Stephan Conter (right) at the retirement ceremony for Cornet D'Amour (Photo: Stephex Masters / Jeroen Willems)
How did you get into the owning side of the sport?
I decided to start buying horses for Daniel Deusser 10-years-ago. Before that I had bought horses for other riders for over 20-years, but I decided that I really wanted to get to the top level of the sport. From there, 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 last week, 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.
With your breeding programme, how do you decide which horses to keep and which to sell?
Normally, I say every horse is for sale. If a horse has had very good results, then of course the price of the horse will increase. 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. 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 is a very good match for Zoé, and so we will keep him for another year unless we have an exceptional offer.
If one of your daughters forms a special bond with a horse, does that change your opinion on selling that horse?
Yes, definitely! 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.
You have an amazing group of riders in the Stephex Stables team, including Rolex Testimonee Daniel Deusser and your two daughters, Zoé and Emilie – how do you select which horses to pair them with?
Firstly, I am a businessman and I like things to go quickly. This is why I mainly buy horses around six- to eight-years-old, but I still do run a breeding programme. 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 – I think the best in the world. 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.
How important is it to have a balance of experienced and young up-and-coming riders in your team?
It is very important. A few months ago, we had two riders in the Top 10, so you need to have a lot of horses to ensure they can stay up in the rankings. 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-years-old, 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.
How many horses do you currently own and which would you pick to achieve the best results this year?
With Daniel we are in a very luxurious position – we have a really strong team of horses. It is not always like that, so we feel very lucky right now. For example, Tobago Z jumped unbelievably well last weekend in the 5* Grand Prix at the Winter Equestrian Festival. He looked like he was eight-years-old and jumping in a 1.30m class. Killer Queen VDM is also jumping very well, so I think we are in for a very exciting year.
Can you share some behind the scenes insights into an owner/rider relationship programme?
I speak to my riders 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. 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.
Which Stephex Stables horses are you most proud of – past and present?
I am proud of so many of them. We have sold so many great horses that naming some does not do justice to all horses. But I will say that in every Grand Prix we have at least five horses we have sold and that makes me very proud.
Killer Queen VDM has been tipped as a horse that could win the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping, what caught your eye when you first saw her?
She 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. 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 Show Jumping. 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 Show Jumping, he is in great form at the moment.
Out of the four Majors that make up the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping, which of them is your favourite, and why?
This is a very easy answer for me – CHIO Aachen. It was my dream to win at Aachen so to achieve that was incredible. In my opinion it is the best show in the world.
You host some incredibly successful events, such as Knokke Hippique and Brussels Stephex Masters – how to you keep innovating these shows?
We always aim to be the best and to keep getting better. We are building a new stadium for the Brussels Stephex Masters, and there will also be a new venue for Knokke Hippique next year. We are organising a new show in Marbella so that is very exciting for us.