He studied mechanics in case “the horse-thing” didn’t work out. Today he is regarded as one of the finest and most consistent show jumping riders the equestrian sport has ever seen. We met up with the Italian rider Alberto Zorzi (28) in Gothenburg during the European Championships.
By Therese Alhaug. Photo: Philippa Davin, Therese Alhaug & Jessica Rodrigues. Assisting translator: Noemi Angeli.
– To be honest, I’ve never been aware of my talent. I guess I am kind of a modest person, Alberto replies when asking him whether he is actually aware of his gifted skill.
We sit in the giant lobby at the Gothia Towers hotel in Gothenburg after finishing our photo-shoot with Alberto in the centre of Gothenburg. The tall Italian’s calm and welcoming demeanour permeates the room. His presence makes you feel comfortable. He is in no rush. Well, actually he is in a rush to get to the next class, but you wouldn’t notice. This is exactly what we love about him. It makes you feel comfortable.
“I think the most important thing to remember when you’re a successful rider is to not let things go to your head.”
Currently ranked 13th in the FEI Longines World Rankings and 4th in the LGCT rankings, Alberto has accomplished a lot since his move to Stal Tops in the Netherlands, where he has been coached by the former Olympic and european champion Jan Tops since 2015. This summer, Alberto was part of the Italian team who won the Nations Cup on home ground in Rome. Earlier this summer he reached another milestone when winning the prestigious LGCT Grand Prix of Monaco riding the amazing gelding Cornetto K. He finished 4th in the Individual final at the Europeans this year, 5th in the World Cup in Oslo and 2nd in the World Cup in Verona. Just to mention a few of his great achievements during the past months. As a Norwegian myself, I cannot forget to mention his impressive victory in his first World Cup at Oslo Horse Show one year ago. Back then Alberto was regarded as the “new kid on the block”. Today, when returning to Oslo, I would say he has galloped up the career ladder to reach rock star status in the equestrian world. In less than two years Zorzi has secured his place in the equestrian history books. As the master of consistency.
“I always wanted to learn and improve myself, including my riding skills.”
We’ve all heard the line “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. Well, that’s probably true for any great achievement, including equestrian sports. The art of consistency doesn’t mean trying for one day and giving up, nor does it mean doing the same thing over and over again in the same way. It’s about having the ability to progress by constantly striving to be better, and maybe most important; to continue moving forward when failing. A skill that takes focus, motivation, and dedication. I would say Alberto manages the art of consistency remarkably well. Whether he is dressed up in the fresh blue and orange ‘Valkenswaard United’ colours or wears his stylish Italian military uniform, Alberto’s many podium finishes in the two last years is undoubtedly a result of his exceptional consistency in the ring.
“I was actually quite shy in school. I was sort of the strange boy that had a passion for horses.”
NO BULLSHIT. When Alberto enters the showjumping arena you can immediately feel his presence. The audience becomes noticeably quieter, affected not only by his elegant militant posture, but the focused, dedicated seriousness in his eyes. He gains their upmost respect. There is no bullshit, this man always strives to deliver his best. His strong will and focus hangs in the air. At the top level of the sport, there is no messing around. It is serious business.
– I always wanted to learn and improve myself, including my riding skills. However, since I was young, lots of people told me that I had quite an attitude, so I worked hard on myself, Alberto says.
CHILDHOOD. Alberto grew up in Monselice near Padua in the beautiful Veneto region. He started riding at the age of nine, and was successful already as a pony rider. But in those days, like with many riders, his primary goal was to have fun. To his mothers great concern Alberto wasn’t very fond of going to school; he rather preferred spending time in the barn. Already as a 15-year-old Alberto started showing his trainer’s horses. Though he already had very clear ideas on his future, he still finished high school before he turned to horses as a serious career at the age of 18. Still, the young Italian didn’t want to risk too much. As he had a passion for cars, he started studying mechanics.
– At least, I was able to change a wheel, just in case all the horse stuff wouldn’t have worked that well, he says laughing.
Alberto is not what you would refer to as a typical Italian. Well, in many ways he is. I mean, by appearance he certainly is: Dark and charming. Still, you can’t miss out his less Italian mildness and shyness. However, this shyness seems to disappear as soon as you start chatting with him.
– I was actually quite shy in school. I was sort of the strange boy that had a passion for horses. But that was only until I started winning and got featured in the newspapers – then my classmates actually became a bit proud of their strange classmate ”Albertino”, he says.
“I’m a very relaxed person, a freewheeling one. But I do love what I do and always put all myself in it.”
RELAXED AND FOCUSED. When Alberto is not on a horse, he is totally relaxed – I believe this must be a natural Italian gift. But once he is in the saddle he becomes 100 % focused and his expression will change in less than a second. Unless you know him, you would never dream of accidentally getting in his way. I mean, the sheer look on his face would stop you from doing so. But once you get to know him a little, you start realizing that this intense and sometimes hard look is just his way of staying focused and lets him deliver his best. My respect for that.
– I’m a very relaxed person, a freewheeling one. But I do love what I do and always put all myself in it. I’m very focused on my job. I’ve never been a party person, not even when I was a teenager, he confesses.
Shy or not. During our photoshoot Alberto poses like a supermodel, despite the fact that he stands out as someone who wouldn’t like to be put in the spotlight. A newborn star, who doesn’t yet realize how to act like one. His character is very welcoming, which makes him a crowd favourite.
– I think the most important thing to remember when you’re a successful rider is to not let things go to your head. Always stay down to earth, because when working with horses the possibility to turn in duds is not that far away after all. When good riders can’t rely on a good horse, all their talent is wasted because the horse is about the 70 % of a binomial, especially nowadays, he says.
” I studied to become a mechanic because I loved cars. At least I was able to change a wheel, just in case all the horse stuff wouldn’t have worked that well. “
Alberto sits on some great horses. Does it give him a certain pressure, I ask?
– I ride some rather – maybe very is a better word – important horses, but I don’t feel any apprehension. Actually, I think this pushes me to ride better.
He pauses for a second.
– When I think about my success, I feel very grateful and happy because it means I did a good job.
When asking him how he copes with the growing fans and media attention, he smiles:
– I remember the first time someone asked me for an autograph. It was in Italy, in 2011. Since it is still awkward for me now, you can figure out how I felt back then. But, I don’t mind having people stopping me, he says. – It’s nice. In all these cases, it appears that I have a curt way.
He adds: – Luckily, I don’t have to take care of the media aspect of my career: I’d be ruined. I’m present on social media, but I only manage, maybe “quickly roll” it’s a better verb, my personal Facebook account. It’s my girlfriend Annalisa who takes care of my official social media profiles.
Annalisa Giuntini is the beautiful blonde woman with the curly hair you will always see close to Alberto. Not only is she his love in life, but also his great support. It was also her that pushed Alberto to take the chance and move to The Netherlands.
– I owe her a lot for this. Annalisa and I met in her barn in Italy. She has a big love for horses. She was friendly, nice, kind and confident. At the very beginning it was difficult, primarily because of the age gap, but now we are very happy. Our relationship has helped me grow as a man, Alberto confesses.
And that was the exact beginning of Alberto’s biggest success story. In 2015 Alberto joined Stal Tops.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect to end up with Mr. Tops. I was lucky I had this offer.”
STARTING UP WITH JAN TOPS. The former Dutch Olympic and European champion, Jan Tops, who is also the Founder and President of the most prestigious championships within the equestrian sport – the Longines Global Champions Tour and Global Champions League, is known for having produced many top athletes throughout his career, both horses, and riders.
– Honestly, I didn’t expect to end up with Mr. Tops. I was lucky I had this offer, Alberto says in his modest way. It was through a friend working with Tops that the available position was announced. Stal Tops needed a rider, a rare opportunity.
– First of all, Jan watched a video of me riding. In the next moment, I found myself on my way to The Netherlands. I rode three horses, and was asked to stay, Alberto says. – Honestly, I wasn’t ready straight away!
At that time, Alberto had his own stable back in Italy with 16 horses. He sold his own horses and gave back the others to their owners. But leaving Italy wasn’t an easy thing.
– I found it hard to leave Italy, Alberto admits when talking about his new lifestyle. In the last year and a half, I had only seven days off. I ride every day, but I’m cool with it. I have fun, which is the most important. You know; the day I’ll stop having fun riding, will also be the day I’ll quit riding. Not just competing, riding in general. I’m this way: A determined guy. If I say something I’ll do it. Bet on it. My main aim was to become a competitive rider, now I compete with the greatest riders in the world and I dream of the Olympics.
When asking Alberto what he loves the most about his job, the answer is not ribbons and honor. It’s rather the opposite:
– I love working with young or problematic horses that stop in front of a fence, for example. The challenge is to make them competitive. This is what I like the most, even more than a victory. Of course winning is great, but it isn’t fundamental.
REFINING YOUR SKILLS. Alberto started riding together with his brother at the local riding club. He soon began taking lessons with the Italian rider, trainer and horse trader Nicola Rango.
– Mr. Rango taught me to be extraordinarily patient and cool with the horses. He taught me to be kind and sensitive with my hands and not a cranky rider as you see so often in the arenas. He also gave me a huge will to learn.
At the age of 20, Alberto was contacted by show jumper Sante Bertolla to ride Marcello Carraro’s horses. From there Alberto started to ride in bigger competitions. When he turned 23, Alberto started working on his own, and at the same time continued training with Sante Bertolla where he refined his riding skills even more. The rest of the story belongs to the adventure of being part of Stal Tops.
– I learned a lot from Jan already! Especially organization during competitions, in the stable as well as with horses in general. I also learned a lot about the horse-trading business along with a more general economic approach. However, it’s impossible to learn everything from Jan because he’s a wealth of knowledge and can do lots of different things. He’s a machine!
“It’s impossible to learn everything from Jan because he’s a wealth of knowledge and can do lots of different things. He’s a machine!”
When you see Alberto ride, you can’t miss noticing his steady hands and straight position. A stylish rider I would say. Just very rarely you will see him pulling the reins.
– When I ride, I try to go with the horse. I try not to control or disturb them too much. For me, it’s the rider that has to go towards the horse, he says. – When I ride a horse, I teach him how to not be heavy in my hands, to move forward, stretching out its neck and pushing with its hind legs. While jumping, I try to have a good rhythm to approach the fence with the proper distance. Rhythm and distance are the key factors of a clear round.
– You see, generally, when a rider can’t have the best from a horse, I don’t think it as an incompatibility problem. I believe that there is always a way of communication between the rider and the horse. From my point of view, the problem is often hidden in the way the rider approaches the horse.
– Being so consistent, what is your talent all about?
– Honestly, I have no idea. I just saddle up. Still, I always try to adapt myself to the horse and adjust my technique according to him. Some riders force the horse to adapt to them, that’s why they have difficulties finding the right horse I think.
“The strange thing with horses is that you can have great expectations, but you’d better not to have expectations at all because horses are living creatures, as humans are and they can have a lousy day independently from everything.”
– And how do you cope with all the pressure and expectations?
– Great expectations are usual, but it’s important to create a balance. Like every other rider, I want to improve myself and reach higher and higher goals. When it goes wrong it’s a lesson to learn. It means you have to work better at home; while on the other hand when it goes well you can’t celebrate that much. Otherwise, failure is almost certain for the next show, he says.
He continues: – The strange thing with horses is that you can have high expectations, but you’re better to not have expectations at all because horses are living creatures, as humans are, and they can have a lousy day independently from everything else.
Nowadays, the horse’s welfare is in everyone’s mind. So what does horse welfare mean to Alberto?
– First of all, I think horses are trained to do something that is not natural to them, that’s why I think people should teach them in the easiest way possible, to make them accept the training naturally without forcing them. I don’t see showjumping as an obligation for horses though, because I think that if they’re well trained and well ridden, jumping comes naturally to them.
He turns quiet for a while.
– You know, one day I was riding one of the horses at the stable and she didn’t want to jump. I ended up forcing her over each fence until she put her feet right in the middle of an oxer. I fell and hit the ground with my face. I needed 100 stitches, in my mouth as well. The pain was unbelievable. But it was kind of a lucky fall: Since then I started winning.
“I’m this way: A determined guy. If I say something I’ll do it. Bet on it.”
HORSE WELFARE. I have witnessed Alberto in the stable a few times, cuddling the horses and handing them carrots. A real horseman I would say.
– I like to think that they see me as a friend and because of this, they’re happy to cooperate while working with me. This kind of relationship can be difficult when changing horses very often, but it’s important to find a balance for them. And every horse is different.
He states an example with one of his favourite horses. The mare that boosted his career:
– Fair Light, for example, only loves apples and she hates being bothered when she’s in her box. Seriously, she turns into a demon, Alberto says laughing. -But back to the horse welfare aspect, he says. I do believe it’s very important to let horses out of their boxes as much as possible to relax. At our stable the horses usually get out of their boxes four or five times a day: They go hacking, they go in the field, in the horse walker and so on. Actually, I really like to go hacking, unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to do it regularly.
“I think horses are trained to do something that is not natural to them, that’s why I think people should teach them in the easiest way possible, to make them accept the training naturally without forcing them.”
Moving to The Netherlands has changed a lot in Alberto’s life. His dream today is to compete in the Olympics Games and to ride at the highest level for many years to come. Both of these are real possibilities, thanks to all the opportunities he has been giving by moving to The Netherlands.
-However, I’ll come back to Italy once I have accomplished all of my goals. I miss my country a lot; it’s so different from The Netherlands. Besides, I miss my mother’s cooking. (Which Italian wouldn’t )
He adds: – It’s also possible that I’ll be a trainer. A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have thought of it, but now I’d love to transfer all my knowledge to the young and talented riders of the future.
So, what advice would you give the younger generations?
– Love your horse and keep it easy. Plus, don’t be afraid to look for opportunities abroad if this is what you want to do. Well, if you’re not scared of working hard, he adds.
– You see, I still try to learn as much as I can: During competitions, I spend some time in the collection ring watching other riders. My favourite, in particular, would be Daniel Deusser or Scott Brash. If I see they’re doing an interesting exercise, I try to repeat it.