Juan Matute Guimón had big plans for 2020. He qualified for the FEI World Cup Finals in Las Vegas for the first time and had his sights on representing Spain in the Tokyo Olympic Games. He competed in his first FEI World Equestrian Games (North Carolina) in 2018 as a 20-year-old and garnered his first 80 percent last December with his 14-year-old German-bred Hanoverian gelding Quantico (Fighting Fit—Dasrheen, Constant). But he hoped 2020 would be another year of checking off firsts on his long list of goals.
And while COVID-19 put a temporary dent in his plans, Matute isn’t allowing it to dampen his ambition and excitement for the future.
“I do feel the responsibility that I am, in a way, an ambassador for my generation,” said the Madrid-based rider. “I have a message to share: Hey, it is possible. You can make it. You don’t need to be mega-wealthy or a super crazy talented rider with super support to make it. You can be a normal person who works hard and, sure, has a certain financial support and a certain structure around of a team, of horses and people involved, but still I’m relatively normal, I think at least.”
While perhaps more accurately called “Quarantine Couch Chats,” the Chronicle caught up with the Spaniard to discuss his move to Madrid, his love of different cultures and forging his own path.
What have you been up to in quarantine?
I’ve picked up my hobbies! Playing guitar, singing, working out almost every day, shopping for clothes online, and watching a ton of Netflix. I finished the fourth season of “La Casa De Papel” in just two days.
I’m still [riding], but only every other day.
Using quarantine to pick up the guitar again:
You were based in Wellington, Florida, for a number of years. What led you to return to Madrid?
Even though Wellington is a great circuit, for the ambitions that I have, I wanted to be in Europe. I wanted to be at all of the indoor World Cup qualifiers for the winter—all of those big meets with the main, main riders of the sport.
It’s scary. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all roses and rainbows. The reality is that it is quite scary out there. People in Europe, they are competing at a different rhythm, and everything is so much more fast-paced.
I love Wellington. I still feel like that’s my home and that I also belong in a way there because at this point in my life I’ve lived half of my life in the States and half of my life in Spain. I just feel a bit too comfortable. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, and I wanted to reach new boundaries. I wanted some new challenges, new experiences, even if this meant risking my great sponsorship with Yeguada de Ymas. One of the main reasons we decided to part ways was because I had big ambitions of coming to Europe and staying here and aiming for a different kind of competition, different type of sport in my opinion. And this was a big sacrifice, but I know that down the line there will be people who want to join this adventure and this project.
I think, to be honest, that is so important: to be so clear and so honest about all my intentions, the reality behind my decision. And it is important to people to realize that there’s always a win and a lose to each situation. You win some; you lose some, and you need to continue moving forward.
What is it like competing in the World Cup Western European League? How do you handle competing against the best in the world constantly?
It is not an easy feeling for most riders to go into the arena right after Isabell Werth, ranking No. 1; the titan in my opinion at the moment of the sport for such a long time. It’s not easy, but I embrace it with excitement, with ambition and with a bunch of determination. I aim to be one of the best, and in order to do that, you need to really rise up to the moment and do your best and become one of them through learning what they do and imitating them. You watch and you observe, and you potentially become like them when you apply what you have learned from seeing and from asking and from speaking.
I’m not afraid of going up to someone and asking questions and requesting support here or there. To be open about my doubts and also my goals, and to share bits about my journey with the people who surround me and fellow competitors, even if I idolize them.
I have nothing to lose. That’s also an advantage. I can only learn and grow.
You hold dual citizenship with Spain and the U.S. What led you to decide to represent Spain?
I feel really proud to represent my country Spain. This is where I have roots. This is where I grew up. My culture, my family, my friends, really the beginning of my life was in Spain. So, I really feel attached to all of those values behind the people and our culture in general. The truth is the States have also been a huge part of my life. It has been a huge launching pad to live in the States for me, to meet the people that I’ve met, to live the experiences that I have.
I’m really happy where I am in the sense of representing Spain but still having a certain responsibility to being a U.S. citizen.
I ride for Spain not because of interest but because of emotions. And that’s something that also, down the line, if I decide to ride for the U.S., I also need to really feel it from the heart and to be emotional about it, not just because it’s interesting for my career. Representing your nation is more than just results or success or fame. It is really representing everything that’s behind that flag: the values, the culture, the history. And that’s something to me that’s very, very important. I feel like I would not be a truthful representation of, or an ambassador of a country if I’m not really feeling it in my gut.
What are you studying at University Camilo José Cela? How do you balance school and competing?
It’s important to be as educated as you can. Of course, education can come in so many ways. I do understand that you don’t necessarily need to have a degree to be wise or to be successful in different fields. But I enjoy learning. I’m a bit of a nerd. I’m not really doing it for the title. [I’m taking classes] without the stress of having to graduate in a specific amount of time because I’m not urging to have that title that can grant me access to a certain title of a job. I’m already quite successful in my craft—quite successful in the way that I’m on the right path, I’m getting sort of success, and that I have a future in this sport and in the business behind this sport. I’m enrolled in university because I want to continue learning and continue growing in more ways than just a rider. Who knows what that can bring in the future. Also, I’m aware that many riders, athletes, people in general who reached certain success—not all decided to finish their degree. At the moment, I continue. I’m happy. I don’t take it with stress. I take it one step at a time. We’ll see where this leads me. I’m studying international relations.
It looks like you make a point to sightsee and explore the location outside a horse show.
I really enjoy learning about the different lifestyles each country or each area has. I like learning all the little insights about the differences between cultures. I like to sightsee. I like to really appreciate the architecture, how it varies from place to place and what has inspired this or that type of architecture or plan or design of a city. Especially to these unique places that I go to, I try to have a look and tour a bit and leave with a good general impression of what is there. I really enjoy that. I think it’s a part of being cultural and being cultured.
I try to do these things as soon as I get to a new place when I am still full of energy and full of excitement to be at this one place. And before the show starts, I try to fit it all in. Once you start with competition, then you also want to enjoy the show.
What has been one of your favorite places?
I enjoyed Mechelen [Belgium]. [We wandered] throughout the city doing a bit of shopping, enjoying the look of the Gothic style of the cathedral and the buildings. I enjoyed, of course, visiting the city of Doha [Qatar]. That was quite fascinating. You know how modern and crazy and new everything is and how clean and just cool. I also enjoyed—recently I was in Granada [for] the Spanish Championships. And I have never been to Granada, so I loved learning about the history behind that city, and the fortress and the Muslim culture and heritage and the Jewish and the Catholic all merged together.
What was it like earning the 80 percent in the Mechelen CDI-W?
The moment I got on my horse for the warm-up, I told my dad, “I’m going for that 80. I’m going to make it happen, I’m going for it.” I’m a dreamer, but at the same time I like to have the certain foundation of realism, and I knew that it could happen. I knew that it was possible. I had never even achieved a 78 percent. My highest was a 77 a year ago. But I knew that it was in the reach of our hands, and we focused, and I hit each target, each mark, with the perfect precision that I knew I could make happen.
You know what is fun though, even though we achieved something huge, that not too many people from my country could have achieved, there is so much more that we can bring out. I know that there is so much more potential. So every day, I work hard to try to bring it out. And hopefully at the right moment in the right time at the right place, I can bring it out and make it happen and beat again this personal best.
What is it like growing up with your father’s Juan Matute Azpitarte’s success?
The way that I see it, it is all part of the same story. It is part of his legacy. My story is his story 2.0. It is just the next chapter. So, I think that’s quite inspiring. Sure, there’s a big pressure or expectation—especially when I was younger. I think at this point, I’ve proved enough that I’m worthy of my last name. That I can rise to the occasion and that I can live up to my dad’s successes and triumphs.
It is a bit of my responsibility to now be able to achieve all of the things perhaps my dad throughout his career wasn’t fully able to achieve because of the different circumstances that he had. He didn’t have the same resources or the same infrastructure that I have.
Even still he has been quite a successful athlete and well respected and recognized as one of the biggest riders in Spain. But he never had a chance to win medals or win as much as I have. So, I feel like it is part of my duty to give back to him all of those efforts that he [didn’t have] throughout his life with my results. To be honest, that’s my biggest inspiration. That’s what drives me. I really push forward and strive for greatness and want to win gold medals and to hear as many times as I can that anthem because I feel like most claps are really for my father.