With the highest number of riders from one nation ranked among the Top 30 in the world, Ireland has all the talent and depth to put championship teams together. But, over the last decade or so, and despite all best efforts, successful championship teams have slipped through its fingers.
With the appointment of Brazil’s Rodrigo Pessoa, one of show jumping’s most legendary riders and highly regarded figures, as its new Senior High Performance Director of the Show Jumping Team, Horse Sport Ireland hopes that it’s marking a turning point. With six visits to the World Equestrian Games, 13 rides in FEI World Cup Finals and multiple Olympic medals, Pessoa’s success—and current riding career—makes him one of the most intriguing chef d’equipe appointees in recent memory.
We sat down with Pessoa in Wellington, Florida, USA just after the official announcement of his appointment was made on Wednesday, March 15, 2017 to find out more about how he and Horse Sport Ireland came together, what this new role will mean for his own riding career, and what he is looking forward to most in working with Team Ireland:
Noelle Floyd: How did you acquire the position of being chef d’equipe for Ireland?
Rodrigo Pessoa: It started off in the summer talking with one or two riders because they could feel that my predecessor was not going to be there for much longer, so we started talking a little bit as a joke. As things evolved and we started talking a little bit more and more, and then when the time of the candidacy came down, I put a simple letter forward and threw my name in the hat, why not? Then things evolved in a good way, and so it went.
NF: The last three Olympic games did not go the way that Ireland had wanted; are you going to be making some big changes in order to make Tokyo 2020 something they’re happy about?
RP: Obviously the big objective here is to qualify Ireland for the Olympics. Ireland is a horse country, Ireland was always a very strong team, but in the last 15 years they’ve not been on a podium or near a podium.
The last podium they had was 2001 in the European Championships, so for a country like Ireland it doesn’t make sense. Individually they win a bunch, but when it comes to the team for some reason it doesn’t work. We’ll try to see what the problems are, try to solve them. It’s a good group of riders and horses now that make it possible to have a high objective. At the end of this year it’s the Europeans already, which is a main goal for the team, and slowly thinking about the first qualifier next year. There’s no reason why they can’t be really good in teams. They win Nation’s Cups, but when it comes to championships, something doesn’t work for some reason. We’ll try to finger-point that.
NF: As a nation, Ireland has the most riders in the FEI World Ranked Top 30, and the riders consistently win as individuals, but can struggle when working as a team. Does that come down to mismanagement?
RP: Probably. Mismanagement in the moment that you’re picking the team and putting four guys together. Maybe they’re not putting the four right guys together. At the end why do they win two weeks before and the week after, but during the championship they miss? You can always miss, championships are tough. Everybody’s on their best game, but so should they. Really, I don’t want to take anything away from my predecessor, we have a big task ahead of us, we’ll try to solve the problems and get it working.
NF: Ireland is a small country, but punches well above their weight when it comes to size and optics, like the amount of people that ride versus the amount of people that can ride at the top level compared to other countries. Why do you think that is?
RP: I think there’s plenty of riders that can ride well. I think every country has a lot of people that can ride well, but it all comes down to horsepower. It’s a horse country—they love horses. I think that’s great. It’s encouraging, they have breeding, they have young kids that ride and come through the ranks and come up to big levels, they should be able to do something. They win, not only in two-stars, they win in five-stars, and a bunch of them. It should be possible to do.
NF: You’re going to be the Chef d’Equipe for Team Ireland now, does this mean you’re not going to be aiming to get to Tokyo yourself and be riding for Brazil there?
RP: First, I have a two-year contract, to the end of the WEG. Tokyo is a long way away. For the moment, the priority is to get this team on track and going well at the Europeans. This year will primarily be focused on that, for me that is my priority. In my spare time I can still ride—I still have a couple of horses if Jordan gets better. He’s been injured now for over a year, so we need to bring him back. In the meantime, between those shows that I go to with Ireland, I will be able to compete, but the primary focus now is Team Ireland.
NF: Is that something we’ve seen before, where a chef d’equipe is still competing?
RP: No, but I would rather have someone that is in touch with the sport on a daily basis than someone that is not.
NF: Did your desire to want to help team Ireland come at all from being unhappy with some of the decisions made for Brazil in Rio?
RP: That’s behind me now, I don’t think about it anymore.
Coaching is something that I have unofficially done for the last 15-20 years for my country with less means. With less riders, with less horses than Ireland, we’ve had good results. We’ve come very close lately. That was modestly saying under my guidance and supervision. I think in the last years I have acquired quite a bit of organization and leadership skills, which I hope that I can bring now to the table. I think that’s what they see in me. Someone that has been there, done it before, and has managed to create situations in which a country is close to the medals. The last two WEGs Brazil was 4th and 5th. Ireland was nowhere to be seen in the last two WEGs. We’ve not missed an Olympic qualification since whenever. Our Pan American Games are easier than the Europeans. I’ll leave that to them. Still, we’ve never come under big pressure to qualify. There’s no reason why Ireland should be out of any Olympic Games and why they should not be medal contenders. They have the possibility to be medal contenders, and the last couple of years we’ve never thought of Ireland in the medals. That has to change.