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A meeting with Rodrigo Pessoa, part one: “Special Envoy put me on the map"

Tuesday, 10 July 2018
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Photo (c) Hippo Foto/Dirk Caremans. Rodrigo Pessoa and Special Envoy. Photo (c) Hippo Foto/Dirk Caremans.

Photo (c) Rolex/Guillaume Mégevand. Rodrigo Pessoa. Photo (c) Rolex/Guillaume Mégevand.

Thanks to an invitation from Rolex, World of Showjumping got to spend a day with Brazilian super-star Rodrigo Pessoa at his current European base in Belgium.

Spread out in a series of three articles, the Olympic gold medallist talks about growing up a Pessoa, the most influential horses in his career, highs-and-lows, making negative into positive as well as the future of the sport – and of course how he combines being Chef d’Equipe for Ireland with his own riding. 

Growing up a Pessoa

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson. Rodrigo Pessoa pictured at home at his Belgian base. Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

Being able to follow in the footsteps of his famous father, the living legend Nelson Pessoa, has shaped Rodrigo into the rider he is today. “But it was a double edge sword, because with it came a lot of responsibility and a lot of pressure,” Rodrigo reflects. “At the same time, it developed the will in me to really get it right. The opportunities that I was given were obviously very good, but I also managed to make the best out of these opportunities and I think that is very important.”

“Since I was a kid, I always had a clear goal in my head. It was to do this job and to be the best and to win as much as possible – to perform at the highest level. To see my father compete and go to all these events, it was my dream to do the same. To win in places like Aachen and Geneva, and to one day become the Olympic Champion,” Rodrigo tells.

“You really need to have goals in life that are obtainable, but at the same time big dreams. You also need to be ready to put in the work so you can be able to reach those dreams. I’m very lucky to be gifted with a special talent, but talent is not enough – you need to put in a lot of work to be able to develop the talent. Maybe you get there a bit quicker than others because you have more feeling, but despite that you still need to put in the hours like anybody else,” Rodrigo says. 

Special Envoy: The horse that put Rodrigo on the map

Photo (c) Hippo Foto/Dirk Caremans. Rodrigo Pessoa and Special Envoy. Photo (c) Hippo Foto/Dirk Caremans.

Rodrigo considers himself lucky to have had some very special horses during his career, but there are a few that really stand out. “If I have to pick one I would pick Special Envoy,” Rodrigo says about the gelding by King of Diamonds x Errigal that was born in 1980 and that he competed at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, the 1994 World Equestrian Games in Den Haag, the 1995 Pan American Games in Mar del Plata as well as at the 1996 World Cup Final in Geneva.

“Special Envoy put me on the map when I was young, and I started competing with him in the ‘89-90 season. He is the horse that really launched my career. I rode him for eight years and it is with him that I had my first big successes. Special Envoy was very forgiving and a very generous horse with a big heart. He is my favourite, if I have to chose.”

Baloubet du Rouet: The one for the record books

Photo (c) Hippo Foto/Dirk Caremans. Rodrigo Pessoa with Baloubet du Rouet. Photo (c) Hippo Foto/Dirk Caremans.

Talking about Rodrigo’s previous horses, the now legendary stallion Baloubet du Rouet is not to avoid as one of the main subjects. “He arrived as a 5-year-old and was a very wild horse with a lot of character, a lot of personality and a lot of energy. My dad immediately saw that Baloubet was a great jumper, and he took a couple of years to develop him and rode him himself. I competed him for the first time when he was nine,” Rodrigo tells.

Rodrigo and Baloubet du Rouet (Galoubet A x Starter) had huge success together, winning the individual gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens as well as taking the World Cup title three times – writing themselves into the history books.

“Baloubet du Rouet was definitely a very special horse with a lot of personality. On a day-to-day basis, he was very easy to handle and was a very quiet stallion in general. He had all the abilities you are looking for in a horse. He had the power, he was careful, he was very talented and he understood everything very quickly. You never had to explain anything twice to him,” Rodrigo tells.

“Baloubet’s flaw was probably his character. He was a little bit of a coward. The line between quality and cowardice is very close,” Rodrigo explains. “The more quality you have in a horse, the closer you get to the limit of them being scared and to become a coward. And he was right at that limit because he had so much quality, so we had some problems from time to time. That was the other side of the coin, the rest he made so easy. He took care of a lot of the problems in the course and made the rider look good.”

To date, Baloubet du Rouet is the only horse that has won the World Cup Final three years in a row. “That is unheard of and unmatched until today, and I think it will never be matched. That is a thing for the record books. It takes more than a normal horse to do that, it takes a phenomenon to do it. In six years we were 1,1,1,2,3,2 and I think we will never see that again. That shows you how special he was.”

Turning bad to good

Photo (c) Rolex/Guillaume Mégevand. “I think that any bad situation, if you are able to turn that to a positive you are on plus," Pessoa says. Photo (c) Rolex/Guillaume Mégevand.

As any other rider Rodrigo has had his ups and downs, and his worst down was at the Olympics in Sydney in 2000 where he was in the lead individually ahead of the final only to fall all the way down to the bottom of the ranks.

“I think that any bad situation, if you are able to turn that to a positive you are on plus. In 1996 in Geneva I had a really bad experience in the World Cup Final. I had two rails to win and I messed that up and ended fourth. Being a young kid that was able to win the final and then mess it up – it was a brutal situation. A few months later at the Olympics in Atlanta I had to go clear in the last round to win the bronze medal for our country, and I did. So, I think that those bad experiences, if you manage to turn them to the positive they are a good for building character. Obviously Sydney was beyond brutal, but that is life and it happens. I had many sleepless nights, many months of sleepless nights after that. You always have it in the back of your mind and when we came back to the Olympics four years later I had in my mind that it could never be worse than that day in Sydney, so it was only positive.”

And Rodrigo for sure turned the bad experience from Sydney into something good when winning the individual gold medal at the Olympics in Athens four years later. “Some people get destroyed after events like the one I had in Sydney, and that can end their career. Some people get stronger. If you are able to get over that obstacle, you are in good shape – but it takes a bit. It is not easy. You are your own mental trainer, because if you cannot sort this situation out yourselves nobody else can sort it out for you. Inside you need to find a way and find the pieces of the puzzle,” Rodrigo says.

Looking back, is there anything Rodrigo would like to change? “I don’t typically look back a lot. When I reflect on things I did wrong, it probably was a reason for me to do them wrong. And you can’t change them anyway, so it is pointless to talk and put thought into what I should have done differently. I try not to do same mistakes, I do new mistakes, but I try not to do the same mistakes again. Do different mistakes. Everything happens for a reason.”

A big thanks to Rolex for inviting us to this meeting with their Testimonee Rodrigo Pessoa!

Text © World of Showjumping // Photos © Rolex/Guillaume Mégevand, Hippo Foto/Dirk Caremans and JennyAbrahamsson.

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