rowing up in a small village in County Wicklow, Ireland, both Richard Sheane and Georgina Philips knew that they never wanted to leave the place they called home. Raised with horses in their blood — Georgina’s family had eventing horses and Richard grew up show jumping — they joke that there weren’t many options when it came to romance and “finding the one.” In 2004, the duo became business partners, and in 2008, they married; now 11 years and three children later, this power couple of the equestrian world is still going strong as they’ve put their tiny village on the map as the home of Cooley Farm, one of the most recognized names in modern equestrian sport.
Known for an unwavering work ethic, honest business practices, and a philosophy that puts quality before quantity, the Cooley name, with the tagline “We let our horses do the talking,” truly speaks for itself.
NoelleFloyd.com: At Cooley Sport Horses, it’s clear that you focus on placing your horses with the right people instead of just increasing sales. How does that pay off in the long run?
Richard Sheane: If you have good horses and send them to good riders, you have good results. [2018 Kentucky Three-Day winner] Cooley Master Class would be one that we sold and it has paid off for us, but there’s no point in dressing it up — good quality horses are what they are. I stick to having good horses, and I now have a clientele that expects no less, so there is no point having anything else.
Richard and Georgina Photo by John Kenny.
NF: Were you in Kentucky last year to watch Oliver Townend and Cooley Master Class win the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event?
Georgina Philips: Richard is not money-orientated, but he is completely focused on selling horses. If he had been in Kentucky for five days and missed a good horse, he would never forgive himself. We don’t go on family holidays or trips; we are phenomenally boring, but [Richard] is very focused. I think in this business, we’ve worked so hard, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year, if we didn’t love what we do, we couldn’t sustain it.
We are so lucky to wake up in the most beautiful place in the world. In the beginning we could only afford to buy one horse — now we’re building our own place! The biggest problem facing us now is we’ve created this fabulous brand and we need to keep it and grow it to the next level. We’re not a one-hit wonder, we want to have the business growing and every year we look at it and say, “What can we change? How can we alter it and make it better?”
NF: How would you summarize your business philosophy?
RS: I like to think people trust me. Obviously, there are people who are wary by nature but most people come to us from a friend, so they have a fair idea what we’re about before they show up. An awful lot of customers are repeat customers. To some extent we can choose our customers and that’s great; we’re very happy to sell an amateur a horse, they don’t have to go around [a five-star event].
Richard watches the development of a Cooley youngster. Photo by John Kenny.
We also have a very good team of riders, grooms, and yard [staff] and that makes a huge difference, too. In Europe, it’s increasingly hard to get staff and we’re lucky to almost have a waiting list. That’s mostly up to my wife, and it’s something we’re very proud of because yards typically do have a lot of turnover. People tend to stay here and I’m not bigger than the guy mucking the stables — everybody works hard. It’s not an easy go here — it certainly isn’t — but everybody seems to think it’s fair.
NF: What efforts have you made to grow the Cooley brand globally?
GP: We don’t pay for any advertising of our business and never have — we let our horses do the talking. If the first, second, and third-placed horses are Cooley horses, it speaks for itself. We use social media as a community, with the hashtag #CooleyFamily. If you are anywhere in the world with a Cooley horse, we want to promote you and encourage you. At the end of the day the horses have to prove themselves; post-Kentucky, the Americans went bananas — wins like that are phenomenal and you can’t put a value on it.
NF: It goes without saying, the “Cooley” prefix is pretty well known these days. What is the story behind the prefix?
GP: Richard grew up at Coolnakilly and I grew up at Ballinacoola, and the prefix reflects both of these origins. Also, we wanted to create a prefix that was easy to pronounce in any language. We liked the way Cooley rolled off the lips, and we thought, “We want to put our money where our mouth is.”
Photo by John Kenny.
NF: What are your core values as breeders, young horse developers, and investors in the sport?
RS: Breeding is more of a hobby, but we are buying more and more younger horses right down to foals. That’s something we will expand in the future because it’s harder and harder to get our hands on the stock we need. I’m always prepared to give a fair price for the horses we buy, and I want to cement that I have a good hold in the industry. It’s a small country here: I can get from one side to the other in three hours, so I have a good chance of knowing a lot of the horses. I have a lot of people who will look for me — if I hear of a good one I’ll go and try it quickly. If we like it, we’ll vet it, buy it, and then we get them down the road to our place. There’s no dilly-dallying.
NF: Do you prefer to sell young horses or more experienced competition horses?
RS: We compete a number of horses up to one- and two-star levels and after that, they are sold. In Ireland we have very good competitions and a very good way of producing them to that level, but after that you have to travel to the U.K. and Europe, and I don’t have time to travel and have our riders travel. Over the years we have dabbled in different scenarios, but I need to be on the ground with our team here, looking after the horses and doing the job here in Ireland to sell the horses.
Richard lunges a young horse. Photo by John Kenny.
NF: Your main focus is on eventing horses. Do you have plans to expand into the show jumping market?
RS: We are developing the show jumping side as well, and I’d like to see that expand over the next 10 years. Ireland is made for event horses, that will always be our primary business, but I’d love to see more show jumpers in our yard. [In the future] I would encourage my kids to show jump. The guys in the show jumping world have done such a good job in the sport; in so many ways the money is good but also there are so many good opportunities.
NF: How has parenthood altered your vision for the future of your family business?
RS: All three kids are interested in horses and in the business. They are eight, six, and three years old. The three-year-old is the biggest dealer; she’s already got a pony and is looking for a better one! At the moment we’re at the pony stage and they’re just starting out and doing pony shows. They’re not doing it for us — we’re not pushy parents — though if they weren’t into it, this would be a boring place to live. A lot of kids don’t see all that our kids do, spending time on a farm. We’re lucky they can grow up that way.
"... there’s no point in dressing it up — good quality horses are what they are."
GP: If you talk to a lot of people involved in horses, they don’t want their kids to go into horses, but we’d say the opposite: we enjoy what we’re doing and we are trying to build a brand that will continue long past Richard and me. I think that’s part of our success; we see it as a long-term generational business and to that end, we’ve created a trustworthy brand.
NF: How do you balance your business on top of your personal lives?
GP: We both always wanted to run our own business, and we are so family-focused although it can be hard for our kids that we work 24/7. We make no apologies to clients for children being everywhere. It’s a business we want to grow for our family. I thought maybe when Oli and Cooley Master Class won Kentucky — it was the first Cooley horse to win a [five]-star — we might take the foot off the throttle a bit, but all it did was get Richard more fired up to find good horses.
Photo by John Kenny.
Feature photo by Kaitlyn Karssen.