By Kimberly Gatto
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
A common translation of a Latin proverb—“fortune favors the bold”—advises us that courage, when followed, can bring great reward. For international dressage rider, trainer and instructor Luis “Lou” Retiguez-Denizard, that proverb is not just a personal motto; it is a way of life.
The tale of a skinny, inner-city boy defying all odds to reach the pinnacle of dressage competition seems more suited to a Disney movie than reality. But for Lou, it was—and is—his true life’s story. Lou’s fortitude and natural talent, coupled with a winning personality and a strong work ethic, enabled him to defy all odds, including competing on the international stage on numerous occasions.
Born in the Bronx, New York, to Puerto Rican parents, Lou was enamored with horses from the get-go. “My earliest memory of horses,” he said, “was when my older brother and sister took me to a stable in Puerto Rico when I was very young. I came home and told my mother that I wanted a horse. We did not have the money for that; instead, I got a stuffed animal.”
Lou and his family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, when he was 5 years old, then relocated to the Jamaica Plain section of the city when he turned 12. “I was at that age where I did not want to move and leave my friends behind,” Lou said. “Then my mom told me that our house would be across the street from a horse stable. I immediately packed my things.”
Hooked on Horses
Upon arrival at his new home, the young boy eagerly walked across the street to the barn known as Arby’s Stable. “I remember standing in the doorway, looking at the horses in utter fascination,” he said. “The manager told me I could pick up a pitchfork and start working, and I would be able to earn saddle time.” From his first ride—atop a flea-bitten grey mare called Gemini—Lou was completely hooked on horses. Over the next years, he worked long hours at the stable mucking stalls, filling water tubs, and performing any other chores required. A couple of blocks away, another barn offered guided trail rides for paying customers, and eventually Lou was able to obtain a job there as a trail guide. He later worked as a mounted park ranger in Boston.
When a hunter-based trainer took over the barn where he rode, young Lou was introduced to hunt seat equitation and began competing in jumping classes at local shows. After graduating from the prestigious Boston Latin School, he enrolled in the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to pursue his original dream of becoming a veterinarian. As a member of the school’s equestrian team, he competed in hunt seat classes and was also introduced to the sport of eventing. “Like most kids, I wanted to ride faster and jump higher,” Lou said.
In an effort to improve his scores in horse trials, Lou began taking dressage more seriously, though he still thought of himself primarily as an event rider at that time. He became a working student under FEI dressage rider/trainer Ruth Sarkunas, and later rode under the tutelage of other great dressage teachers such as Sarah Geikie and Sandy Osborn. “I was very fortunate,” Lou said. “I had great mentors in the equine program at UMass. They often gave me project horses to ride, some of which were quirky or difficult, and that enabled me to learn a lot.”
Through Ruth, Lou was introduced to German Grand Prix rider Gerd Reuter. Seizing the opportunity to study dressage under the watchful eye of Gerd in Europe, he developed an internship which enabled him to earn college credits. After studying for six months in Germany with Gerd, he spent the next summer riding project horses for Sandy Osborn back at home. By that time, Lou had realized that he wanted to become a professional horseman rather than a veterinarian.
The Academic World
Upon graduating from UMass with a degree in equine science, Lou accepted a position at Huntington Farm in Vermont. He was then a married man, having wed his college sweetheart, Marie, in 1989. The couple soon welcomed their only child, daughter Raquel. Realizing that an academic setting would provide a steadier salary, Lou relocated his family to Michigan for a position at the Black Forest Hall School, where his students included a young Courtney King-Dye. “I loved teaching the kids,” Lou said. “But the winters there were brutal. I knew the frequent snowstorms were becoming too much for Marie. So I took a position at Culver Academy, a private military school with horses, in Indiana. We stayed there for a year before moving back to New England.”
In 1993, Lou became the director of riding at Johnson & Wales College in Rhode Island, where he left a lasting impression upon his students. “Lou was a breath of fresh air to have as a teacher,” said lifelong horsewoman and Johnson & Wales graduate Hilary Cohen. “His trainings were modern and classical all in the same breath. He could translate classical approaches into modern language and he really impacted how that translated from horse to rider.”
While the teaching process was incredibly rewarding for Lou, he found that he missed riding and competing. In 1998, he decided to leave Johnson & Wales to branch out on his own, founding Delante Dressage in Lincoln, Rhode Island. The name “Delante” is a nod to Lou’s Puerto Rican heritage. “It has two meanings,” he said, “moving forward, or come on in.”
Lou built up the business slowly, starting with only a handful of clients. “I knew it could be more difficult to start on my own,” he said. “But I also knew it was what I wanted to do and I would give it my best, no matter how difficult it would be. I have had no regrets.”
Over the next several years, Lou expanded Delante’s training operation while also continuing his own educational pursuits. In 2004, he was awarded the New England Dressage Association’s scholarship as well as the Dressage Foundation’s Lindgren Scholarship, which enabled him to travel to the Netherlands to study under Henk van Bergen and Robert Zandvoort. It was Henk who helped him find the Dutch Warmblood Nalando, who was subsequently purchased by Lee and Donna Dunbar for Lou to campaign.
After considerable success with the gelding in the show ring—including winning the U.S. Dressage Federation’s Region 8 Intermediaire I Championship in 2006—Lou realized he had a very special animal in Nalando. He set his sights on competing in the Pan Am Games, which would be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2007.
Riding For Puerto Rico
But qualifying for the Games proved to be a nearly insurmountable task for a rider on a budget and with a young family to support. It was then that an acquaintance suggested that Lou should consider the idea of representing Puerto Rico at the Games. He conducted some research, completed the necessary requirements (which included earning at least two scores of 64% in a CDI, with at least one such score from an O-rated judge), and eventually received notification that he was accepted to the team. Lou became the first-ever Puerto Rican dressage rider to compete at the Pan Am Games, where the pair placed a respectable 17th. Unfortunately, Nalando contracted pneumonia and was unable to compete at the Olympics the following year.
The pair did achieve considerable success, however. Among their many accomplishments, Lou and Nalando went on to place eighth in the 2010 Central American Games, which was a significant personal accomplishment for Lou. As the games were held in Puerto Rico that year, Lou had to overcome the pressure and anxieties he felt from being regarded as the “local favorite” and wanting to excel while representing the home country. “So much of the sport is mental,” he said, “and we are often not prepared for that when we first begin competing at that level.” The following year, Lou and Nalando placed in the top half of the field in the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
After the retirement of Nalando, Lou was paired with Royal Affair, a bay Hanoverian gelding owned by Charles Schneider. Lou and Royal Affair (aka Robbie) proved to be an outstanding combination in the years that followed. At the 2014 Central American Games in Veracruz, Mexico, they wowed the crowds, narrowly missing the bronze medal in Intermediate I with a score of 70.211. “Part of this game is learning to lose graciously,” Lou said, adding, “The true goal was not to win a medal, but to pave the way for others coming behind me.” The pair’s other notable successes included great rides at the 2015 Pan Am Games and the 2015 Nations Cup, among others, prior to the gelding’s retirement.
Both in and out of the show ring, Lou serves as an inspiration for others. A devoted father, Lou and his wife, Marie, often visit their now-grown daughter at her home in Tennessee. Raquel, an accomplished rider in her own right, works as a clinical lab scientist in the stem-cell department at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Moving To Florida
In 2008, Lou relocated Delante Dressage to Palm City, Florida, approximately 40 minutes north of Wellington. The business has thrived in the South, where Lou is a sought-after trainer and instructor. A USDF gold medalist and “L” graduate with distinction, Lou frequently travels throughout the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, teaching clinics to numerous former and new students, while continuing to train horses and riders at home.
He continues to bring young horses through the levels, with the goal of returning to international competition in the not-too-distant future. “I am always on the lookout for new, talented horses to compete at the FEI level,” he said with a wink. “In case anyone would like to send me one.”
Regardless of all the success he has achieved, Lou never forgets where he started. While many of his students have earned their USDF gold, silver and bronze medals, he is equally willing to teach those just beginning in the sport and those with non-traditional dressage horse breeds. “I want to give others the hope and aspirations to know that they can also make it in this sport, as I did,” Lou said. “I believe horses saved me from inner-city life and gave me a way out. I will continue to be grateful for that and to always do my best. I am so fortunate to be doing what I love, and will always be willing to give back.”
For more information, visit dressagedelante.com
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com