85 Years Young – Nelson Pessoa still Keeps Busy
It was just before Christmas in 1935, that one of the world’s greatest show jumping riders was born in Brazil – Nelson Pessoa. He is a man who can look back on an illustrious career in the saddle, but what is not so well known is the fact that the breeding of the horses he rode interested him more in many ways that the actual success he achieved on them.
In Brazil at the time, all the equestrian riders tended to ne from the military, and he was the first civilian to have success. In his early life, he was trained by his father who was a hard task master. At the age of five, Nelson was expected to be able to ride well without stirrups and nothing short of perfection in his father’s eyes was good enough. The training was tough and exacting, and until the age of 12, Nelson lived in fear of the horse but he persisted with his schooling and actually developed a real passion for the horse and sport. He started to compete at the Rio Riding Club, where he was mesmerized by the bright lights and huge arenas, together with some early success. His first selection for the Brazilian team was in 1953, when he went to Argentina and won the Grand Prix – his first major success. He was then selected to represent Brazil at the Olympics in 1956, at only 20 years of age, where he finished at the top Brazilian rider. Although the games were held in Australia, the Olympic showjumping was held earlier in the same year in Stockholm because of Australian equine quarantine regulations at the time.
In the following couple of years, Nelson was winning events in both the USA and Europe and it soon became clear to him that if he was to be a real success, he would have to move to Europe. In 1960, a French lady wanted him to train her and her horses which were based in France on the shores of Lac Leman. It was rather unfortunate timing as he was also engaged to marry Regina, but he decided that the Europe opportunity was far too good to miss. He hurriedly married his fiancée who little or no interest in horses, and fled to France. After two weeks on the boat, complete with all his horses and wife, he arrived at his new home, where there was no sand, and in a very chi chi place with gardeners who frowned every time he made a foot print on their hallowed lawns.
Nelson Pessoa began by learning the rudiments of dressage with a German rider, who became a great friend, Rosemarie Springer. He soon realized the importance of flat work as well as having the ability to jump a horse. His first showjumping season in Europe was really about finding his feet, but his second was more successful with a win at the Brussels Grand Prix riding Gran Geste, one of the horses he brought over from Brazil with him. In 1963, the Nelson Pessoa fire was lit, he won the Hamburg Derby for the second time in a row and also the Hickstead Derby together with numerous other competitions. Buoyed by his success, Pessoa began to import Brazilian bred horses to Europe, six each year, where he would train them and sell them. In 1964, he appeared once again at the Olympic Games still riding Gran Geste where he came fifth. He also won the Hickstead Derby again as well as the Aachen Grand Prix. Two years later, again with Gran Geste, he won the European Championships in Lucerne. The combination won a total of 44 Grand Prix and by the time Nelson Pessoa decided that he would have to retire Gran Geste, he had added an American Pan American Games as well as other Grand Prix in Canada. At the same time as Gran Geste’s retirement, with changed circumstances on the shores of Lac Leman, he relocated to Chantilly.
His next world famous ride was with a very unreliable thoroughbred Nagir, who when he decided to jump was unbeatable, but he generally knew when those times should be. After nine days at the Festival of the Horse at Aachen, when Nagir had rails down in every competition, there didn’t seem much hope for the Grand Prix on the final day. However, the horse was the only one to jump a double clear, thus giving him the win. ‘Neco’ as Nelson was now known went onto make history over the next 20 years. He won the Hamburg Derby a further three times from 1992 to 1994 and in 1996, added another Hickstead Derby to his tally. Nelson’s win in 1996 was all the more remarkable as he had had a heart attack a year earlier which to many, would have meant instant retirement. He was the oldest winner of the Derby at Hickstead at 60! He was strongly advised not to run, but he wanted that last Derby, so with his 19 year old Vivaldi, he set off. He was told that his heart rate must not go above 180 beats per minute, as if it did, he would almost certainly not survive. He had a heart beat monitor on his wrist, at which he kept looking in order to comply with his doctor’s orders. He won with four faults as a rail over the Devils Dyke dropped.
As Neco was unable to compete in the Atlanta Olympics, he set about training the Brazilian team, one of whom was his son Roderigo of 22 years of age. Another string to his empire became apparent as the Brazilians took the Bronze Medal. He also found a new horse, a three year old, Baloubet de Rouet who was bred in Normandy. The horse did not go to Nelson for a couple of years as this was a fire cracker of a horse and often as a five year old still had to be ridden out 3 times a day to try to quell his exuberances. Baloubet de Rouet went to his first event at six in Belgium, where his behaviour was quite impossible. They lunged the horse for 30 minutes, which had virtually no effect in calming him down, and so Nelson decided to jump on him as he ran around in circles, and there he stayed for 2 ½ hours. Baloubet did calm down a bit when he ws seven, where he became the French National Champion and in 1998, Baloubet and Nelson’s son, Roderigo won the World Cup final. Nelson, himself last rode the horse in the World Equestrian Games in Rome before finally retiring from riding and passing the ride permanently to Roderigo.
Nelson Pessoa’s brilliant riding career was with several horses, apart from those mentioned. He was successful with Relincho, his first ride for the Olympics, Lianos and Special Envoy, also provided him with notable wins. Roderigo took over some of the rides from 1998.
Following his retirement from the saddle, Nelson became a trainer. He loved having young enthusiastic riders around him and has guided many to successful showjumping riders in their own rights. He also started to breed his own horses. He has always been a great supporter of the thoroughbred horse. He likes them as they are tougher than other warmblood breeds and as he says, now the courses are much faster and more technical than they were years ago, the horse needs that extra stamina and quickness of thought to get themselves out of trouble if necessary. He has never been a fan of competing horses too early. He believes that horses should be properly educated between 4 and 7 years and if competed at all, only very sparingly. This philosophy gives the horse much greater longevity, and when the horse is in its best years, you are far more likely to get more success, rather than burning them out before they are properly mature. He is a passionate believer that the system of FEI rankings is not good, as it allows a rider who gets to the top, to stay there for years, much to the detriment of younger riders trying to come up through the ranks.
There is an enormous amount that Nelson Pessoa has done for the sport of showjumping and to equestrianism generally, far too much to put in a little article such as this, but one thing this modest man, and now very wealthy man wants to remembered for is “to be recognised as a good horseman” He has managed that and although at 85 years young and basically retired, he still has a huge involvement with horses and training young ambitious protégés.