Brazil’s First Female Course Designer Builds Her Way Up in a Man’s World

As a former international show jumper, Brazil’s Marina Azevedo quickly established herself as a top competitive equestrian athlete over the course of her 25-year career, jumping in some of the most prestigious horse shows in her country including all of the Brazilian national championships and the South American Games. She was honored to train and ride for two years in Europe under fellow Brazilian show jumper, Nelson Pessoa, the accomplished father of Olympic gold medalist Rodrigo Pessoa. However, the birth of her son would be a turning point in her career as Azevedo stepped back from the risks of competitive show jumping and stepped up to assume a new role: course designer.

Marina Azevedo, FEI level three course designer
Marina Azevedo, FEI level three course designer

It is difficult to ignore the deficit of female course designers across the equestrian industry, as a quick examination of any horse show prize list would prove the fact. Although the number of women successfully entering this facet of the sport has increased over the years, it is no secret that the mention of a woman designing does evoke feelings of surprise. Azevedo unintentionally began her journey into this brave new world in 1998, assisting local course designer Guilherme Jorge, also from Campinas, Brazil, build courses, which would introduce her to top industry professionals. Jorge was on his way to greatness himself, as he was later selected as the official course designer for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

“I started by helping Guilherme; I never thought in my life I would be a course designer,” Azevedo exclaimed. “I was lucky because in Brazil I had the chance to work with the best in the business early in my career including Leopoldo Palacios, Linda Allen, Olaf Petersen, Frank Rothenberger and Arno Gego.”

Leopoldo Palacios, Marina Azevedo, and Guilherme Jorge. Photo courtesy of Paula Parisi / The Equestrian News
Leopoldo Palacios, Marina Azevedo, and Guilherme Jorge. Photo courtesy of Paula Parisi / The Equestrian News.

Even among these five industry luminaries, Allen, of the United States, is the only woman, but is among the few qualified in the highest tier as a FEI level four course designer. As Azevedo reveals, this career choice is disproportionately male-dominated, and when she began traveling to different countries early in her career, she encountered many who had never seen a female course designer. As for anyone with a job that requires significant traveling, challenges arise. Yet with the demands of course designing, there are limitations specific to women when taking on the full-time responsibilities.

“I think it is very hard for a woman, especially if you have a family,” said Azevedo. “Our job requires us to be out of the house for more than half of the year. Just to have this job you have to work at least 30 shows a year. When you have kids, a house and a husband, it is very difficult to spend so much time apart from them and not feel like you are missing out on their lives. I have another job as a teacher running a private school in Brazil, so I don’t have to travel the entire year. I organize my teaching job and then I can be on the road for two or three shows and go home for two months, which helps a lot.”

After years of hands on training and following the FEI curriculum, which consists of attending seminars, assisting other course designers and building at several prestigious events, Azevedo was promoted in 2004 to FEI level three course designer status, a career jump which typically takes 10–12 years of experience to achieve. Her professional resume includes some of the largest horse shows in the world including World Cup Finals in Las Vegas, CSIO Aachen, the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, the Pan American Games, numerous Nations Cups, Brazilian National and International Championships, HITS Thermal and HITS Saugerties.

Azevedo, and the female course designers who came before her including Allen and Germany’s Christa Jung have much to teach the industry about trailblazing a path which opens up more options for women beyond the confines of the ring. For those aspiring to unleash their creativity at iconic venues around the globe and ask questions that challenge the most talented show jumping combinations in the sport, Azevedo points to two qualities that defy gender.

Brazilian course designer, Marina Azevedo, checks the course before riders walk. Photo courtesy of McCool Photography.
Brazilian course designer, Marina Azevedo, checks the course before riders walk. Photo courtesy of McCool Photography.

In her experience, having a personal background in riding is the most important aspect of becoming a top course designer. The technical designing experience can be taught, but the feeling of having to balance a horse while navigating a course cannot be replicated. Riders have to strategize during the course walk, measure the distance between jumps, count the strides their horses must take to go clear and calculate how to shave valuable seconds off of their round. A rider turned course designer has the ability to understand the complexities of a course in a way a non-rider could never comprehend.

Another pearl of wisdom from Azevedo on developing your skills as a course designer is to listen to the riders. Azevedo emphasized that open communication between herself and the riders jumping her courses has been imperative to the growth of her career, especially since she has not ridden competitively in over 10 years.

“When you are finished with your day at the horse show you have to see how the course was received,” said Azevedo. “From the riders, you want to know if the lines, the time, the height and the spreads were good, and, most importantly, what could be improved upon in their opinion. You have to listen, but you also have to filter what makes sense, safety-wise, and know who is still growing and learning as a rider. This habit will help you prepare and improve for next time.”

Marina Azevedo walking the CWD Wine Country Grand Prix. Photo courtesy of Alden Corrigan.
Marina Azevedo walking the CWD Wine Country Grand Prix. Photo courtesy of Alden Corrigan / West Palm Events.

Course designing is not a cookie-cutter occupation, but one that takes many variables into account from one facility to another. Azevedo reminded us that beyond creating the course itself, a good designer is knowledgeable on the surrounding influences that affect how the courses are built including the expectations of the show manager, the purpose of the show, the standard for FEI classes and the amount of prize money. Azevedo describes her work as having a classic style, meaning she does not like to incorporate very hard turns or square angles in her courses because she prefers to see the horse gallop and jump more forward.

With all of her professional achievements to date, Azevedo is not slowing down, but is content with having done what she set out to do from the start: prove she could be a great course designer, the same as any man. From the success of that goal, Azevedo stands tall as a symbol of encouragement to all women who dream of pursuing a career in the equestrian course designing industry.

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