Rodrigo Pessoa is known as one of the finest horsemen of his generation. The son of a showjumping legend, he has won the World Cup on three occasions, gold, silver and bronze medals at the Olympic Games and more than 65 Grands Prix.
Text MARIA GRAAE Photography RASMUS SKOUSEN / The Horse Rider’s Journal No. 5
Going by the sheer number of awards that Brazilian showjumper Rodrigo Pessoa has won, it’s hard to believe that, born in November 1972
in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, he isn’t even 40 yet.
Then again, he had an early start: from the moment he could walk, the young Rodrigo was always to be found at the side of his father Nelson, travelling with him all over the world on the international show circuit.
The globe-trotting has never stopped, and we meet in a lounge at Copenhagen CSIO. Rodrigo is out on the lawn, keeping an eye on Sophia, the younger of his two daughters, as the toddler explores the green grass. His American wife, Alexa Weeks is sitting in the lounge on a white couch; they married September 2009 at a fairytale, equestrian-themed wedding. Fashionably casual in white and beige, complementing her blonde hair and blue eyes, Alexa is also an accomplished equestrian in her own right. “I ride, but just as an amateur,” she explains. “I try to select a show a month to compete in.”
Rodrigo takes a seat on the couch as Alexa takes a turn watching over their daughter. His deep brown eyes look out from beneath the brim of a green cap crowned with the prestigious Rolex logo. With his father he runs a highly successful international training centre, Haras de Ligny, just outside Brussels, where they keep 60 horses.
With your very international background, why did you decide to live in Belgium?
“We were living in France when we decided to move to Belgium in 1981 because it’s a horse-loving country in the centre of Europe. Brussels is a nice town and for us the best place to prepare, with good and easy access to the shows. Europe really is where the top sport is. We go to the US and spend December to March in Florida, when it’s cold in Europe. In Florida we can carry on competing in the warmer climate.”
Along the way Rodrigo has picked up several languages: besides English, he is fluent in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. He speaks with a soft accent, mixing European and American vowels with a South American tone, as he explains: “It is a very international life. We still have family in Brazil and still go there two or three times a year. There is a big five-star event every September, the Athina Onassis Horse Show. It’s the largest equestrian event in South America, and transforms Rio de Janeiro into the capital of showjumping.”
Rodrigo’s father Nelson, also known as Neco, came to Europe back in 1961. In doing so he put Brazilian showjumping on the map and became one of the most respected showjumpers of all time, riding in five Olympic Games and nine World Championships, winning several championships and over 150 Grands Prix in Europe.
Now aged 76 and having retired from competition some 10 years ago, Neco still coaches some of the very best in elite showjumping.
It was his father Nelson who inspired him to take up the sport and he has remained the most influential person in Rodrigo’s career. “The most important lesson I have learned from my father,” he says, “is to stay humble and keep my feet on the ground: it’s the same people you meet on your way up as on your way down.”
With Neco as a teammate, Rodrigo competed as the youngest Olympic showjumper at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and won Pan Am gold in 1994. In 1998 he won the World Championship as the youngest rider ever. He led the Brazilian team to a bronze medal at both the Atlanta and the Sydney Olympics, and in Athens 2004 he became Olympic Champion on the wonderful stallion Baloubet du Rouet. The chestnut was first ridden by Neco who won the seven-year-old stallion test at Fontainebleau. Two years later Rodrigo picked up the reins and together the pair set a record by winning three World Cup Finals in row.
“With horses it’s a rollercoaster,” he comments. “There will always be ups and downs when you compete at the highest level. It’s difficult with horses but it’s something you learn to cope with.
When asked about the highs and lows of his career, he reminisces:
“My best ride ever was on Tomboy: that was both really lucky and really good. It was at the second round in Atlanta at the Nations Cup. We won the first medal ever for a Brazilian team, and I was the last to go on. The feeling that it all depended on me, and then I succeeded… That was incredible.”
“The biggest disappointment was in the Sydney Olympics in 2000, when I was eliminated in the second round. That was the worst. For me as for any rider the Olympics is the most important event.”
You have enjoyed great success from an early age; how has this affected you?
“The pressure and expectation have been there from the start, so I know how to deal with it, it’s been a part of my life forever now; for me, it became normal. I prepare for shows by being as normal as possible. I’ve been riding for so many years it’s automatic… although before the championships you do get a little nervous, because you want to do the best you can.”
The London Games is your sixth: How do you account for your success?
“I’ve been privileged with good – very good – horses. For me a horse needs to be both intelligent and careful to handle top sport.
And a good horseman needs to understand horses and have a feeling for them; to be sensitive and of course take good care of them.”
How would you describe your philosophy?
“To keep it as simple as possible and listen to your horse. The sport is complicated enough as it is, so don’t make it even more so. Always keep moving forward and never over-analyse – that’s torture.”
What would your advice be to any youngsters wishing to enter international showjumping?
“Keep working, think long term, look ahead and do your best –always do your best.”
Will we see your daughters Cecilia and Sophia in the show arena, keeping up the family name and tradition?
“If they want. It’s not a necessity for me and it’s still too early to tell. They should do whatever they have a talent for and follow what’s in their character.”
So in ten years’ time where will we find you?
“Not riding. But I will still be working with horses somehow.”
In association with prestigious sponsors like Gucci, Rolex and Audi, Rodrigo and Nelson have for many years been involved in organising The Masters of Show Jumping, some of the largest five starred international horse shows, attracting the best riders worldwide to compete for exceptional prize money. The annual competitions and VIP events take place in Paris and Hong Kong. The inaugural New York masters will be launched in October next year at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. And there are more to come: “In 2013 we hope to launch a fourth event,” he confides.
Last year Rodrigo even entered the equestrian fashion market, launching Pessoa by Horseware, in which the legendary rider and the Irish quality equestrian brand have collaborated on an apparel line, mixing contemporary sport, glamour and the classic tailored look.
How have you found working in fashion design?
“It’s interesting. It’s still all quite new to us, and it’s a quite a competitive market. But I think comfort and quality is very important since you wear the clothes for so many hours a day.”
As Sophia starts to cry, impervious to her mother’s efforts to comfort her, Rodrigo’s attention is diverted, so I offer one final question.
Your father is already a legend. What would you like to be remembered for?
“I try to do the best I can. How I will be remembered… that’s up to other people to decide.” •