HomeFeaturesShirley Watts 1938-2022

Shirley Watts 1938-2022

The Arabian horse and the global equine community has lost a beloved friend and utterly devoted steward with the passing of Shirley Watts on 16 of December 2022.

Shirley Watts
Shirley Watts with her beloved SHF Pearlie Mae

An accomplished rider and horsewoman since her youth, and an unabashedly avid lifelong lover of horses, Shirley’s passion for the Arabian horse was ignited while attending a horse fair in the south of France in the mid-1980s. “A beautiful Arabian stallion was in the ring and was giving the usual show of snorting and blowing and generally showing off,” Shirley recalled. “His rich chestnut coat positively gleamed and shimmered in the sunlight and I was so overwhelmed by his beauty and high spirits that I asked a horseman friend to find me an Arabian horse.” This initial search ended with a grey Arab/Barb cross gelding that Shirley fondly remembered as “kind and affectionate and a lovely horse to ride”.

This positive exposure to the breed inevitably resulted in Shirley frequenting Arabian horse shows both at home in the UK and on the continent, where in 1987 at the European Championships in Oostende, Belgium, her simmering spark of enthusiastic interest was fanned into the flames of passion when two unforgettable Polish Arabians – Pilarka and Penitent – were named European Champion Mare and Stallion, respectively, in landmark performances. Utterly captivated by these legendary horses, Shirley’s trajectory with horses, and the Arabian breed in particular, was transformed forever. Determined to own and breed Arabians of this world-class calibre, Shirley set out for two destinations, Poland and the United States, to learn as much as she could, and to acquire horses such as Pilarka and Penitent for her own.

PIECHUR
Piechur

While her regular visits to Poland would soon inestimably alter the course of Halsdon forever, it was during the initial horse-finding visit to the United States in 1991 that Shirley would discover her first influential, life-changing stallion – Piechur – with whom she “fell in love instantly as soon as he emerged from his stable”. A close relative of both Pilarka and Penitent as yet another premier representative from Janów Podlaski’s powerhouse ‘P’ family of global superstars, Piechur would pave the way for the Halsdon decade of dominance in the show-ring in the 1990’s, taking the British and European show scene by storm as UK International and All Nations Cup Champion Stallion with his standard-setting style and decidedly masculine charisma.

Gai Radiant
Gai Radiant. Credit Javan

With Piechur as the touchstone, Shirley’s sincere passion for Arabian stallions culminated in a world-class collection of sires at Halsdon for more than three decades, curated from many of the most respected breeders and bloodlines all around the world. Among this esteemed collection were notable sires Gai Radiant and WN Star of Antiqua (from the USA), Lumiar Amadeus, Lothar Al Nyhl and Vivaldi RACH (all from Brazil), and several stallions bred by the State Studs in Poland including Pilot, Endel, Polon, Ferryt and Preferans. Several of the Haldson chief sires followed the famous footsteps of Piechur to show ring glory while in Shirley’s care, including British National and UK International Champion Ali Khamsin, and World, European and UK International Champion Galba, as well as her beloved Simeon Sadik, a Straight Egyptian show horse and sire supreme, who earned multiple Reserve Championship titles at every leg of the Triple Crown – the All Nations’ Cup, the European Championships and the World Championships – during his charmed existence. Adamant about her abiding love for the masculine equine residents in her care, Shirley was always quick to reassure fellow breeders and admirers that “the stallions of Halsdon have always held the most special place in my heart”.

WN Star of Antigua
WN Star of Antigua


Lumiar Amadeus. Credit Horsefly Films

Of all the many esteemed sires at Halsdon, Simeon Sadik, as the definitive outcross and in Shirley’s opinion “most similar to the ideal of what an Arabian horse should be”, proved to be the most prolific, providing Shirley her greatest success as a breeder, both in the show ring and the breeding barn. Several Sadik daughters still grace the broodmare paddocks in rural Devon, including the homebred beauties World Reserve Champion HS Ramira and multi-international champion HS Cinderella. Sadik was also the sire of European Champion Stallion HS Etiquette, a favourite of Shirley’s for blending perfectly the best of his illustrious Straight Egyptian and Polish heritage. Exchanging HS Etiquette back to Poland to stand for two successful seasons at Janów Podlaski remained one of Shirley’s greatest rewards as a breeder.

Simeon Sadik
Simeon Sadik

HS CINDERELLA
HS Cinderella

HS Etiquette
HS Etiquette. Credit Erwin Escher

While Shirley’s enduring love for her stallions was a hallmark of the Haldson programme, it was the ever-ascendant acclaim of the maternal residents that made the perpetually verdant rolling hills of central Devon a destination of world-class wonder and enchantment. Esteemed foundation bloodlines from both the USA and Egypt were the source of two of the most highly decorated and universally venerated mares in the Haldson constellation of stars – SHF Pearlie Mae and Gelgelah Albadeia – both rightfully honoured with the superlative title of World Champion Mare under the Halsdon banner. It was only fitting that the source of Shirley’s inspiration for creating the breeding programme at Halsdon – the archetypical Arabian icon Pilarka, herself a former World Champion for Poland – would eventually find her way ‘home’ to Devon, where she lived out her final years as the resident grande dame, illuminating the show ring one final time as British National Champion Mare and Supreme Champion Arabian at 18 glorious years young. Following this monumental win, Pilarka retired to her deserving life as the ‘Queen of Halsdon’. In Pilarka, the essence of the Halsdon Arabian was exemplified – beauty, grace and serenity, with an undeniable sense of self-worth and aristocratic dignity. She became the standard against which all Halsdon Arabians were judged, and the prototype for the heart and soul of Halsdon Stud – the Arabian mare.

SHF PEARLIE MAE
SHF Pearlie Mae

Gelgelah Albadeia
Gelgelah Albadeia. Credit Erwin Escher

Pilarka
Pilarka. Credit Sweet Photography

For more than three decades, the collaboration between Halsdon and the country of Poland, particularly the State Studs of Janów Podlaski, Michałów and Białka, were a central tenet of success, stability and predictability in the global Arabian breed. The annual Polish Arabian horse auctions, first Polish Prestige in the early 1990s, and later Pride of Poland in the new millennium, were buoyed each year by the presence of Shirley, most oftentimes with the understated and reassuring presence of her beloved husband, Charlie, at her side, the result of which was Halsdon most frequently topping the list of successful bidders in either total amount spent or number of horses acquired – and sometimes both! Each year the population of regal residents at Halsdon grew exponentially with the most renowned mares acquired from Poland, the long, but most certainly not exhaustive, list of which encompassed such luminaries as Emilda, Maesta, Elandra, Pikieta, Egina, Pinta, Ekspulsja, Altamira, Palba, Egna, Alejka, Cenoza, Etenta, Alhambra, Biruta, Hekla, Pikardia, Calabria, Augusta, Wioleta, Elgina, Preria, Andromeda, Epruwetka, Persenkówka, Pieta, Amra, Prymka, Ankara, and Sarbia.

SHF PEARLIE MAE / MAESTA / EMILDA / GREY MARES / PASTURE
SHF Pearlie Mae, Maesta and Emilda

Wioleta
Shirley and Charlie with Scott and Wioleta

“Inspired by the great Polish Arabian breeding programme, particularly by the vision of the late great Directors Ignacy Jaworowski and Andrzej Krzyształowicz, as well as the modern contributions of Directors Marek Trela and Jerzy Białobok”, Shirley was a great and fervent admirer of the Polish Arabian horse and the horsemen and horsewomen who had stewarded those world-class programmes for centuries. Inevitably, this admiration evolved into Halsdon becoming home to unquestionably the largest collection of Polish-bred Arabian mare and stallions outside of Poland, and a source of some of the most celebrated Arabian mares in the world.

Of all the meritorious matrons in residence at Haldson, Polish National Junior Champion Albula was the undeniable favourite of Charlie. Small in stature but disproportionately “large and in charge in personality” according to Shirley, Albula possessed “the kindest nature towards humans with a conversely unrepentant nature as alpha mare in the larger herd”. The special bond Albula shared with Charlie always made Shirley “immensely happy to see such genuine affection between those most dear” to her.

Etnologia
Etnologia

Charlie’s quiet appreciation for the Arabians resulted in one of the most memorable moments in Pride of Poland history when, unbeknownst to Shirley, Halsdon was announced the successful bidder of the hotly contested and greatly desired Etnologia in 2012. Having previously expressed his intent on purchasing the auction headliner to the bid spotter alone, a sly and determined Charlie, who for nearly 25 years had attended the annual Polish Arabian auctions in the role of supportive husband rather than legendary rock star while his wife enjoyed the spotlight, acquired for Shirley, who was visibly moved by this incredibly generous and unexpected gesture, one of her greatest treasures. Etnologia would go on to earn several prestigious titles for Halsdon, including European Gold Champion and All Nations’ Cup Silver Champion, making her the most successful Halsdon-owned show horse of the last decade.

Undeniably, the discovery of Halsdon in the early 1980s by Shirley and Charlie in the central highlands of Devon paved the way for Shirley’s uncompromising commitment to her horses and the Arabian breed for nearly four decades. Shirley remembers “turning down an improbably magical country lane at the signpost marked ‘Halsdon’”, only to discover the 17th century medieval manor of Halsdon House in what seemed “the end of the world.” Both Shirley and Charlie were “astounded at the overwhelming beauty of the region – the woods, the river, the valley – it was utterly enchanting”. According to Shirley, they “both fell in love with the place instantly. There were, of course, no barns or paddocks then, but we knew it was a natural fit. Devon became our heaven and we have never looked back.” From this fortuitous encounter, the seed for what would blossom into Halsdon Arabians was planted and nurtured, the enduring gift of which has blessed the Arabian breed and the global Arabian community for the better part of four inspiring decades.

PREFERANS
Preferans


Pilot. Credit Fotograf Mattsson

With access to spacious rolling fields and the ‘open stable’ housing made famous by the Polish State Studs, broodmares, mares with foals and young horses have been privileged to the most idyllic life at Halsdon. It was always an immense privilege to spend the day trekking the paddocks at Halsdon with Shirley and Charlie, as well as the indispensable Farm/Breeding Manager Belinda Swart, over the years, visiting again with beloved favourites while discovering the latest generations of Halsdon-bred youngsters. The love and affection, as well as the tremendous sense of responsibility, towards the horses in her care was ever present when spending time with Shirley in the serene and uncompromising respite of Halsdon.

Attention to detail and superlative care were always a priority for Shirley, with generations of happy, contented horses at Halsdon a testament to her dedication and unwavering stewardship to the breed. Ever concerned for horse welfare among all breeds and disciplines, Shirley made Halsdon a haven for several retired Thoroughbreds, partnering with animal rescue organisations to ensure positive outcomes and quality of life for as many horses as possible in the UK. “I so enjoy just being around the horses,” will be a statement for which Shirley will long be remembered. “I want the horses to know me,” she would often say, “especially the stallions and the rescue horses.”


Polon

When asked what she most enjoyed about horses and the wonderful life she lived alongside them, Shirley replied without hesitation: “the privilege of just being among them. I love to feel the heat of their bodies, to listen to the rhythmic cadence of their breathing, to relish in the quiet satisfaction of belonging. Horses always give you the intention of what they feel towards you. I so enjoy this interaction, as each horse has its own unique personality and approach towards human interaction. To find that acceptance with horses is the most satisfying. They make us feel like we belong.”

Over a decade ago, Shirley shared in an interview: “The Arabian horse has taught me so very much in life, humility most of all. One experiences the entire spectrum of emotions in a life with horses, from great joy and overwhelming exhilaration to deep sorrow and tragic loss. I feel more alive to have experienced life alongside the horse. There is so much pleasure to be had each day. It is the great circle of life. It is a bond unlike any other.”

Most fittingly, Piechur, the original Halsdon chief sire lived more than two full decades in consummate care and style at Halsdon after his purchase at fourteen years of age. Like many of the most esteemed and beloved Halsdon residents, he lived his final years in the specially designed ‘clock tower’ stables nearest Halsdon House, which provided the most frequent encounters with both Shirley and Charlie just steps from their home. While speaking about Piechur near the end of his life, Shirley made special mention of his “unquenchable spirit, his self-effacing dignity and his unequivocal self-assurance of a life well lived”. Most movingly, she confessed that she “could not imagine life without him. Though life would assuredly go on,” Shirley continued, “Halsdon would be forever altered by his absence, so profound was his presence and impact upon everyone.”

As she once did with the passing of her beloved Piechur, the worldwide Arabian horse community mourns the passing of Shirley Watts, one of the greatest champions, stewards and ambassadors for the breed of our generation. Her unquenchable spirit, however, still lives on in all of us fortunate enough to have shared in her passion for and dedication to the Arabian horse and a life, most assuredly, well and fully lived.

Thank you, Shirley, for sharing so much of yourself and your gifts with so many of us during the extraordinary journey that was your life. We are forever changed, most profoundly, for the better by your invaluable contribution to the world, especially your inspiring devotion to the Arabian horse.

Shirley Watts

All photography unless stated by Stuart Vesty.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Such a heartfelt tribute to a great friend of the Arabian horse. Shirley made an immense contribution to Arabian horse breeding and as a human being, made our world a brighter and more compassion place. We will never forget her and her wonderful Arabian horses. May she be reunited with her beloved Charlie and all of her precious animal friends in Heaven. Well done thy good and faithful servant. You will be sorely missed! Thanks for sharing this beautiful tribue.

  2. What a wonderful article. I love hearing about the high regard in which the horses were held and the ideal home they had at Halsdon.

  3. Thankyou for an emotional, inspiring tribute to a true Arabian horse lover, breeder and empathetic human being. She was a genuine lady with a pure heart and endearing soul and will be so sadly missed but always remembered with admiration, and honoured for her selfless contributions to the breed. Many of her horses were utterly breathtaking. I, as an owner and breeder of Arabian horses which carry Simeon Sadik blood, feel truly blessed to have known him and shared in his legacy and treasured memories shared by Arabian enthusiasts around the world. We are privileged and richer for having shared in the legacy of Shirley and Charlie Watts and Halsden. Sharyn Ruskey-Fleming

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