To Federico Fernández, the morning shower routine, with the warm water clouding the mirrors and clearing his mind, is as crucial as Sunday church to devotees.
Since he was a young adult, Fernández has used the time to think of three reasons to be thankful. They don’t have to be profound declarations—in fact, he prefers if they’re the opposite.
“I try never to repeat them,” the 53-year-old says. “Because sometimes when you talk about spirituality, I think one problem with religions or with spiritualism, is that you always repeat the same thing, the same prayer. And you almost say it like a parrot, and you are not feeling the words. It’s really not bringing anything into your heart. When you have to every day look for something new for what you have to be grateful, then it makes you realize that there’s a lot of things. You never run out of things to be grateful for.”
Expired after 24 hours and reborn each morning, his three things have relevancy only for that day, turning “carpe diem” into a tangible practice.
“I think that in order to really enjoy the day or the second of the moment that you’re living, you have to be aware of those small things that are going to make that day special,” he says. “And those normally are not big things. The difference between feeling with energy or not, it’s really important during today. Tomorrow it doesn’t matter, but today it’s really important.”
This ritual helps him stay optimistic, and even in the intense world of international show jumping, Fernández carries a reputation for bringing cheer wherever he goes.
“He’s always been a favorite of ours,” says Beezie Madden, two-time U.S. Olympic team gold medalist. “I don’t think he’s ever said anything but a kind word to anybody on showgrounds. He’s amazing that way. [He’s] always in a good mood and always [has] a sense of humor. I think that’s hard these days.”
But it’s not a forced façade.
“I always try to find ways or tools to keep my spirit up—because I don’t believe in acting,” he explains. “I don’t think that when you are down—because that happens—that you have to always force a smile. No, no, no, what I’m talking about is you have to find tools to help you get a very spirit from inside of you; that it’s real. I don’t believe in people that always, at any moment, smile. But I believe in people that search for tools that make them be happier persons, better persons—but from the bottom of your heart, not from the surface.”
It’s the end of his day in Belgium when I ask him about that morning’s gratitude. First, he says, a good night’s sleep that gave him extra energy to spring out of bed that morning. Second, that he and his wife Paola Amilibia, a Spanish-born rider now representing Mexico, had the opportunity to train their horses at a beautiful facility in preparation for the La Baule CSIO5* Nations Cup (France). Third, that the weather changed from storms to sunshine.
And then he remembers, on that Sunday, he had four items.
“Today I woke up, and I felt very peaceful,” he remembers. “That I have no worries in my head and no worries in my mind—in many of the different subjects of my life: in my family, in my work. So those were today. They were very simple ones but very important.”
Fernández hates gray.
“For me, living in gray, not so many colors with not so many ups and downs—yes, it’s very pacifying, but it’s not my way of living,” he says.
The second syllable slows ever so slightly whenever Fernández says “colors.” It rises with the first, but then his accent rounds and rolls to the “s.” Coupled with his vivacious personality, evident even through my phone’s speaker, the word takes a different meaning when he says it. He splashes it with stature and truth; it becomes a philosophy.
“You cannot get stuck in the past because then when the past is far away, then you’re empty,” he says. “You have to avoid being empty; you have to keep living every day with passion and with goals and with dreams and with new ambitions that keep you alive and that keep you living with colors. Well, that’s a philosophy of life that I would like to follow for as long as I’m here.”
He talks with the wisdom of a trained therapist, a yogi master or someone far beyond his years who’s constantly reflected on his life, his daily impact and the things that bring him fulfillment. Sharing his days with the love of his life Amilibia is one pigment of his life, and watching his three children Juan Pablo, Eduardo and Federica, from his first marriage, grow into good people is another. Then there’s the red jacket of Mexico he first slipped on for the 1994 World Equestrian Games (the Netherlands), which represents home, the Mexican people and the land of opportunity.
“There was not ever a chance he would ever ride for Spain,” Amilibia says with a laugh. “I absolutely guarantee you. In that way he’s so pro-Mexico, and he adores his flag, and he adores his country.”
And then he has another facet to his colors, one added early on: the horses.
Born in Mexico City to Serapion Fernández and Graciela Senderos on March 29, 1968, Federico was the eldest of three boys, with younger brothers Serapion and Jeronimo. Soon the Fernández family found the close-knit community of Mexican show jumping, with uncle Fernando Senderos winning an individual gold medal in the 1975 Mexico City Pan American Games.
“I was born very fond of all types of animals,” Federico says. “Animals have always been very important in my life. Horses were like the most special creature in the world when I saw the first one. My uncle was into riding, and then my dad started with it as well, but I was really passionate. I always went to different clubs to try to get someone to lend me a horse and to ride as much as I could. It was always a super important part of my life since I have memory.”
Since those days at the riding club, his record grew to boast six FEI World Equestrian Games, three Olympic Games and three Pan American Games. But he never considered making horses a profession.
When he grew up in Mexico, he explains, a living couldn’t be made in show jumping. But even still, he acknowledges that avoiding the business aspect allowed him to maintain independence and that same joy he discovered as a young boy.
“The way I saw the sport, it was more something that had to be between me and my horse and not on somebody else’s horse,” he says. “And so maybe also it was to take away the pressure of having to be great. It was a very important part of my life, but it depended on me, nobody else.
“[Horses] have this amazing novelty, and that teaches me every day,” he adds. “To be on top of the horses and to jump and to see them improve and to make a partnership with them and to finish up and give them some carrots, that makes me feel alive, and that makes me feel connected. That puts me back on the earth, [to] the nature and all these amazing things that are underneath technology. That keeps me being human.”
On July 30, 1987, Federico boarded a Boeing 377 in Mexico City bound for Miami. At 19, he’d just completed a 10-month stint in Europe, exploring and working odd jobs, before returning to Mexico for university. A few minutes before 5 p.m., he and 11 other people and 18 horses, including his own, took off from the runway on the first leg towards that year’s FEI North American Young Riders Championship in Chicago.
At 5:03, the plane crashed into rush-hour traffic on the Mexico-Toluca Highway. Federico was one of just three passengers to survive; only one horse lived. Some sources estimated 50 people died.
“It was something you cannot believe that it could happen,” Mexican Olympian Enrique González says. “Unfortunately, we lost some very good friends. It was a big, big thing in Mexico. Probably the best horses in that time in Mexico were killed in the accident. It was devastating.”
Federico emerged from the wreckage with his clothes in flames. He spent six months in a hospital in Texas, recuperating in the burn unit and undergoing 50 surgeries on his face.
But he wouldn’t be kept from the horses. A year later, in 1988, with bandages on his hands and his face to protect the skin grafts, Federico won a grand prix in Mexico City aboard Ali, his first grand prix since returning to the saddle.
“The first thing he wanted to do was ride,” team member Patricio Pasquel remembers. “So [he] had to start riding again with the mask and the gloves. And he won a grand prix right after he got back riding with the mask and with the gloves on. That was very remarkable and very touching for all of us. To see a guy with a mask, all burnt—that was amazing.
“That was the power that ran through him,” he continues, “that got him out of it.”
Federico remembers the support he felt when he returned to Mexico. “It was a moment that I’m very grateful [for] because I felt so much support and love,” he says. “Like [the] people behind me that made me very confident and made me want to try very hard.”
In the 34 years since that tragic July evening, Federico has taken a bird’s eye perspective. He doesn’t just focus on a moment; he takes in the trajectory that moment created. The crash, he says, forever altered him but ultimately made him a better person.
“I had a lot of friends on the plane, and I had my horse and other horses there,” he says. “And so, when I tell you that many years after the crash, I can tell you with a hand on my heart that it was something very good for me. I always say it with a lot of respect, because there was a lot of tragedy around that that was not involving myself.”
It is here in our conversation that I pause and ask for advice, advice on how to grieve. Take the pain, he says, feel it, digest it, and learn to understand it.
“The way I see it, you have to go through those special, unfortunate moments to also understand all the great things that you have,” he says. “And then take it as a step to start over again and to really work on your growth and your strength and your happiness and put new roles and adapt yourself to your new situation. Because often these things that happen to you in life, they situate you in a different position. So now you have to understand what’s your new position and then make the best out of it—hopefully even better than it was before.
“It was a decisive point in my life, because I think it really helped me in understanding what was really important for me,” he adds, “which was to live in happiness, to try to be a good example for other people and to try to influence all the people that I touched in my life with something positive. My goal in life would be to always be, even if it’s in a very small way, positive to all the people that I touch.”
Doing It All
In the years following the crash, Federico graduated from the Universidad Anáhuac México Norte and earned his master’s degree in senior business management from the IPADE Business School. In 1995, he started his first company Prodesa and then established a second one, Eulen México, in 1997. All the while, he pursued international show jumping, traveling back and forth from Europe, and represented Mexico.
“I could definitely not do it like he does it,” says Amilibia. “I couldn’t be working and then suddenly getting on the horse and jumping. I think he has this ability to do it. And it’s the way he’s been used to doing it. He could have not done it in any other way.”
Federico sold both Prodesa and Eulen México, but his experiences as a young entrepreneur blossomed into a new idea, Grupo SIM, which he launched in 2004.
“I am very passionate about my country,” he says. “I really love Mexico. Mexico is a land of a great opportunity. Anything that you do there with a little bit of common sense and with passion turns out the right way.”
Grupo SIM has a financial sector, an operational sector and an equity fund. It offers small- and medium-sized business services like human resources and administration and works at finding them good strategic partners.
“I’m a believer that Mexico needs to [encourage] the feeling of growth for the medium and the small company so that they can become great ones,” he explains. “And so, I try to be that accelerator. I play a very important role in first the administration and the organizing and the institutionalization of the businesses and then also a very active role in the financial aid to help them grow.”
He’s also working on a nonprofit project that would focus on providing education and health care to Mexicans.
“We need to really focus on trying to build a structure so that we could get most people that we can educated,” he says. “We are unfortunately a very poor country with a lot of potential with incredible people. And so, we have to try to build a system that gets all the people educated, and also something very important is to try to give access to more health care, which in these poor countries is complicated.”
He’s currently creating a structure that would help his employees in-house, and he hopes to expand.
“This is more like a project that I have in the long term on the finance part of my business, to try to start [with] all the employees that I have, to better my workplace [and] to try to help all their families study—you know the kids, the cousins,” he says. “I try to always start with the people that I can touch and then start building to the sides of them in those ways.”
Amilibia, 35, says she admires his engine. “He’s quite a bit older than me. And sometimes I think, ‘Thank God you’re a bit older than me because if not I don’t think I could keep up with you,’ ” she adds. “The thing is, everything he does, he really likes to do it. So for him, working is not really working. Because he enjoys it. Riding is not working because he enjoys it. Traveling, it’s not hard for him because he really enjoys traveling. So, I think the tool he has inside is that everything he does in his life, he really enjoys.”
A Page In The Book
With his left hand gathering the reins, Federico cantered around the stadium of the 2003 Pan American Games in Santo Domingo with a team silver medal dangling from his neck and the Mexican flag flying in his right hand. In a span of a few minutes, many of his favorite things collided: the Mexican flag, the high from team competition, the realization of a dream and an unfiltered smile—all with horse of a lifetime Bohemio.
The Irish-bred horse wasn’t the most fashionable, Federico admits, as he was bred for steeplechase. But together the pair won the Cana Cup at the Spruce Meadows Masters and became the adopted hometown favorites at the 2002 WEG (Spain) in addition to representing Mexico in the 2004 Olympic Games (Greece) and 2006 WEG (Germany).
“He was not necessarily the most talented in terms of physical natural abilities to jump, but he had such a will. He was so strong, and he had this incredible mind and this incredible will to work for you and to do things for you,” Federico remembers. “It’s almost like having your best friend performing for you, and so he was the horse of my life.”
That’s the type of personality he seeks—in horses or people. “People that are passionate, that have a big heart, that want to do good,” he says. “They create an incredible ambiance for your life when you’re surrounded by those types of creatures. They are animals, horses, human beings, they’re so special to have. Not necessarily the most beautiful or the most talented, but the ones that really try the hardest and that they really want to do good.”
Federico doesn’t relive these special memories or go into vast detail. Instead, they become cherished, thumbed pages in a book with a lot of untouched blank ahead to fill.
“They all have been very, very special to me,” he says. “They all have been the most important thing when they were on. And then they become a page in my book, and they are part of the past, but they are always an incredible memory.”
It’s the same with the painful moments as well.
“I can tell you about every number of years, I have a big question in my life,” says Federico. “Every 10 or 15 years, something that sounds really bad happens.”
Sometime in the 1990s—the exact year Federico can’t quite recall—he tested positive for hepatitis C. Prior to 1989, when the virus was identified, blood transfusions weren’t screened. In the aftermath of the plane crash, Federico received many blood transfusions, although he can’t pinpoint exactly when he contracted the virus.
“They told me, eventually this is going to become symptomatic,” he remembers. “And eventually it is something that will end your life.”
At that time, there was no cure for hepatitis C, so Federico used a then-experimental drug called interferon. For about a year, he underwent treatment.
“It was also a happy year,” he remembers. “I didn’t stop doing everything I always did.”
The treatment worked. And just like the plane crash, he reflects on that year as a time when he rediscovered the beauty of living and embracing the moment.
This was instilled again in 2014 when he broke two vertebrae in a fall from a young horse. After placing a titanium plate in his back, doctors cautioned against ever riding again. Yet he found a way back to the saddle.
“I recovered fast,” he says. “I tried hard to come back. It was difficult to recover the confidence and the trust, but now I feel very healthy. So it made me realize how much I really wanted to keep on riding. It became a new dream to try to ride again.”
Those moments of fear and uncertainty don’t follow him, he insists.
“The magic of all this is that I don’t recall any sharpness,” he says.
“When you see all the incredible things that have happened to me in my life regarding my father, my mother, my brothers, my sport, the horses that I’ve been able to ride,” he adds. “I’ve been so lucky that being an amateur, I’ve had the privilege of riding amazing horses, to have the privilege of representing Mexico in all those Olympic Games and all those World Championships. To have been lucky [that] I’ve been successful in my business and to be surrounded by love and people that always want me to do well and that believe I’m good news for the rest of the people. I mean if you asked me about my sad moments, and I know that I’ve had them, but I promise you, I don’t even remember.”
“In a way he just lets it go, and it’s past,” says Amilibia. “He lives in the present.”
Giving Back To The Sport
Balvanera Horse Show in Querétaro, Mexico, might never consistently run in the black, but Federico wants to give back, even if it means losing a little on the show he and González created almost 20 years ago.
“I was so lucky to be born Mexican because I was a permanent member of the team for many years,” he says. “To go to six World Equestrian Games—if you multiply six times four that’s 24 years. I’m so grateful with that, that I want to return a little bit, the opportunity to my country.”
Though González moved to California in 2014, Federico kept the show running. Just like the horses, he doesn’t consider it a business venture—jokingly calling it “a terrible business.”
“[I’m] trying to put a real top-of-the-line horse show in our country so that the horses can develop, [and] the riders can have access to a great place to really put up their level and to enjoy together,” he explains.
Amilibia says the main ring of the show is one of the best in the world. “It’s really amazing to ride there and give the opportunity to everyone,” she says. “And then for example in June, July, there’s always a show for the kids to go in the main ring and to develop, and they do some team competitions.”
To González, this act of giving is intrinsically Federico.
“He always is giving to everybody else more than for himself,” González says. “He tries to help and to give everything for you. He’s a super good friend. Anytime you need advice, or you need the support from someone, he’s always there. You can count on him every single time.”
González says that many people think of Federico as a rider and don’t realize everything he does for the sport. “There are very few people that could say they have ridden in [six] world championships, three Olympic Games and Pan American Games,” González says. “He’s brought so much to the sport in Mexico and always supported the Federation, always putting something extra: organizing the shows, bringing top course designers to Mexico, trainers, chefs d’equipe. Everything that you ever ask him to help, he’s always there. And I think he has been, in the last 20 years, probably the person who has been there for the sport in Mexico, more than anybody else, because so many do it for some years, and they quit, or they stop riding. He has been there for many years bringing positive things to the sport.”
This year he didn’t compete on the team in Tokyo—partly due to the success of his efforts to boost the sport in Mexico and create a larger pool of international riders.
“I’m proud to see that now, for example, Mexico has three different teams competing in three back-to-back five-star Nations Cups [in Rome, St. Gallen and La Baule]. So it’s back-to-back three five-star Nations Cups with three different national teams,” he says. “That’s really a very big step for our country.”
He’s also inspired by the number of juniors and young riders. “You’ll see classes with 60 and 70 entries,” he says. “And you think, ‘Oh, wow. That’s incredible. That’s fantastic.’ I’m really happy about the way the sport is done in Mexico.”
A Mexican squad hadn’t competed at Dublin since 1981. But after two rounds of competition in August 2018, Federico found himself on a podium with Pasquel, chef d’equipe Stanny van Paesschen, González and Eugenio Garza Perez with the Aga Khan Trophy shining above them. They had bested all of Europe in the Longines FEI Nations Cup.
“That is the memory,” Pasquel says. “You cannot imagine. We were the underdogs, the 25-1; it was the first time [for the Mexican team] coming back after  years to Dublin. And we made it happen. We stayed so focused and positive. And when we won, we couldn’t believe it. We beat the best teams in the world in Dublin.”
“After all those years of putting work and trying and trying again,” González says, “I think that was the cherry on the cake.”
Federico says he never thought such a moment would happen at such an historic site. And like the Olympics, the WEG and other big aspirations realized, the smaller moments brought him there.
“It’s very important to really enjoy the process,” he says, “and see it as if it’s meant to be. The conclusion has to be the results of many beautiful moments.”
But consistent with his philosophy, he’s on to new dreams.
“What’s very important to understand is that those dreams don’t have to be great or bigger,” he explains. “They just have to be new ones. The only way to live happily and with a good direction in the present is to have dreams in many ways. Some people like to call them like objectives or goals. I like to say that they’re not goals, they’re dreams. And I believe that dreams can come true, always.”
Once he has that dream and focuses on it, he gets direction, he says, a path to take.
“And once you have direction, then I think we have the obligation to be happy—not the possibility, the obligation to be happy every day on the path to acquiring that new dream,” he says.
He tells me of his dream for his company to help their clients and develop great businesses in Mexico. He dreams of continuing to provide a dignified place of work for his employees and helping their families. He dreams of watching his children grow into decent individuals in whatever passions inspire them. He dreams of riding on Nations Cup teams with his wife—something realized in La Baule (France) this summer.
And, most importantly, he says, “I have this dream of being remembered as someone that did some good to all the people I touched.”
This article first appeared in the July 19-Aug. 2, 2021, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked.
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