Para Equestrian Digest: Ferdinando Acerbi

The Para Equestrian Digest is the FEI’s online Para Sport magazine, bringing you first-person stories from athletes and the people connected to the sport.

In this edition, The Para Equestrian Digest speaks to Paralympian Ferdinando Acerbi (ITA), the disability inclusion consultant for the Organising Committee of the FEI Eventing and Driving World Championships in Pratoni del Vivaro (ITA).

Ferdinando, or ‘Ferdi’ as he is known to everyone, gave up his Eventing career in 1996 to follow his passion and desire to become a diving instructor. But in 2004, Ferdinando was left paralysed after suffering an air embolism while saving a pupil who had a heart attack during an open water dive. He only got back on a horse more than 10 years later, after taking his daughter riding at a friend’s stables one afternoon.  

During his Eventing career, Ferdinando competed in FEI World Championships and FEI European Championships and won a silver team medal at the FEI European Young Riders Championship in Rotherfield (GBR) in 1985. He competed in Para Dressage at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, before turning his hand to training the Italian team for the Paralympic Games in Tokyo 2020.

Pratoni del Vivaro is ‘home ground’ for the Italian who, although originally from Milan, lived in the area for 12 years while training for the Olympics and other Championships. 

“I didn't want to compete at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio at first because I felt like I was robbing somebody of their place. While I have a physical disability, I’m completely independent, and my first thought was, I’m not going to do that! I was eventually persuaded by my friends and family to try it out. 

Eventing is in my blood, so making the transition to Para Dressage was difficult. It may look like an easy sport, but Para Dressage is certainly not and I learned that the hard way when I fell off my horse in my first ever Para Dressage competition! 

You have to develop the same relationship and trust with your horse in Para Dressage as you do in Eventing. 

But in Para Dressage you have no room for error as every movement needs to be perfect. You cannot think that just because you didn’t execute one movement very well, that you can make up for it in the next. You have to be perfect throughout and that was extremely challenging for someone like me. I had to do a lot of work on myself to develop a new mental attitude.  

In the end, the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio was one of the best competitions of my life, and I really enjoyed every minute of it.

My experience has definitely shown me that any equestrian discipline is about the equine and human athletes working together. There are human athletes who are less assertive than others, but sometimes the timid horses perform better with them because they need to be respected and understood a little bit more than the braver horses. Sometimes a horse won’t perform well for one person, but then they come back with another and they are outstanding. It’s the horses that make the human athletes, and my horses have always made me feel alive. It’s always a matter of finding the right combination.

If I was competing now, I think I would be a much better athlete. Because you learn so much just by watching. 

But I also now understand why all the good trainers and teachers are older. 

As a trainer, you must be able to feel what your rider is feeling. When I was teaching young riders before, it was easier for me to get them to jump down from their horse so I could show them how to do the job myself. But I cannot do that anymore, so I’ve also had to learn how to explain and teach differently. 

Life can be very strange sometimes, because I never thought I would ever go back to the equestrian world after I left in 1996. And I certainly never thought I would come back to Pratoni as a disability consultant. But I wanted to provide people with disabilities with accessible service throughout the World Championships and I believe it has helped that I know the place so well.  

I want the FEI World Championships in Pratoni to show the world that there is nothing wrong with having a disability.

I've tried to make the village as accessible as possible. I have put a special parking lot for disabled drivers with bathrooms close by. I also organised a system of golf carts to take disabled spectators to the three raised platforms on the Eventing Cross Country and Driving Marathon course so they can see as much of the sport as possible. 

I'm not intending to teach anything new, I'm just trying to make people with disabilities be seen. I hope that other Organisers will see what was done here in Pratoni, what worked well, and will look for ways to do the same at their Events. 

I’m glad to be in Pratoni helping the Organising Committee with their disability efforts. I still think it is a difficult task for able-bodied people to think about disability. And it’s not because they don’t want to do it, but you don’t pay attention to disability if you have never lived it. 

The life lesson I learned from my time as an Eventer is, never give up. Unfortunately, things don’t always go the way you think it's going to, but you have to keep trying. As a rider, you always have to enjoy yourself and respect your horses.”