lot of good horses, but he points out two of them as really special to him; “Many of my horses have been a big help to my career, but my first horse Grand Geste was extraordinary. He knew when the day of the Grand Prix was, and won a lot for me. I also had Baloubet before he was passed on to Rodrigo, and he was another one with a real personality,” Nelson smiles. “They both had such characters you almost expected them to start talking to you,” Nelson remembers fondly before he turns his attention back to the arena – looking, studying and analyzing the riders in the ring.
Yes, the sport has come a long way since Nelson’s riding career was at a peak. That being said; the legend’s opinions and values have never been more important than right now. In a time where some believe that money can replace knowledge.
Photos by Jenny Abrahamsson/Text by Jannicke Naustdal - copyright © worldofshowjumping.com 2011.
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