Rodrigo Pessoa must have been raised well. Upon our request to meet up for an interview, he – yes he, the equestrian super star Rodrigo – calls us up to ask where to meet. This has never happened in WoSJ-history before; it’s usually a case of us hunting our objects down – but with Rodrigo we can skip the hunt. Whether it is because he just wants it done with (he’s probably done a thousand of these interviews before), or if it’s because he is extremely professional and polite – we don’t know. But happy as we are that Rodrigo will meet us we go with the latter, and run off to meet the Brazilian rider.
Rodrigo Pessoa used to be a ruling regular on the European showjumping scene from the early nineties and five years into the new millennium. In 1998 Rodrigo – only 25 years old –won the World Equestrian Games in Rome riding Lianos. Together with the now legendary stallion Baloubet du Rouet, Pessoa won the World Cup Final three years in a row; in 1998, 1999 and 2000 – the only horse and rider combination to achieve such a three in a row hat trick in showjumping history. In 2004 it was all crowned with Olympic gold. Then, he kind of became less visible on the European circuit – and we wonder, where was he off to?
“In 2005 I moved to the US, and started riding for my sponsor Hunter Harrison at Double H Farm. I was a bit tired of going to the same World Cup shows in Europe, and also of the weather – and needed a change. Also, my daughter Cecilia from my first marriage lives in the States, and a move would give me the opportunity to see her more. So, for those reasons I left Europe,” Rodrigo explains. “Now I spend around three months in Florida from January to March, and the rest of my time is mainly spent in Belgium. I am based in Wellington when in the States, and it’s a very nice place to spend the winter,” he smiles. “I have between six to ten horses to ride, and they are all kept at Double H Farm – which is also a dealing stable with room for about thirty horses.”
“The sport in the US is fairly different compared to Europe. In Europe there is TV-coverage of the biggest shows such as the Top League and the Global Champions Tour, there are big crowds and big sponsors involved. That’s not the same in the US. But, the competition is just as hard over there – even though there are less riders they hold a great level,” Rodrigo explains when asked to fill us in on the difference between the two continents when it comes to showjumping.
HH Rebozo is Rodrigo’s current top horse – and in 2010 they ended fourth at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. After the championship Rodrigo was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play Diploma for his generous act of fair play during the Rolex Top Four final, when Pessoa gave in-depth advice to his competitor Abdullah Sharbatly during the horse changes where the Saudi Arabian rider was to ride HH Rebozo. So, we conclude that Rodrigo is indeed extremely professional and polite.
The 12 year old HH Rebozo is by Tlaloc and is according to Rodrigo “a sweet stallion”. “Rebozo is fairly easy. For a stallion, there is little noise from him. He is a straight forward horse to ride,” Rodrigo says. “He came to me in 2010 after being ridden by Candice King, and did fantastic at the WEG. Unfortunately, Rebozo was injured after the championships and did not jump at all last year,” he explains. “Now he has done a couple of shows again, and I am aiming him for the Olympics. He needs to jump a few more shows to find his form though, but Rebozo is a horse with the potential to jump two big tracks in one day.” Being a stallion with a great pedigree and a great record of results, Rebozo has also been used for breeding – but not since 2010, as Rodrigo puts it “We didn’t want to push him while he was injured, so he will take it up again after the Olympics.”
At the end of last year, Rodrigo also got a new exciting ride – Ciske van Overis. “I competed Ciske in a few 1.45 and 1.50 classes and she did well, I got used to her quickly and found her buttons. But unfortunately she got injured, so I will not use her for competition this first semester. Ciske has already done a lot for her young age, so it’s better to give her enough time off. She is a mare that has the potential to jump real big tracks!”
A horse that has won a lot for Rodrigo, is the home bred HH Palouchin de Ligny. The 13 year old gelding is out of Rodrigo’s former ride Chinchina and by Baloubet du Rouet – and as homemade as it gets. “Palouchin is a very competitive horse. He is really fast and really careful! I keep him jumping at 1.45-1.50 level though, as he gets so stressed at shows that putting him in the biggest classes would do him no good. If I do jump a big class on him, I need to make sure to bring him down a class afterwards. Palouchin can jump anything though! He wins a lot, and this year he has won around twenty classes,” Rodrigo smiles when telling about the speedy chestnut.
Rodrigo also has some exciting youngsters to watch out for. G&C Farm – which recently provided Rodrigo with horses in addition to Double H Farm – has bought a very promising six year old called Atlanta by Andiamo x Heartbreaker. “I have big expectations for Atlanta; she has a huge jump! I jumped her in Aalst, and she did really well – so I’m excited about her,” Rodrigo tells us.
The 39 year old is committed to the sport in many different ways – and not just as a showjumper. Together with his father, Nelson, he organizes shows such as the fantastic Gucci Masters – and he is a committee member of the International Jumping Riders Club. “I have always thought that it is important to give back to the sport,” Rodrigo says of his IJRC-commitment. “Sometimes I do wonder why I am involved though, going to meetings is not always fun,” he smiles. “But, it’s a part of our sport and the work done in the club is important to make our sport better. We need to move forward and evolve, and now we are a good group that works well together trying to secure just that,” Rodrigo explains.
“Surely the sport has developed in many ways over the last years. The amount of price money is for example much higher than before. But, it’s also much more jumping and many more shows than it used to be. The difference between how showjumping has evolved compared to other sports is that showjumping hasn’t evolved media wise. Neither can we compare showjumping to other sports when it comes to endorsements. Look at what the world’s number one in tennis earns on endorsements every year! We have 90 % to catch up when it comes to media attention and endorsements,” Pessoa explains. “We need to push the sport in the right direction. Look at how many that ride out there, there are also huge crowds at many shows, many showjumping fans, it’s a great live sport and also a great TV-sport! It has the potential, but needs to be managed better,” Rodrigo says.
“But we also need to remember that our sport involves horses. A horse is a life companion. They need to be treated accordingly. Sometimes they need time; time to develop or time to heal from an injury. That is very important factor that makes our sport different from others.”
Talking about life companions, we ask Rodrigo how the great Baloubet du Rouet is doing on his retirement days. “He enjoys life in Portugal at his owner’s farm. I saw him last year, and even though Baloubet is 23 now, he still looks really well. It’s great seeing his offspring around; they are showing some good things,” Rodrigo closes off.