Owner Breeder : Charlie and Shirley Watts ( UK)
Halsdon: A Haven for Horses
By Scoot Benjamin and Photography by Stuart Vesty
While most of the Arabian horse world is well acquainted with the scores of famous horses in residence at Halsdon, only a privileged few know and understand the extraordinary quality of life that is afforded every single equine fortunate to find themselves under the guardianship of Halsdon Arabians.
Photography by Stuart Vesty
While most of the Arabian horse world is well acquainted with the scores of famous horses in residence at Halsdon, only a privileged few know and understand the extraordinary quality of life that is afforded every single equine fortunate to find themselves under the guardianship of Halsdon Arabians. Superlative quality care and pragmatic intuitive husbandry has always been at the central core of the Halsdon management philosophy. This hands-on practical approach to the daily life and routine of equine residents has served Halsdon well over the past three decades, as it has grown from a small collection of riding horses to a universally esteemed breeding powerhouse of over 250 horses.
|Mrs Watts with Piechur. |
When asked about the quality of life for horses at Halsdon, owner and breeder Shirley Watts is quick to respond with the essence of her philosophy: “It is not rocket science, it is simply paying attention to the needs of each horse, both physiologically and psychologically. This understanding involves awareness, which can only be achieved through daily contact with the horses and intimate appreciation for the unique nature of each horse.”
Shirley agrees that a solid foundation in the science of equine husbandry is essential. Halsdon, and indeed the abundance of world-class equine residents, has been fortunate to been under the care from many of the best horsemen and horsewomen over the course of the past quarter century. Much of the Halsdon approach to management and husbandry has been gleaned from those responsible stewards and caretakers, both past and present, the result of which has led to superlative care in every capacity at Halsdon, from new foals to waning retirees, from gestating broodmares to freshly-started performance horses, and from intensely-managed stallions in stables to growing herds in paddocks.
At the epicentre of the Halsdon approach to all horse husbandry is the tried and true philosophy and practical approach of the State Studs of Poland. Perhaps nowhere in the world is the social nature of the equine more appreciated and nurtured than in the stables and paddocks of Janów Podlaski, Michalów and Białka With so many mares and stallions of Polish origin comprising the Halsdon herd, Shirley was astute enough to recognise the needs of her horses, and was quick to adopt many of the housing styles and daily routines of the Arabian horse in Poland.
The Polish-influenced stable design is most evident at Elder Park and Sunridge Farm, two of the busiest properties that fall under Halsdon jurisdiction. At both facilities, new and converted stables have been modelled after the ‘open stable’ concept that is the cornerstone of mare and foal, as well as youngstock management, in Poland. Shirley admits to ‘greatly admiring the concept and the social interaction it inherently provides for all the horses.’ For her, it was only logical that Halsdon should duplicate this successful approach in the UK. “The open barns are great for sociability,” Shirley explains. “Every horse must learn their place in the pecking order, a skill that is critical to their success throughout their lives.” With the exception of the stallions, all horses are housed either full-time, or at least part-time for daily turn-out, in a socially-intensive herd environment.
|Dhalka Serondella and HS Dallas. |
For the new foals, the 24/7 social interaction provided in the open stables of Halsdon is invaluable. “All the foals eat, sleep and play together,” expounds Shirley. “I just love to watch them interact with and learn from each other.” In turn, Shirley admits how much she has learned from them: “I continue to discover something new each day as I watch the horses interact. They are exceedingly social beings, much like humans. Perhaps that is why we have such a kinship with horses – our need for compassionate companionship, for social acceptance and belonging.
“The foals learn to tie alongside their dams and to be handled and groomed,” Shirley explains. “This routine is very similar to the daily care provided in Poland.” By the time they are weaned, the foals are easy to handle and are well accustomed to the responsibilities of an adult equine lifestyle and the constant interaction with humans. As in Poland, mares are kept, often in pairs or groups, with the eldest foals are removed from the group at weaning, leaving the five-to-six-month-old foals in a familiar environment with his/her peers. The remaining mares often adopt the role of surrogate mother, minus the nursing, to the newly-weaned foals, while fellow foals provide much needed moral support. This weaning method has proven the least stressful for both mares and foals, while reinforcing the inherent social aspect of horse rearing at Halsdon.
As they grow, young fillies and colts continue to live in the open stables. Weather permitting, these groups of growing youngsters are afforded daily turnout, returning late each afternoon to the safe and cosy confines of the stables. Well ventilated and spacious, the open stables also maximise the health and wellbeing of the horses housed within. Straw is used as bedding to provide both warmth and comfort, both necessary in the oftentimes year-round dampness and crispness of the Devonshire countryside.
While the wellbeing of the horses was the primary consideration in designing the open stable concept at Halsdon, the sights and sounds of horses living in these stables continues to be immensely rewarding. “The sounds of munching hay, limbs rustling through straw, the rhythmic swishing of tails, the soft nicker to a foal or a friend – this is the music of the stables,” Shirley relates warmly. “You can see the contentment in the eyes of each horse. They know where they belong, their place in the herd. There is understanding and a sense of peacefulness. I am incredibly pleased that we can provide this kind of environment for the horses at Halsdon.”
Halsdon has always been home to a host of internationally-renowned stallions. With 10 breeding stallions currently at stud, and another dozen young and/or retired stallions in residence, the management of stallions consumes a large amount of manpower and time from the daily routine at Halsdon. As in Poland, stallions are housed in close proximity to each other with interactive access afforded via the open bars surrounding the upper half of each box stall on three sides. Sniffing, nuzzling, licking and generally rambunctious stallion behaviour is allowed and encouraged, the result of which is a collection of exceptionally content and socially well-mannered stallions.
The stallion stables at Halsdon are surprisingly quiet and peaceful, given the machismo and testosterone levels present in many of the world-famous residents. Even the stallions raised according to the more typically intense and socially indigent methods of Brazil and America have settled in with remarkable ease to the idyllic lifestyle at Halsdon. “Lumiar Amadeus is like a different horse now,” affirms Shirley. “He is such an intelligent stallion with an inherent kind nature. He just needed the right environment in which to fulfil his potential and blossom. Finding peace, contentment and belonging for all the Halsdon stallions is of utmost importance.”
Of all the horses at Halsdon, Shirley is most fond of the stallions. “They all have such fascinating personalities. Getting to know each one has a personal journey.” While all have been rewarding, Shirley mentions a few of her favourites with a smile on her face and a gleam in her eye. “The first stallion to captivate me was Piechur. I am so fortunate to have him with me 22 years later. So much of a gentleman – he is responsible for so much of my love for horses and for our success. Pilot has also been a joy to have around. He pretends to be a big, blustery stallion but is really a big softie inside. Simeon Sadik is another horse that always takes my breath away. He has an aristocratic dignity about him that separates him from the daily drudgeries of life. Halsdon is a brighter and better place with Sadik in residence. I hope to enjoy his presence and character for many years to come.”
|SHF Pearlie Mae, Maesta & Emilda (left to right). |
Of the young studs comprising the current stallion roster, Shirley talks about three with a special fondness. “Preferans is a horse with a very special character – always happy and optimistic. He loves to play and never fails to put on a show when turned out. There is an ever present sparkle in his eye and smile on his face, as if he already knows the punchline to the joke. He loves attention – we just love having him.” Preferans’ sire, HS Etiquette, has just recently returned from a second two-year lease to Janów Podlaski. Concerning him, Shirley illuminates, “We are extremely proud of Etiquette. Not only was he European Champion Stallion, but he has been an excellent sire for Director Trela in Poland, especially, and most surprisingly, of racehorses. There is so much of his sire, Sadik, in him. Those same attributes are even more present in his son Preferans – the quality, the colour, the hair, the attitude and those eyes. He is very masculine and bold, but a real gentleman to handle. He has a lot of his grandsire’s personality as well. Fortunately, he inherited the trademark Monogramm trot.” Speaking of which, Shirley has grown incredibly fond of the newest addition to the stallion roster – WN Star of Antigua. A son of Monogramm on lease from Al Shaqab Stud, Qatar, ‘Star’ resides in the stable of honour nearest the stud office and client room. Very Monogramm in his ebullient personality, Star of Antigua is always eager to greet visitors, especially Shirley, with whom he has developed a very close bond. “I absolutely love him,” Shirley elucidates with honesty and conviction. “He brings so much joy and amusement to my life. It is an absolute honour to have him with us. We are forever grateful to Al Shaqab and Michael Byatt for the opportunity to share in his life.” Emphasising enthusiastically, “The Star of Antigua foals born this year are just icing on the cake!”
Housing at Halsdon is always a work in progress. Shirley recalls her first encounter standing inside the original stallion stables nearly 12 years ago, “I walked inside, stood and looked around. It was a living hell, completely like being in a cell. The walls were solid on both sides allowing no interaction with the horses stabled alongside. Claustrophobic and unnerving, I decided right then that we must put in bars and allow the stallions to socialise. It was the best decision we made for their welfare. To see them now is enormously rewarding – content, communicating each other with all senses. Most of them have become very good friends.” All stallion stalls have open access on either the front or back of the stall, providing access to either look outdoors or to hang their heads in the aisle seeking attention and affirmation.
|The young stallion HS Indiana at play. |
That camaraderie between stallions in the stables extends to paddock time as well. Weather permitting, all Halsdon stallion are afforded ample paddock to exercise, play and just generally be horses. Stallions familiar with each other in the stables are placed in adjacent paddocks, in an effort to minimise inherent territorial behaviour. The scheme has worked brilliantly, with happy contented stallions aplenty. Some of the retired stallions are afforded the luxury of full time paddock accommodations. Simeon Sadik enjoys a spacious personal paddock complete with stable-like shelter in the warmer months. Round the clock access to fresh air has helped to alleviate respiratory issues that have developed with age. Wise senior gentleman Platoon HF is the other stallion that enjoys full-time ‘bachelor’s quarters’ with paddock access. Unlike Sadik, Platoon is a four-season indoor-outdoor resident, a privilege he savours with great relish, with sweeping vistas of the surrounding countryside and paddocks filled with mares and ponies never distant.
“The relationship with a stallion is so rewarding.” Articulating further, Shirley responds: “They become incredibly gentle and trustworthy once they get to know you. All good communication is based on respect for personal space. The stallions in particular have taught me so much.
“Naturally, the stallions do have a more restricted life than the mares and geldings. They do love their routine. Each day, they are always waiting at the gate when it is time to come in as if to say ‘I am ready for my brandy and slippers now, if you please’. I always appreciate how they thrive from the personal interaction. Mares must be more reliant on each other socially and psychologically. This makes them innately more aloof and distant. I find that stallions need people – the touch of a hand, a gentle word, the security of companionship.”
Mares, the symbol of Halsdon excellence worldwide, comprise the bulk of the equine herd. Over 120 breeding age mares reside on the 800 lush acres of Halsdon Stud, the majority of which are housed in paddocks equipped with shelters year-round. The moist, moderate climate of Devon provides for protein-rich green feed for nearly nine months each year, making pasture housing both immensely practical and affordable. Gestating mares are brought into the open stables in the final months of pregnancy to receive additional rations. Once mares foal, they remain stabled with their foals in the open barns until weaning, usually five to seven months later. Given the large number of mares that comprise the Halsdon breeding herd, even the very best mares are bred on an every-other-year basis.
Feeding and grooming is handled with ease in the open barns at Halsdon. Mangers run alongside the full length of at least two walls, providing ample space for horses to eat hay with comfort in this intensely social situation. Individual mares are tied while eating grain rations twice a day. Foals are also taught to tie alongside their dams to be fed and groomed. Once daily grain rations have been consumed, horses are untied and allowed to roam freely to consume hay and water freely.
|HS Serenissima |
“I prefer to have horses outside whenever feasible,” explains Shirley. “They are much healthier and happier outside – it is simply better for their bodies and spirits. Almost all of the health problems we have encountered have been with stabled horses. The herd environment provides its own unique challenges, however. It requires a quick eye, keen perception and an attentive familiarity to notice if something is amiss with a horse in a larger group. Careful daily assessment is critical. It is just part of what we do at Halsdon to ensure the horses live the highest quality life possible. We must also be aware of social hierarchy. With the sheer number of horses at Halsdon, we have been forced to understand their social behaviour and order, to our benefit as well as theirs.”
Oftentimes, a young and/or timid mare will be introduced into a group and will have a hard time gaining social respect. This can be due to an unusually dominant alpha-female, the number of mares in the field, or simply by the unique dynamics of the mares together. “We always try to keep families together if we can. Mothers and daughters tend to understand each other incredibly well. The Polish mares almost always seem to get along. They do have the advantage of being raised in a very intense and instinctive social environment from birth. Charlie’s favorite mare, Albula, can be a real bully. She is loving and kind with people, but an absolute despot with other mares in the pasture. She is always in charge, as are her two daughters HS Albertina and HS Altesse.”
|HS Mistrale |
Always carefully guided by the creative vision of Shirley, Halsdon has been fortunate to have been in the capable hands of universally respected horsepersons. At present, Halsdon is overseen by Andy Parkhouse, the Farm Manager for the past 12 years. A jack-of-all-trades, there is simply not a job that Andy cannot or will not do. Shirley describes Andy as “totally reliable and trustworthy. He keeps the entire operation running smoothly. We could not do it without him.” In the enviable role of Breeding Manager is the inimitable Belinda Swart; having first started at Halsdon as a groom almost 18 years ago while pursuing her university studies, South African immigrant Belinda has matured into the indispensable employee. “She is my right hand,” Shirley relates fondly. “She knows every single horse on the farm in detail. She has been with us now long enough to know several generations, which is an invaluable asset. Nothing escapes her scrutinising eye and attention to detail. The daily life of the horses is entirely dependent on her management. Belinda is at the heart of all we do at Halsdon.”
Belinda is also responsible for the management of the entire staff of grooms at Halsdon. Most come with little horse experience, a characteristic both Shirley and Belinda greatly appreciate. “Their inexperience is an asset to us,” Shirley explains. “So many grooms come with no handling experience. These habits are often impossible to break. We prefer to train them ourselves. They learn from Belinda and from the more senior grooms. They are extremely hard-working and quick to learn. We like the fact that we have trained them to be more intuitive to the horse and overall more quiet and kind in their approach.” With six unique properties comprising Halsdon Arabians at large, the entire population of grooms can be housed amongst the stud’s many residences.
|HS Cinderella |
Another groom turned invaluable employee is resident office manager Cindy Norris. Arriving nearly six years ago, Cindy was quickly promoted to office duties when the position was vacant and her previous experience discovered. “I truly do have a wonderful staff,” exudes Shirley. “There is a pleasant, cheerful atmosphere ever present. The horses can feel that optimism and happiness. They all want to do what is best for the horses and for Halsdon. They are exceptionally committed and conscientious. I trust them implicitly.”
Horses and people have contributed unequivocally to the success of Halsdon over the past quarter century. Another key element to this success has been location, one that has not only provided a superior environment in which to raise and nourish horses, but one that has imparted a stunning idyllic backdrop for one of the most important Arabian breeding programmes in the world. While searching for a large property, the Watts found themselves driving the country lanes of Devon in the late 1980s. Turning down an improbably magical lane at the signpost marked ‘Halsdon’, both were astounded at the overwhelming beauty of the region. “It seemed the end of the world then. The woods, the river, the valley – it was utterly enchanting.” Halsdon House was the original destination, a 17th century medieval manor that had been under the family ownership of minor Devonshire squires for centuries. Shirley recalls them all as ‘either clergyman or artists’, the latter profession of which contributed serendipitously to the Watts’ quest for a country haven. The studio inside Halsdon House had been abandoned for nearly 50 years, with many of the original 19th century equipment still intact. The area surrounding the manor bears further evidence of an Iron Age fort, living testament of the historical importance of the area. “We 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.”
Indeed Devon has become heaven for the countless residents, both human and equine, that may fortuitously call Halsdon home. Most recently, three unlikely equines became the recipients of the Halsdon good fortune and have since become local celebrities amid the brightest of the Arabian luminaries. The story began when Shirley received an invitation to attend a fundraising dinner in London to benefit horse welfare hosted by HRH Princess Haya of Jordan, acting President of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI). A main topic of conversation was the rehoming of unwanted equine athletes, with a particular emphasis on ex-racehorses. Inspired by this event, Shirley soon after contacted a trainer from Ascot, Charles Egerton, with whom she was well acquainted about the possibility of adopting an ex-racehorse. Did he know of any particular horses that needed help? The timing could not have been more perfect, for as it turned out, Charles was caring for three such rescues from a recently-deceased client, all of whom he was looking to rehome in the immediate future. Moved to compassion by the plight of these horses from someone she trusted, Shirley made the arrangements for all three to be transported to Devon immediately.
|Mrs Watts with Stage by Stage. |
“I have always adored thoroughbreds,” conveys Shirley. “The silky coats, the size and athletic power. I knew that each one of these had given his best while in training and now they had been discarded without a second thought. I wanted to give them a second chance at a life they deserved.” Logic inferred that horses housed their entire lives in the unforgiving confines of the racetrack would embrace the new found freedom of life in the lush, manicured paddocks of Halsdon. What was discovered, instead, was a shock to the system of routine-oriented, life-long professional athletes, all three of which became despondent with full-time pasture access. “There were surprisingly unhappy turned out,” recalls Shirley. True to her mantra of being attuned to the needs of each individual horse, the decision was made to house the horses at night in her private stables with daily turn out still provided in her home paddocks, a relaxing outing that all three retirees have come to enjoy thoroughly. The pampered life of the athlete continues, however, indoors, where each is treated with a daily grooming and specially ordered rugs for both indoor and outdoor pursuits. The star of the trio is Mely Moss an 18hh gentle giant that finished second in the Grand National during the height of his athletic career. Now 21 years of age, Mely Moss has retired to what has been aptly referred to as the life of Riley by Shirley. Her ardent bond with these once lost souls is evident in all her daily interactions with each of them. They have come to recognise the sound of her voice, and nicker affectionately for her to visit and feed them carrots whenever she visits her yard. Shirley asserts: “They love their lives now. There is a brightness in their eyes and a spring in their steps. They love the busy environment of the stables and the personal attention twice a day. They are all such gentlemen. I have come to adore them immensely. They will never be lost in search of a home again.”
Recently, a fourth gelding from Charles Egerton has joined his stablemates and found refuge in the haven of Halsdon. On the anniversary of the arrival of the original trio, Charles sent a bouquet of flowers to Shirley in the names of all three, thanking her for providing a loving and caring home. It was a poignant heartfelt tribute to love and kinship that we all share with the equine, especially those in need.
Like the thoroughbreds recently welcomed into the Halsdon fold, Shirley firmly believes that all good Arabians should have a purpose in life. Like the Poles, the Halsdon breeding philosophy is centred around beautiful athletes. Shirley believes strongly in the archetypal versatile Arabian: “I believe they should be able to do a bit of everything. A quality Arabian should be snort and blow, playful and curious, yet ready to get down to business when asked with intelligence and trainability.”
|Mrs Watts with her Thoroughbreds. |
Every serious breeding programme always has a quantity of high quality geldings that are produced with consistency. Shirley prides herself of the capability of the Halsdon athletes, and is most pleased for the success of these horses with their new owners. “Halsdon horses have succeeded as ridden mounts, racehorses and endurance horses” expounds Shirley. “I am tremendously proud of them. We like to start them as three year olds with ground work. Given the intense socialisation they have experienced growing up, they are very willing and quick to learn.” Once backed, geldings are ridden both in the school and out in the countryside. The Halsdon philosophy is one of sound, honest athletes that are well accustomed to traffic and obstacles. “I like to give the ridden horses the best chance for success. Whether they are top athletes or just pleasure mounts, we expect our geldings to safe, reliable and fun. We are always honest and forthright about each horse’s capability and character. We insist they are all vetted before they go.” Furthermore, Halsdon stands irrefutably behind every sale. Central to the core philosophy of the programme, Shirley maintains that a Halsdon horse is better off back at Halsdon than with an unhappy owner. “We are much more likely to find the right home for one of our horses. We have been successful in replacing every Halsdon horse that has been returned. That makes us extremely happy.”
As with the horses, Shirley is insistent about her daily routine when present at Halsdon. “I so enjoy just being around the horses,” Shirley exudes. “I want them to know me, especially the stallions and the rescue horses. It is important the staff see me as well, involved in the daily business of the stud. It is essential that I understand what is happening at every level.” She admits to seeing the young horses lest often. She relies on Belinda to keep her up to date on the status of each paddock and stable at all the properties. “Seeing the youngstock less often gives me the opportunity to watch them change and develop,” Shirley relates. “As a breeder, this critical observation and analysis over time is invaluable.”
When asked what she most enjoys about horses and the wonderful life she has lived alongside them, Shirley replies without hesitation: “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.
“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.”