Olympic Show Jumper Rodrigo Pessoa: ‘Don’t Settle for Just OK’

In his first North American clinic, Olympic gold medalist Rodrigo Pessoa hammers home his priorities: effective aids, quick responses and pushing limits.

The gymnastic looked as if it would be the bugaboo as day one of Brazilian show jumper Rodrigo Pessoa’s first North American clinic began. Instead, it was the shoulder-in. The Olympic and World Equestrian Games show jumping gold medalist and three-time World Cup show-jumping champion described the shoulder-in as an exercise “found on page one of any flatwork book” and the equine equivalent of doing a few forward bends after getting out of bed every morning.

Rodrigo Pessoa encourages Allison Kroff to make sure her horse is listening to her leg aids and working forward from him hindquarters. | ? Deb Dawson/Practical Horseman

Of course, the clinic wasn’t just about nailing the shoulder-in. That challenge, though, provided numerous opportunities for Rodrigo to hammer home his priorities as a coach: using aids effectively, especially the leg; insisting on quick reactions to those aids; challenging horse and rider to “push their limits;” and working the horse in a purposeful way that builds suppleness, strength and confidence.

“Make it happen!” was the motto for two days devoted to giving riders the tools needed to do just that. “At the end of the day, it’s just you and your horse in the show ring,” Rodrigo emphasized. “It’s your job to make it happen.”

Simplicity and creating naturalness in coaching, training, riding and thinking were common threads throughout the two days. Enjoying the ride was essential. “If you are not enjoying it, your horse isn’t either,” Rodrigo said.

Held at the new Sonoma Horse Park in Northern California’s Petaluma, the August 1-2 clinic was comprised of three groups of five riders each. Sponsored by Taylor Harris Insurance Services, the sessions were divided by 1.15 meters (3-foot-7), 1.25 meters (4-foot-1) and 1.35 meters (4-feet-5) fence heights, with a jumper emphasis throughout.

About That Shoulder-In
Rodrigo opened each session by asking the riders to warm up their horses on their own, at the trot and canter and in both directions. “The first five or ten minutes of your work should be spent with your horse in free, natural and forward movement,” Rodrigo explained. “We are getting them stretched out without asking anything special.”

Next he requested a large circle, about 140 feet in diameter, and a gradual uptake of connection, always initiated by the leg, so the horse was working from his hindquarters, and supported with the hand. “Every action of the hand must be covered by the leg,” Rodrigo told participants for the first of many times.

He introduced another repeated concept: progressively asking the horse for more, rather than settling for “just OK,” or worse, nothing. Rodrigo wanted more active gaits as trot work continued on the large circle. This segued into the “compression” of shoulder-in along approximately one-quarter of the circle, then “decompressing” the stride by moving promptly into extended trot for the rest of the circle.

Rodrigo loves the shoulder-in for many reasons. For the horse, it’s great for suppling and strengthening his back and building balance in his body while also teaching or reinforcing responsiveness to the aids. For riders, it teaches feel for where their horses’ feet and body parts are.

In this basic dressage movement, performed at the trot, the horse’s body is bent around the rider’s inside leg and his head is turned slightly into the bend. Moving both laterally and forward, the horse’s hooves create three tracks as the inside hind leg and outside foreleg travel in the same track.

The rider’s dominant aid is a strong inside leg, with the outside leg holding the horse’s hindquarters on track. Rodrigo coached riders to keep their shoulders and eyes facing forward. In keeping with his emphasis on the importance of leg aids, he said very little about rein aids for the movement, typically a light inside rein to direct the bend and a holding outside rein.

The circle created a natural setup for the exercise. Riders were later asked to do it on the straightaway, where the rail provides a better gauge for the approximately 45-degree angle of the horse’s sideways and forward track. “The horse is not a crab,” Rodrigo said. “It’s not all sideways!” A few times, he held a horse’s inside rein from the ground, telling the rider to focus only on the leg aid. He pressed for the correct angle off the rail. “Don’t content yourself with just a little bit!”

Only a few earned “almost goods” on their shoulder-ins. Rodrigo guessed that two of the 15 horses, including one in the highest jumping section, “had never taken a sideways step in their lives.” The most common problems were loss of momentum, too shallow an angle and, the biggest, resisting the leg.

He characterized the resistance exhibited by several horses as normal. “It’s more effort for them, but if you keep insisting and if they are intelligent, they will understand what you want and realize that it’s good for them.” It made no sense to Rodrigo that any horse and/or rider should compete at the clinic’s jumping heights without being able to do shoulder-in properly.

“I don’t mean 30 mediocre strides,” he clarified. “I mean four or five good strides.” A well-schooled horse will do well with two shoulder-ins in each direction during an average day’s workout, he said.

One horse gave his owner and Rodrigo an extensive challenge. He hopped, bucked and bobbed his head in defense against the shoulder-in aids, all stemming from oversensitivity to his rider’s leg. But the horse made it up to Rodrigo toward the end of a 20-minute school by demonstrating the clinician’s claims about the exercise’s relaxation benefits. “He just pooped twice in five minutes,” noted Rodrigo, who eventually made progress in loosening and “unblocking” the horse’s back through the shoulder-in.

Rodrigo suggested the horse return the next day with a standing martingale to reduce evasive head bobbing and help the rider quickly regain a frame after applying her leg. With the martingale’s effect and new respect for and understanding of the leg aid, the horse was a rock star over the second day’s full jumping course.

As the group of 1.35-meter riders, all professionals, warmed up at the trot and canter on a large rectangle, Rodrigo gave them a free-form challenge to test their horses’ responsiveness. “Imagine there is suddenly a huge fireball coming at you, a big wall or a ditch too wide to jump.” The idea was to be instantly able to stop, turn and step on the gas.
He noted that America’s hunter and equitation divisions often produce riders with nice positions, but sometimes the riders become frozen in those positions “waiting for things to happen, rather than making them happen.”

The Legs Have It
Much of the horses’ resistances came from poor responses to the riders’ leg aids, from zippo to oversensitivity. “Not using the leg properly or enough is the biggest problem we find,” said Rodrigo. Examples ranged from riders who couldn’t apply the lightest leg pressure without the horse squirting away to those who turned to bigger and bigger spurs to motivate a nonresponsive steed.

The correct leg position is critical. Rodrigo defined that as wrapping the thigh, calf and heel around the horse when applying the leg. Using all three parts of the leg makes the aid clearer to the horse. The too-common pinched knee prevents that correct leg position, is a weak aid and contributes to an insecure position.

Rodrigo sought “a vibrating leg” or an “on-and-off” leg, rather than constant application. Riders on sensitive-sided horses needed to teach them to accept the leg aid. For horses who resisted the shoulder-in’s strong inside leg by bolting forward or going up or sideways, Rodrigo told riders to let or make them go forward, but keep them contained by staying on a circle. They were then coached to regain a controlled, but forward, trot and then apply the shoulder-in leg aid again, repeating as needed to make some progress. Then they would go for a little bit more progress the next day.

Riders of dull-sided horses were first advised to move their calves slightly back in search of a more sensitive spot on the horses’ sides. If “one good kick” doesn’t do the job, make it two, Rodrigo said. If necessary, press and/or kick the horse into a full gallop down the long side of the ring, making it crystal clear what’s expected from the leg’s go-forward cue.
Rodrigo wore a small, blunt spur himself. Combined with correct leg aids, that type was sufficient in most circumstances, he said. He advised everyone to position their spurs on their boots’ spur rests, “where they belong.”

A few participants were admonished to “get your hands out of your stomach.” This occurred most often when riders were trying to slow or stop their horses and was typically coupled with lifting their seats out of the saddle and tilting their upper bodies forward. This was the exact opposite of the sinking seat and raised hand and upper body Rodrigo wanted as a slow or stop cue. He coached a straight but natural and relaxed upper-body position with raised hands and bent elbows, and all of it fluid enough to maintain contact or take on the reins as needed. Eyes up and shoulders back were common refrains.

The Gymnastic
Continuing his “simple” theme, Rodrigo said the gymnastic he’d requested was the only one he used at home. “It’s simple, but it has lots of everything you want.” The first element was three trot poles, followed by a bounce between two small crossrails, then a one-stride vertical to two oxers, each set one stride apart. The distances were about 4 feet between the trot poles, 7 feet from the last pole to the first crossrail, 9 feet in the bounce, 21 feet 6 inches to the vertical and 21 feet to the two oxers.

The exercise can be easily tailored to help shape a horse’s jump or correct problems, like jumping left or right, by adjusting height and width and adding ground and/or guiderails. Like any other exercise, it wasn’t meant to be a relentless drill. “If all goes well, I’d take my horse through this twice at each height,” Rodrigo said. He started each group through the gymnastic at a modest fence height, then raised it two more times.

The trot poles helped establish a nice, relaxed rhythm. When a horse ticked a trot pole, it was usually a sign that the rider, the horse or both were in a rush to get through the exercise, Rodrigo said. “Take it one element at a time.”

Throughout the gymnastic, riders were told to let their horses jump to them, to keep their eyes up and to give their horses the time needed to get over the jump, rather than truncating their jump by sitting up too soon or being stingy with the rein release. Excessive body movement was as bad over fences as it was on the flat. “If there’s jiggling on the top, there’s going to be jiggling on the bottom,” Rodrigo observed of one rider who struggled to keep her upper body and arms still while her horse twisted his way through the exercise.

The gymnastic was all about feel and quick responses. Riders had to be ready to apply leg if they sensed hesitation or needed their horses to stretch. Similarly riders needed to be able to open their hip angles to compress their horses’ strides on landing if they sensed tight distances. As the elements got higher, the importance of a balanced, steady, animated approach was obvious.

There was no excuse for loose, sloppy or “casual” rides, Rodrigo admonished. A few ticks or knocks in a gymnastic can translate into 12 faults on course and a waste of effort and time.

On Course
A “basic, real” course of 11 obstacles (13 efforts) filled the Sonoma Horse Park’s 350-by-220-foot grand-prix arena on day two. It had three related distances, including a bending five- or six-stride line, and two or three places to gallop or slice a turn if needed to meet the 69-second time allowed. The reasons for the previous day’s flat and gymnastic work were evident everywhere and especially in the final line. Here riders were tasked to fit six strides into an approximately 72-foot distance between an oxer-vertical combination and the final oxer. In a normal grand-prix course, Rodrigo clarified that five strides would be a better choice for most horses, but he wanted the six as a training tool.

Many struggled, especially those riding big-strided horses. “You need to be doing something every stride,” was Rodrigo’s message to all. In the case of this particular line, riders needed to be sitting up, raising their hands and using seat and leg aids to compress the horse in strides two, three and four, not just five and six, he pointed out.

Riders of horses who needed more pace to meet the time allowed or to get over the jumps cleanly had to establish the right tempo in the turns, rather than be asked for big, often-desperate extensions the last few strides before takeoff.

Outside of related distances, Rodrigo hates the tendency to get crazy over striding. “Counting beyond five or six strides is ridiculous!”

In the professionals’ session, auditors were surprised to learn that Chelsea Jones’ five-stride bending line and a “slick move” in sharply angling her track between another two obstacles still left her one second off the time allowed. Applauding her bold choices, Rodrigo noted that “she still needed more ground tempo throughout the course” because her big, talented horse was a bit slow over the ground and in the air. Riding a similarly sized horse, Jill Humphrey took note of Chelsea’s go and rode aggressively to stay within the time allowed.

A brisk tempo was recommended for almost everybody. “If anything happens on course, that can really help you get out of trouble,” Rodrigo said. Conversely, “The instinct to pull can make it very hard to get out of a tight spot.”

Rodrigo found relatively little to correct as the clinic participants completed the course with confidence and competence. He had special praise for amateur Lynne Lancaster, whose mare stopped four times between the day’s warm-up fence and her first trip around the course in the 1.15-meter division. By getting the horse consistently in front of her leg, dictating a steady pace instead of letting the horse choose it and applying effective, timely leg aids, Lynne was the only one in her group to jump clean. “You showed a lot of determination,” Rodrigo commented. “When something bad happened, you let go of it right away. By pushing your own limits a little bit, you pushed your horse’s limits.”

This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Read more about Rodrigo’s early years here.

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