An Offaly vet who holds the key to the top stallions in the world
Emma-Rose Conway saw a business opportunity when she had difficulties finding the right stallion for her mare. She hasn't looked back since, writes Louise McBride
Horse semen isn't the most glamorous of topics - but that didn't stop a young Offaly woman setting up a successful business around it.
Emma-Rose Conway set up Euro Stallions, which stores and supplies frozen and chilled semen from more than 50 of the world's top stallions, about two years ago. The company makes it easier - and cheaper - for a mare owner to secure semen from the stallion they would like to father their mare's foal.
Before Euro Stallions was set up, it was often a logistical nightmare for Irish owners of brood mares (that is, horses used for breeding) to get semen from top-class stallions, if that stallion was based abroad. The cost of shipping the semen to Ireland was also pricey, eating into a large chunk of any budget that had been set aside to buy the semen in the first place.
Some of the best stallions are based in Germany, Holland and France.
"Say you were a small breeder with three brood mares and you wanted semen from one stallion based in Germany, one based in Holland and another based in France," says Conway. "Before Euro Stallions was set up, you would have had to deal with someone in Germany - and then get the semen shipped from Germany.
"You then would have had to do the same for France and Holland. You could easily have faced a shipping bill of €1,000 when doing this - or even more if the mare didn't become pregnant initially.
"But now you can deal with a person who is based in Ireland - and get the semen shipped from Offaly for around €70. Or you can save on shipping fees by using one of our recommended vets."
Conway came up with the idea for the company after she herself ran into problems finding a suitable stallion for her only mare at the time - a sport horse. She was working as a veterinary researcher in University College Dublin at the time.
"When the time came to put my mare in foal, I looked at stallions abroad and realised how expensive it was," says Conway.
"At the time, I was only doing this for one mare and it was a headache. I wondered how people do this if they have 10 or 20 mares to put in foal. I figured that if I could get 30 new stallions on board, I'd give up my job in UCD and start up an agency."
So in the summer of 2013, Conway started the process of getting stallions on her books.
This involved getting supply agreements from some of Europe's best-known stud farms.
"One of my favourite stud farms was De Wiemselbach in Holland," says Conway. "The Dutch countryside is beautiful and the farm is especially so, with old red-brick building dotted among the trees.
"The office where we had our meetings was filled with generations of horse trophies, books, photos and awards and it overlooked the indoor arena. It is not polished, but it's picturesque and the horses were relaxed and happy."
The groundwork was worth it.
"By the time Euro Stallions was launched in February 2014, there were 120 stallions were on board," she says.
Euro Stallions is the first and only dedicated agency of its kind in this country, according to Conway. It can cost between €500 and €3,500 to buy a stallion's semen, largely depending on the stallion.
"We have stallions that begin at €500, but breeders can choose stallions that cost up to €3,500 for a stud fee - or up to €3,000 per individual straw. That's the typical packaging for frozen horse semen," says Ms Conway.
"We have many types of stallions, from three-year-olds to the world's most-established Grand Prix and Olympic horses, to those who are the top-ranked sires in the world. We cater for show-jumping, eventing and dressage breeders. We can sometimes help clients source stallions or semen that simply don't come on the market."
Some of the more popular show-jumping stallions that she can offer include Diamant De Semilly, Kannan and Baloubet Du Rouet. She has two Irish-bred stallions on her books who are now based abroad - Omega Star and Carmena Z. Euro Stallions is also standing two stallions - Luidam and Je T'aime Flamenco. (To stand a stallion means to make it available for breeding.)
"It is important for us to offer world-class stallions in Ireland as it allows us to offer excellent genetics at really great rates to Irish-based breeders," says Conway. "Clients can also view them in the flesh before deciding to use them.
"Luidam and Je T'aime Flamenco have proven themselves in sport at the highest level with the Irish show-jumper Billy Twomey - and both are now proving themselves without doubt as top sires also. Luidam is the man about town wherever he is - a real character."
As well as graduating from UCD with a masters in veterinary medicine, Conway has trained in equine reproduction.
"We in the sport-horse industry are lucky that artificial insemination and advanced reproduction technologies are accepted," she says. "Artificial insemination of course allows us to ship semen anywhere around the world, and even produce foals from stallions which are long since dead.
"In addition to this, on the mare side, it allows us to use techniques such as embryo transfer and intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection - essentially surrogacy and IVF for mares.
"With these techniques, we can produce multiple foals a year from mares who are too old to carry their own foals, mares who are actively competing, mares who have a reproductive disorders which inhibit them from carrying their own foal, or simply mares who are so valuable that we want to increase their productivity.
"Under natural conditions, mares can produce one foal per year. With advanced techniques, we can produce four or five times more."
Many mare owners were clearly encountering the same predicament which Conway herself faced a few years ago when putting her mare in foal.
The business - which was set up in January 2014 - saw its customer numbers and turnover triple in 2015.
"We're hoping to double customer numbers this year," says Conway. "We are gaining ground in countries outside Ireland. In 2014, 90pc of our sales came from Ireland. In 2015, there was a big increase in sales to the British market. We've sold into Brazil, Sweden, Switzerland and Bulgaria."
Conway runs her business in Tullamore, Co Offaly. She grew up in the nearby village of Geashill.
"My family were never involved in horses but my grandparents on both sides both had farms," says Conway.
"I spent a huge amount of time on the farm growing up. I loved growing up in the country. I loved the freedom and the fresh air. I was lucky to grow up with animals. My grandparents kept cattle. Going off to count the cattle with them in the morning was great therapy."
She believes her grandparents' work ethic is one of the reasons she decided to run her own business.
"Both my grandparents were hard-working people and really valued working for everything you get. They were very business-oriented, so I learnt that from them."
The 31-year-old is married and has two daughters - aged four and three. She clearly has her hands full running her own business - and having two young children.
"I used to ride horses - but now I don't get the time," says Conway.
Working with horses, however, is a pleasure for her as she has a huge empathy for the animals.
"I cannot remember a time that I wasn't in love with horses - even though I didn't grow up with them," says Conway. "I love my own riding mare as we know each other so well and have spent so much time together. I love my daughters' pony as I see the pony mind and look out for my children.
"There is something in every horse's eye that makes me smile every time I look into it - regardless of what is happening. They are very special animals, beautiful and powerful.
"I will work with them for the rest of my life, hopefully, and I will never tire of their company."
Sunday Indo Business