World of Showjumping

This week

Coming weeks

CSIO5* Aachen

CSI5* Calgary - 'Pan ...

CSI5*/CSI2* LGCT Monte ...

CSI3* Ocala

CSI3* Royan

CSI3*/CSI2* Knokke

CSI3* Harthill
Great Britain

CSIO3*-NC EEF RQ Budapest

CSI2* Fontainebleau

CSI2* Vichy

CSI2* Tryon

CSI2* Montefalco

CSI2* Vilamoura

CSI2*-W Tehran

CSI2* Deurne
The Netherlands

CSI2* Baborowko

CSI2* Heras

Karlswood - Cian O’Connor finds his place….

Monday, 12 April 2021

Photo © Karlswood/Sportsfile "I’ve built this amazing place now because I probably only see myself riding for another 4 or 5 years, and I’m really excited about what we can do here," Cian O'Connor says about Karlswood Stables. Photo © Karlswood/Sportsfile.


After a very successful run at the 2021 Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida, Cian O’Connor has returned home to his newly-built state-of-the-art equestrian showpiece at Karlswood in Ireland which is already attracting attention at home and abroad. He talks about the venue and his vision for it, the range of business models he executes, and his future in the sport….by Louise Parkes for Horse Sport Ireland…. 



He’s never a man to do things by halves, so when Cian O’Connor decided to create his own equestrian base in the Royal County of Meath it was always going to be a major project. “To attract people I wanted to build something really special. I was often asked why I didn’t buy somewhere sooner, but I knew 20 years ago that what I could afford wouldn’t be what I really wanted. So I’ve built this amazing place now because I probably only see myself riding for another 4 or 5 years, and I’m really excited about what we can do here. It’s all about the future!”, says the 41-year-old Olympic bronze medallist.

The facilities at Karlswood are spectacular, with a fabulous indoor arena, a massive grass ring to rival the best, an Olympic-size sand ring, hacking trails, gallops, fabulous stables, spa facilities, non-slip walkways and lunging, veterinary and schooling paddocks along with office and entertainment suites. The property extends over 68 acres of Irish countryside and Cian, who is well known for his attention to detail, has left no stone unturned. Even the laundry rooms are works of art.

But why build in Ireland when so much of the horse business is conducted on the European mainland? “Being married with two kids you are always getting drawn back here, and it’s about planning for the rest of our lives. Ruth and I bought this place in 2012 and it has taken us years to put it together. On a business level we might not get the everyday trade that you’d have if we were based in the centre of Europe, but I think by being here we really stand out, and it’s where we want to be. Also Horse Sport Ireland have a big strategic vision for the industry in Ireland”, he says. 


Photo © Karlswood/Sportsfile Coaching has long been a cornerstone of Cian's business model: Here with Tom, Max and Alice Wachman during a coaching session at Karlswood Stables. Photo © Karlswood/Sportsfile.

Coaching has long been a cornerstone of his business model. Canada’s Nikki Walker is a long-time client, and his latest young stars, the Irish brothers Tom and Max Wachman, have three European Pony gold medals between them, while Tom and Atlantic du Seigneur were crowned circuit champions in the High Junior division at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) in Florida last week. Their sister, Alice, was also at the WEF and enjoyed a great run of form.

Laura Hetzel, daughter of German horse dealer Holger Hetzel, recently completed a six-month training programme at Karlswood while studying international business at Griffith College in Dublin, and Cian sees a real draw in combining a semester, or longer, at prestigious Irish colleges and universities with showjumping training at top level. 

Students will need to be ambitious though, because he has no interest in time-wasters. “This place has to function as a business on a weekly basis and the way we’re going to do that is by having students here, but the training is formal and disciplined with a strict regime, and you will be working towards a goal. It’s not designed for people coming for a jolly around!”, he points out.

He already has 20 stables in the main complex for his own horses, and is building a second 24-stable unit that will be sub-divided. “So if someone wants to bring five horses they can have their own stables, wash box, tackroom and feedroom and be completely self-sufficient”.   

Cian has already begun transporting the Karlswood model around the globe. “We can put it together anywhere - Hong Kong, California, Australia - staffing the yard, organising the veterinary, exercise, farrier and feeding programmes and getting the horses properly fit. We put in the structures and professionalise the whole operation to take the worry out of it” he explains. 


Photo © Karlswood/Sportsfile Cian with PSG Final: “possibly one of best I’ve ever had," the Irish rider says. Photo © Karlswood/Sportsfile.

He’s always loved his home country and believes Ireland is ideal for the early development of horses. “It’s a bit off the radar, so you can produce them at a reasonable price away from everyone’s eye and bring them to the marketplace when they’re ready at seven, eight or nine years old. If you’re producing them in the middle of Belgium and they have a fence down one day as a five-year-old then fellas don’t forgive them for that. Young horses need time to develop and train, and we have everything you need in this country”.

He has something of a reputation for buying older horses, moving them up to international level and selling them on. “Larkhill Cruiser was very successful in Ireland with John Floody and K Club Lady, then known as Olanda K, was successful in Spain with the late Tino Torress. They both had a lot of experience so I was able to take them to the next level”, he says. Larkhill Cruiser (ISH)(TIH) was on the winning Nations Cup team in La Baule in 2011 and was sold that very night, while K Club Lady jumped double-clear in the Nations Cup in Aachen in 2010 and was sold to the Ukrainian team shortly afterwards. 

“We also buy younger horses, but if they are very young the road is too long and the expenses add up” he explains. “So typically we try to buy horses between 8 and 11 years old that are well trained, safe, and suitable for our needs. We are also involved in a breeding programme with Andrew Hughes in Kilkenny where I have a lot of mares and young horses, and eventually they’ll filter through Karlswood too”.


Photo © Karlswood/Sportsfile Cian might be alone in this photo, but he never works in isolation. “I have maybe 10 horses with Enda Carroll at Ashford Farm in Belgium and six or seven with Jan Tops in Holland," he tells. Photo © Karlswood/Sportsfile.

But he’s never working in isolation. “I have maybe 10 horses with Enda Carroll at Ashford Farm in Belgium and six or seven with Jan Tops in Holland. With those kind of partners we might go half with each other on a horse and maybe I have a client or they have a client so we are tapping into each other’s businesses. You join together and share the risk, but it also means that if one of us isn’t finding the client for the horse then another of us will”.

So what happens if it doesn’t work out? “You have to get it right more than wrong or else you can’t continue, and you have to be realistic about it. I bought four horses with Jan a couple of years ago and two of them weren’t great so we sold them at a loss, our view being there’s no use in keeping them and paying the costs. So we invest the money in the other two and keep them for another year and that’s the way it works. If you have good communication and everyone enters into it in the right spirit then it’s a great business. But you must have the best intentions and be upfront with people, clearly understanding that sometimes it doesn’t go right. It’s just like any investment, and there needs to be an element of trust”.  


Photo © Karlswood/Sportsfile Jan Distel, left, and Ross Mulholland on Careca at Karlswood Stables. Photo © Karlswood/Sportsfile.

Cian’s advice on investing in horses is fairly uncomplicated. Don’t over-stretch yourself. “For people to feel comfortable they shouldn’t pay a lot of money straight away. Like in everything you should only back what you can afford to lose, it’s always safer to dip your toe in the water first. If you’re thinking of investing with someone, go in at a level that makes sense but with a clear view of your exit plan”.

And what happens if the horse you’ve invested in doesn’t rise to the level you expect? “When I’m looking at a horse I’m always thinking - if it falls short of being just good enough, is he good looking? is he nice to ride? can I sell him? I’m not into horses that are like motorbikes - mad, hot, buzzy things - because if they’re not good enough it’s like burning the money. So I’m always looking at a horse to see what job it could do. If we have one that’s nicely bred, well-trained, with good experience but it’s not going to make 1.60m level then it makes a lot of people happy if you drop him down two divisions and he could even be worth more money sometimes. Because an amateur horse to take care of someone at 1.45m is a priceless thing”, he points out.


Photo © Karlswood/Sportsfile Cian O'Connor, with his two Karlswood coaches Jan Distel and Ross Mulholland. Photo © Karlswood/Sportsfile.

At the heart of his business is trading, “and at the moment I might sell about 30 a year. It’s not a huge number while I’m still riding, but it’s enough, and it’s very busy. I’m developing a reputation as someone who can conclude a deal in a fast, professional manner and that gives you first shout on good horses which is a great advantage.”

“Sometimes I buy horses on my own or sometimes in partnerships. I find it good to be involved with other people. Currently I have a number of young horses with Max and Tom Wachman and over the coming years all three of us will be able to compete those horses with the ultimate goal to trade them on. Additionally if I’ve horses with Jan they are jumping around in Holland and Enda’s horses are around in Belgium. So on any weekend we have them competing all around Europe, and Mark Kinsella who worked for me for almost 10 years has set up a base now in California and we are also going to explore collaborating together."

But Cian also points out that his background team at Karlswood are as important as his business partners, “because they are the ones who keep the wheels turning. I’m very fortunate to have such a brilliant team around me headed up by Ross Mulholland who I have worked with for over 15 years. Brilliant staff are everything, and I try to create a good environment so that everyone is happy to give their best”.

Buying a good one

Photo © Sportfot "Typically we try to buy horses between 8 and 11 years old that are well trained, safe, and suitable for our needs," Cian tells. Here with the 9-year-old Kilkenny that really has risen to prominence during the Winter Equestrian Festival. Photo © Sportfot.

So how much does it cost to buy a good one? “The most valuable showjumping horse is the one that’s easy to ride and can jump a big course of fences, if they are difficult and you need the best rider in the world on them it reduces their value. But the most amazing horse that’s simple and can jump big courses, week in week out, is probably worth between €5m and €10m”.

And how much profit is there in it at the end of the day? “If you can trade over the whole year, buy and sell the ones that work and don’t, take out all flights,  expenses and running costs, you could possibly return something between 8% and 12% profit. So you have investors who go in on a share - some horses you make a lot on, some horses you lose on, it balances over the year at between 8-12% on your investment, and you won’t get that in the bank!”


Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping Cian’s 2012 Olympic bronze medal ride, Blue Lloyd, was a syndication success story. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

And then there’s syndication. “I can have four or five syndicates going at any time. I run it, we decide what shows the horse is going to, hopefully all goes well and he doesn’t get injured and within one to two years we sell that horse”.

Cian’s 2012 Olympic bronze medal ride, Blue Lloyd, was a syndication success story. “About seven months before London I put together a group to buy him and we sold him after the Games. Charlie O’Reilly-Hyland and his family as well as Gerry Mullins were instrumental in that syndicate. It works, often people are not really doing it for the money, they mightn’t want to lose but they know I’m working hard and I’m going to try to protect their investment as best I can but it’s a lot of pressure too because I never want to let people down!”

So will Karlswood be open to Irish riders as well? “Yes of course - if there are people who want to compete at a good level and are prepared to put in the hard work like any of my other students I’m happy to help, whether it’s through Horse Sport Ireland or Pony or Junior team training. And there will be clinics during the year they can attend as well, but filling the place isn’t really the goal. 

“I need to be able to divide my time correctly between my family, my own riding, buying and selling and coaching. I don’t need to be flat out 24/7, I’m better off with clients who need what we have to offer. And there are other things we can do here as well, the grass field is pretty special so we’re looking at running some corporate events post-Covid. There are all kinds of possibilities…..”

Can he ever imagine running an event at Karlswood that the public might attend? “Maybe in the future it would be nice to do something special. Jan Tops was here in December and I joked about running a leg of the Global Champions Tour in 2023, but he said that it might not be such a joke and we should talk about actually doing it! We’d have to erect seating around the arena but I reckon we could make it happen, so watch this space!”

If it does come to pass he’ll be glad he invested in some reliable German engineering. “The sand arena surfaces are controlled by an ebb-and-flow computer system, so basically if there is a downpour it tells the arena to drain, and if it’s dry it tells the arena to put water into it so everything is always equal texture.” That’s definitely a plus if top riders have to contend with unpredictable Irish weather.


Photo © Karlswood “To go to the Tokyo Games and to jump on the team in Paris, maybe even with a few of my Irish students - it would be fun to ride out on a high in 2024!” Cian tells about his ambitions. Photo © Karlswood.

So what are Cian’s ambitions right now? “To go to the Tokyo Games and to jump on the team in Paris, maybe even with a few of my Irish students - it would be fun to ride out on a high in 2024!”

PSG Final, “possibly one of best I’ve ever had”, looks set to be his Tokyo ride, but the nine-year-old Irish-bred Kilkenny (ISH) has really risen to prominence during the WEF giving him an exciting extra option.

Cian’s clearly looking towards the end of his competitive career, and although he’s not there yet he’s visualising new horizons. “I love the big days, it’s great fun, but I also love the everyday stuff. I loved building this place, I enjoy doing business looking for horses and helping people who want to improve, and I’m not going to be very sad when I stop riding because I’m already involved in things I get great pleasure out of. But, while I can still do it, I intend competing for a few more years”.

In the meantime he also intends turning Karlswood into a Centre of Excellence that will attract clients who want nothing but the very best.


Irish Sport Horses mentioned in this article….

Kilkenny (AKA MHS Fernhill) (ISH) - 2012 gelding by Cardento (HOLST) out of MHS Pembrook Lady (ISH) by Guidam (SF). Breeder: Ita Brennan, Co. Kilkenny. Owner: Ronnoco Jump Ltd.

Larkhill Cruiser (ISH)[TIH] - 2001 gelding by Cruising (ISH)[TIH] out of Dunadry Lady (RID) by Crosstown Dancer (ID). Breeder: Brian McAuley, Co. Antrim. Owner: Zahid Nabeel.



This photo has been added to your cart !

Your shopping cart »
This website is using cookies for statistics, site optimization and retargeting purposes. You consent to our cookies if you continue to use this website. Read more here.