Lifelong love of horses translates into winning business
After the championships and accolades, it just made sense to start a business.
After all, Marta Renilla’s mother, Isabel, had introduced her to horses at age four. She started riding at eight and by 18 she was competing professionally in her native Leon - a city of about 126,000 in northwest Spain.
Renilla, 34, started jumping horses - an equestrian sport where a horse propels over obstacles - when she was younger, before transitioning to dressage - best described as horse dancing, where it performs like a gymnast in open space.
Renilla trained Isenbrant, a burnt umber-colored horse, with her mother and began competing in 2000, earning gold as a junior rider for the Spanish national team.
″(Isenbrant) gave me that trust that I could ride any horse in the world after that,” she said.
From 2004 to 2009, Renilla translated that passion and talent into a career as a professional trainer while also taking Isenbrant to the European Championships and Grand Prix (the sport’s highest level) in Spain and then the United States.
Since 2010, Renilla’s garnered a litany of accolades, earning bronze through gold medals in national competition and regional championships in 2011, 2012, 2015, and 2016.
It was her 2010 gold that signified how far she had come.
Renilla had become so good, demand for her training services drew international attention.
“Hey, do you do this professionally?” her sister, Ana, recalled people asking after competitions.
The notoriety was a welcoming change for Marta, but it was a more painful one from which the idea of a business emerged.
In late 2006, Isabel, her mother, was out riding.
She lived in Texas with their father, Antonio. Marta and Ana were working in Spain.
The sisters’ understanding of what happened next is a second-hand account.
They were told their mother had fainted atop her horse and fell to ground, injuring her head in the process. She died shortly after at 48.
“It’s still the most terrifying thing in my life,” Ana said, recalling her conversation with a witness.
In 2007, Marta relocated to Texas. She and her sister opted to make the jump across the Atlantic to help comfort their father.
Marta, who had earned a business degree in Madrid, shifted her focus from riding to work at bank. Ana joined the corporate ranks as well.
Ever her first love, Marta kept training dressage horses. She’d visit various equestrian centers across the area, training other people’s horses there. Eventually, she earned enough to lease some space to expand her training practice, continuing to develop as a rider too.
“My mom gave me this passion,” Renilla said. “I didn’t want to go out with friends, this gave me more happiness then anything.”
By 2009, demand for Marta’s training was so great the sisters felt a growing sense of opportunity.
After developing the idea with their father, the trio opted to acquire some land in the Tomball-Woodlands area and opened The Woodlands Equestrian Club in 2010 in memory of Isabel.
In the early days, Marta would quit her job to train full-time, working 19 hour days. Correspondingly, Ana left her job to handle the administrative side - she managed everything from taxes to discerning the best grains to buy for their team of twelve horses.
Marta continued winning and the business continued to grow.
On a sunny Wednesday morning, Marta is gliding around one of the property’s arenas atop Rosewood, a seal brown stallion.
Marta is slender but her muscles are pronounced after years of steadying and steering horses with her thighs and core. She teaches in gestures and metaphors.
In competition, she can be seen sitting evenly atop Presumido, a pure Spanish breed with white hair all over. The routine lasts five or six minutes as the horse trots, sidesteps, and bobs around the perimeter of the arena with Marta situated above, adorned in traditional dressage regalia - highlighted by her navy blue coat and top hat.
“A good horse takes a lot of time,” Renilla said.
Simply teaching a horse to trot properly is the equivalent of teaching a child the alphabet.
“Early on you don’t ask for too much,” she said.
At three or four years old they’re comparable to a high school upperclassman. It’s then that you can start riding it and then gradually teach more complex movements.
Renilla notes that race horses, like those in the Kentucky Derby, are pushed to compete at two or three, yet many retire around six or seven. A typical dressage horse isn’t mature enough for competition until 14 or 15, she said.
“They’re not a machine, you must respect their development,” she said. “They may wake up sad, so you ride slower that day. When you’re sad they feel it too. It’s a language you establish.”
Renilla said horses, as herd animals, are particularly sensitive - an evolutionary response to help collectively sense danger if one reacts to a predator - and must be led gently. She’s critical of those who might try to kick a horse into action - which may yield results but not happiness.
These days, Renilla trains horses from seven in the morning to around three in the afternoon every day. Through the club, she and her team of trainers and groomers upskill 60 students (of all skill levels) and 10 riders.
The 18-person staff all reside in a village-like, 24-acre expanse which features pastures, homes, arenas, horse shower stalls, a small café, and three stables which house 74 horses - a mix of Renilla’s, those she’s developing, and 15 of which she trains for others whose owners are expecting a more competitive horse upon their return.
On a casual stroll through the property you’ll see small dogs galloping alongside horses with chestnut or ivory-colored coats. One is white with a flowing blond mane; another has gray spots with a braided mane of the same hue.
There, you might also run into Renilla’s husband, Anartz Chanca, a Spanish-born American medalist in his own right.
Chanca, 36, started riding around nine.
He met Renilla after his job - he’s a corporate manager - relocated from Ohio to Texas. He enjoyed jumping horses as Renilla once did and found the club in his search for a place to keep his horse.
The two quickly hit it off.
Chanca eventually quit his job after Renilla convinced him to explore dressage. He competed at the amateur level until last year when he became a professional. He also trains horses as a part of the family operation.
Together they have twins, Anthony and Lucas, 3.
“Marta has a passion for horses that’s beyond a lot of people,” he said, “Trainers tend to be technical, but she’s very artistic. I haven’t seen that relationship development in other trainers.”
It’s that distinct ability to teach that’s helped Renilla expand the business.
“I like to do it weird, not by book,” she said, “I’m trying to do something unique.”
More often than not, the club takes horses from clients in an effort to make them more marketable and expose them to a wider customer base.
Ana said the club receives three or four visitors per week.
They come for two days, renting hotels in The Woodlands, typically. Marta plays matchmaker, getting acquainted with visitors to find a horse that best fits their temperament and skill level. She’ll show around 20 horses per visit to find the right fit.
Occasionally, the club buys horses to train then sell when they’re more skilled.
Marta might go to Europe - many of their horses are of Spanish, German, or Portuguese descent - every few months where she’s keen on identifying the studs; examining the length of a horse’s back, the shape of its neck, the hunches in its shoulders, and whether it has good natural balance or not.
A strong horse might run her $25,000 on the lower end. When sold, they can fetch up to and over $100,000. The club sells about 30 per year. The majority of buyers are women between age 50 through 70, Ana said.
Visitors come from all over the United States and Canada, she said. Recently they had a buyer from Australia.
“Dressage is very mental, you must be on the same page and have that connection - like tango dancers,” Renilla said, rolling her hips.
She suggests her horses are some of the best trained. Regularly seeing her former horses in top competitions lends credence to this belief.
In moments, Renilla is atop another horse, a chocolate-colored stallion.
She has to keep up with her schedule after all.
“I don’t watch TV or movies, I just watch horse videos,” she joked of her free time.
For the foreseeable future, Marta said she’s focused on her horses’ development and happiness.
Despite Marta’s inclusion on the Spanish team in four European Championships, Chanca is pondering slightly sexier Olympic aspirations down the road.
“We want to have a competitive international horse,” he said, “I’d love to see Marta in the Olympics.”