‘The rankings system is an addiction for riders’: jumping owner speaks out about the sport’s ‘problem’

  • Stephan Conter is a familiar name on the showjumping circuit as founder of the world famous Stephex Stables, horse breeder and owner of some top horses including Daniel Deusser’s Olympic ride Killer Queen VDM and Scuderia 1918 Tobago Z. He also hosts five-star shows such as Knokke Hippique and the Brussels Stephex Masters.

    The Belgian ventured into horse ownership over 20 years ago, teaming up with Daniel, currently ranked number seven in the world, a decade ago.

    “I decided that I really wanted to get to the top level of the sport,” says Stephan. “I made the decision to find a top-level rider, and my decision was Daniel. I then threw everything into that decision and really went for it. Once you start to win grands prix and become a serious competitor it becomes very addictive, and you want to continue that success by having the best horses and riders.

    “I now have multiple riders, including my two daughters [Emilie and Zoé] and watching them succeed on my horses is very motivating for me. I am also very proud when I see horses that I have bred or sold doing well. We sell a lot of horses – in the grand prix in Wellington, Florida, recently, we had two horses that I still own in the jump-off as well as a few others that we used to own, and watching the horses being successful gives me such a kick.”

    ‘Every horse is for sale’

    Talking about his hugely successful breeding programme and providing horses for his riders, Stephan explains that “every horse is for sale”.

    “I do not keep all my best horses because if you look at all of the horses we have sold, there are so many that have achieved incredible results,” he says. “For example, if you look at the Olympic Games last year, we had seven horses jumping there and I only owned one, so that shows the quality of the horses that we sell.

    “If a horse is a really good match for one of my riders, then I will wait for a season before we think about selling that horse. Davidoff De Lassus [his 13-year-old stallion] is a very good match for Zoé, and so we will keep him for another year unless we have an exceptional offer.

    “Emilie is more of a seller than her sister; she is willing to sell when a good offer is made. Zoé would like to keep every horse, but I think she is starting to understand that we are normal people, and we still need to make a living out of the sport to continue our beautiful story.

    “Firstly, I am a businessman and I like things to go quickly, which is why I mainly buy horses around six- to eight-years-old, but I still do run a breeding programme,” says Stephan. “These horses can be ready to sell in around 24 months and that is how I like to work. I am open to selling any horse, if not I would own thousands of horses. For me it is not a problem to own that many horses – the problem is that it is too complicated to train that many horses. To train a horse up to the level where it could be a grand prix winner you need to educate them with the highest care and quality. So therefore, we do sell a lot of the horses we breed unbroken.

    “The level of breeding in Belgium is extremely high – the best in the world, I think – and that means the horses are not cheap, but it does mean that you have a chance to choose the best horse for your rider. I make my decisions on which horse to buy for which rider based on my gut feeling. I cannot explain why I choose a horse sometimes, but I just trust my feeling. So far, this has brought me much success.”

    ‘It’s an addiction – and that is a problem’

    But, says Stephan, there is a real problem with the modern sport.

    “A few months ago, we had two riders in the world’s top 10, so you need to have a lot of horses to ensure they can stay up in the rankings,” he says. “It is not like it was 20 years ago when the riders could take the winter season off, now there are shows every weekend. I think the rankings system is an addiction to the riders and that is a problem.

    “To continue to be at the top of the sport riders need to compete almost every weekend to ensure they continue to gain ranking points. So therefore, we need a lot of younger riders to train the horses at home when our top riders are out competing. There are a lot of young and talented riders in our sport right now. I believe that you cannot just discover your next top rider tomorrow, you need to work with them for a couple of years and ensure they are trained properly. Some of the top riders in the world now were not the best when they were 18, but they had an excellent work ethic and dedicated themselves to the sport. It is nice to see that with hard work you can get the results that you deserve.”

    ‘Tobago Z could win the Rolex Grand Slam’

    It could be a very exciting year in particular for Daniel Deusser with both Tobago Z and Killer Queen jumping so well.

    “Killer Queen has a lot of character. She is a beautiful lady, but she has a lot of character and that can be difficult for Daniel sometimes,” reveals Stephan. “She has all the scope you could want in a top-class show jumper, and she wants to be the best in the world. She has to compete against the best horses in the world in the ring, but she also has to compete against her neighbour in the stables, Tobago Z. She has to prove to Stephex Stables that she is better than him; we put them next to each other in the stables, so they know they have to compete against each other to be the best.

    “Maybe together Killer Queen VDM and Tobago Z, can win the Rolex Grand Slam of Showjumping. We nearly won the Rolex Grand Prix at CHIO Aachen in 2019, but Scuderia 1918 Tobago Z was beaten by Kent Farrington and Gazelle. We actually sold Gazelle to Kent, so we were beaten by one of our own horses. But I think Tobago Z could win the Rolex Grand Slam of Showjumping, he is in great form at the moment.”

    Stephan underlines the importance of communicating with his riders, saying he speaks to them “about everything”.

    “We choose which shows each horse will go to, but I do have a strong opinion on which shows we should prioritise, which are the Rolex Grand Slam Majors and the other Rolex shows,” he says. “All the riders agree with me, as these shows are simply the best in the world. Hopefully, one day people will say the same about the Brussels Stephex Masters. It is very exciting that CSIO Roma and now La Baule are also supported by Rolex. In my opinion, shows supported by Rolex are on a different level to all the other shows, and all my riders love to compete at them.”

    Stephan and his team are currently building a new stadium for the Brussels Stephex Masters and there will be a new venue for Knokke Hippique next year, as well as an exciting new show in Marbella coming soon.

    • With thanks to Rolex Grand Slam

    You might also be interested in:

    Horse & Hound magazine, out every Thursday, is packed with all the latest news and reports, as well as interviews, specials, nostalgia, vet and training advice. Find how you can enjoy the magazine delivered to your door every week, plus options to upgrade your subscription to access our online service that brings you breaking news and reports as well as other benefits.

    You may like...