SHELAGH FOSTER - REST IN PEACE
indiarce.com reproduces an article carried in 2014 as a tribute to Shelagh Foster who passed away in England yesterday but her heart was in India and her soul at Byerly Stud in Sakleshpur.
Tributes came pouring in from members of the breeding and racing fraternity including Zavaray Poonawalla, S. Pathy, Anil Mukhi, Cyrus Madan, Marthand and Rina Mahindra, Dr. F.F. Wadia and S.Nirmal Prasad.
“She was an inspiration and an institution” said Zeyn Mirza who went on to say, “my sister-in-law, Indira Basapa and Mrs. Foster's lifelong friend, Roslyn Craig-Jones managed to get her onto one of the last flights to leave India for UK after Covid broke out so she could be with her daughter Caroline. My enduring memory of her is when on arrival at Heathrow they brought her a wheelchair that she chose to push rather than sit in it and be wheeled out !”
A childhood fondly remembered
Shelagh Foster nee Shelagh Kerr was born in Kashmir in the mid 1920s to an officer William “Billy” Kerr in the British Army in India and his wife. She was one of four children. Her elder brother and sister were in school in England. Her elder sister, Greta, later succumbed to polio. It was Sylvia her younger sister, only a year behind her, who was her constant companion in childhood.
Her father had come to India on a posting in the Northwest Frontier Province, now in Pakistan. Shelagh’s early days were spent in Rawalpindi, a big military station, which, she remembers, apart from an air force, also a cavalry regiment. The sisters went to army school in Rawalpindi for the early part of their education.
“There were houses all along the Peshawar road on both sides. We used to ride up to school on this road in the morning with the poor syce rushing behind to collect the ponies and take them back to the house. Other children, British officer’s kids, who also had ponies would also come out on their ponies. We used to race each other to the school. If you weren’t on a pony you could go on the school bus, which was five ton lorry, with a soldier in charge to haul you up. I see the same thing where I live now and it reminds me of my time in Rawalpindi as a child”
Horses were always a part of Shelagh’s world. Her first encounter with riding was in Gulmarg in Kashmir one summer when she and her sister got up on a couple of tats.
“There was a nice icy stream there. A man came along with a couple of ponies and we said, ‘Dad, we’d like to ride.’ He said, ‘Get up on them’ and so we did it. It was the first time Sylvia or I had been on a horse. I remember sliding off the pony’s neck when it put its head dowm to graze.”
As children, the girls had ponies. Shelagh was upgraded to a horse when she was around eleven years old. It was an ex-cavalry horse, selected by the colonel of the regiment himself. She renamed the horse as Mercury, a name that she recalls didn’t quite go with his rather ordinary appearance.
“It was an Australian horse, a rather plain animal actually. But a very lovely ride for a child. He did everything nicely. He’d been well-trained in the cavalry. I was reading a lot of Greek mythology at the time and I thought it would be the perfect name for him.”
Shelagh rode in horse shows in Punjab, and attendend races with her parents on occasions when children were allowed. But they weren’t allowed most of time and so the children would sit with the ayah on the compound wall of houses of people they knew that adjoined the races course. She developed a taste for adventure early on. In her childhood in Kashmir and Rawalpindi, everything was outdoors and her father encouraged the children to try new things, whether it was rowing, swimming, or diving from a high board on a bathing boat.
“You only had to say that you wanted to do such and such and the next moment, you were doing it. Later, we’d say, ‘We didn’t ask for this, Daddy!’ but he’d say, ‘Never mind, it’s been arranged. You’ll do it.”
It was customary for English people in India, at the time to send their children to school in England. Sometime in the early 1930s, the sister boarded a train from Rawalpindi to Bombay. At Bombay they got on a ship, headed for England where their mother awaited them.
There were a lot of people from Pindi on the ship so they kept an eye on us. We arrived in London in khaki shorts and shirts; it was freezing cold. We hadn’t any warm clothes. Mummy met us in London and the first thing she did was take us to one of these big stores and get us each an overcoat.”
They settled in happily at Kenilworth in the beautiful countryside of Warwickshire, but all the time at school in England, Shelagh yearned to return to India. It had been a place of a wonderful childhood spent in freedom.
“When the war started, everybody had to do something”. Shelagh was fresh out of school when the World War 2 broke out. She enlisted as a private at the pay office. Later on she went on to officer-cadet school where she opted for a anti-aircraft operations or Ack Ack, where as a plotting officer she tracked enemy air crafts and buzz bombs heading for London city.
She worked in the unit around sites near London for about three years until the war ended, she remembers the war as a time of horrors, but also of a time marked by an unusual level of solidarity and cooperation among ordinary civilians. When the war ended, Shelagh, like thousands of others was “de-mobbed” or demobilised.
When the War started, everybody had to do something. The lady who cleaned our house gave up cleaning and joined a factory that made munitions. Daddy was in the army. I was in the army. Sylvia, when she was old enough, joined the Royal Navy. My brother was in the army in Italy. My mother joined the red cross as a voluntary nurse.”
Madras winters and Bangalore summers
With the war behind them, Shelagh’s father, who’d finally retired from the army, began training horses at the Madras Race Club. He had always owned race horses and knew a lot about them. He began with six horses and eventually grew to around fifty. It seemed fitting that Shelagh, who knew all about stable work should come to Madras to help him. She came back to India in 1949.
Madras after the War was full of Parties, races and social events. The Kerr sisters and their father lived in a sprawling bungalow in Guindy, not far from the beautifully laid out stables at the Madras Race Club. Every April, they would migrate to Bangalore for the summer along with their horses and go back only in November. For the initial visits they stayed in temporary wartime building at the Bangalore Club referred to as “the coolie lines”, later they found a house on Primrose Road, the occupants of which were out of the country and needed someone to house sit while they were away. They eventually took a house for themselves, a large bungalow with stables in the back opposite the Windsor Manor, which today, houses the boutique store Raintree. They shared this bungalow with the young Brendan Duffy and his wife Betty. Duffy was an Irish jockey who went on to become a colorful character in Indian horse racing lore. In Bangalore, Shelagh and her father met a number of planters who’d come to the city from the coffee estates in Chikmagalur and Coorg. Among them was a young planter Fred Foster who had also lived in India for much of his life. Shelagh and Fred married in 1951 at the St.Mary’s Church at Fort St.George in Madras. Her horse, Arch Girl was present at the wedding. After marriage she moved to Goorgahally near Sakleshpur, where Fred managed an estate. In 1952 they had a daughter, Caroline.
Life on a coffee estate
Horses were never far from Shelagh on Goorgahally estate. Days on the estate always began with a ride at 6 in the morning, whatever the weather. It was not long before she wanted to try her hand at breeding. The coffee company that Fred worked for gave them permission to fence in some land. Her first mare, Brunette, acquired from a trainer in Calcutta, didn’t produce any classic winners, but produced good horses that paid their way.
The Open Road
As a bachelor on the estates Fred had spent a lot of time planning a trip on horseback to England. After marriage the plan was adapted to a cross continental road trip in a car. In 1956, Shelagh and Fred embarked on their first overland journey to Ireland, the first of three long journey’s through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey into Europe in their Dodge station wagon. On a subsequent overland trip, the Fosters brought back a two horse trailer from England, fitted out as a caravan for themselves for the journey. The horse box would become indispensable, taking take mares to visit stallions in other stud farms or to taking horses to sales or races. Towards the end of their first overland trip and holiday in Ireland. Shelagh’s father passed away in Calcutta leaving behind a stable full of horses. It was the end of an era, and she flew back to India immediately. From fifty horses, she and Fred took home two, one of which was a beautifully bred mare, Tasha, from whom they eventually got a foal, Nicola. Shelagh was very attached to both Tasha and Nicola, both of whom achieved success on the race course, as well as to Nicola’s daughter Nicolina.
In 1958, they acquired star of Vintage, a mare from Ireland, selected for them by Brigadier Charles Stewart, a former Director of Veterinary Services in the Indian Army who became a close friend and mentor. In Star of Vintage they had found an excellent foundation mare. Star of Vintage’s daughters, Om Sakthi (who was sold on RWITC sales), and her two half sisters Vin Rouge and Minniehaha, both by their first stallion Red Indian acquired in 1965, also went on to produce winners.
Shelagh took great delight in naming horses. The offspring of Red Indian were then given names derived from Native American culture like Tee, Pee, Big Chief, Moccasin and Minniehaha. Several of them once sold would keep their names, like Tomahawk, Who raced in Mumbai.
“Breeding is very interesting but it’s also very heartbreaking, especially when you have to sell horses.”
Taming nature – the making of Byerly
“It was a beautiful place with low rolling hills on one side… There weren’t many trees. It was all sloping old paddy land, maybe used for ragi cultivation… But it was notified as Class 5 land, the lowest quality of land possible. With careful husbandry it was brought up to become productive. My husband, being of an agricultural bent, got it all going.”
By the mid sixties Shelagh and Fred, began looking for land for a stud. They found seventy acres of undulating land near Hassan, twenty two miles from the coffee estate in Sakleshpur, applied for permission to own the land and found a stud, and went on to register it with the Royal Western India Turf Club. Later, local people came forward with more land to sell and the farm eventually grew to cover 100 acres. Making the farm was an exciting task. Initially, there were no stables. The stallion, Red Indian, was kept at Sakleshpur on the estate and would be sent for the day to the farm when they wanted him to breed with a mare. The farm was gradually made. To start with, it needed fencing. Stables, a cattle shed and staff quarters had to be build.
“We had such a lot of fun there making the farm. Our friends used to come out and we used to have picnics. We had no furniture, so we’d sit on the verandah on carpets.”
Shelagh would set out every morning with a packed breakfast, lunch and snacks to eat through the day drive 24 miles in the Land Rover with two ladies from the estate at the back, carrying plants for the farm. She’d return by six in the evening after a long day’s work. Fred, for his part, ordered all the requirements for fencing the land and planting a hedge around it.
“Local People came flocking in and we employed them. We had about 30 local people in every day. They liked it because it was nice and open they didn’t have to go crawling under coffee trees. But we did have a couple of acres of coffee.”
After they worked on it, the farm had beautiful paddocks. It not only had a wooden fence but also a particular type of hedge reminiscent of an English stud. All along the perimeter was a plain wire fence with a top rail of wood. The land that wasn’t suited for paddocks was used for coffee cultivation. The few trees on the farm were kept for shade and the few copses of jungle on the farm were left untouched. Although Fred Foster continued with his job at the coffee estate, he later worked on the stud full time. Life on the farm was very different, especially as they were responsible not only with ensuring the horses' well-being and breeding but also for everything else including finances.
They began work on Byerly in 1966. It took two years to make the farm ready and in 1968, the Fosters moved to Byerly. The farm was named after a Captain Byerly, who was in the 17th century brought an Arab stallion, Byerly Turk, back to England after the War of Buda (1986) in Turkey. Byerly’s stallion was among the most significant three imported stallions that were crossed with English mares to produce thoroughbred horse racing blood stock in England.
“you can’t keep horses cooped up in a stable for long otherwise they go mad when they are let out.Or if u want to ride them you find yourself sent into orbit! We used to work it out but it was hard work for the syces because every time they came in from the paddocks in the wet weather, they had to be dried but we worked out how to deal with that without much bother.”
The Fosters never kept too many horses on Byerly. Both were very conscious of the fact that the land could only take a certain number of horses on it without it going to ruin so they remained firm against overstocking. When the grass would get cut up, they would rest it, roll it, and grass would spring up soon enough. They paid close attention to the soil, adding minerals, improving it’s fertility and thereby health of animals that would graze on the grass here.
Given the threat from jackals, they had to bring in the young stock and mares at night. In the early 1990s, shelagh began to witness elephants coming in as well. Barren mares were left in the paddocks day and night under a number of huge lights that made it possible to keep a watch on what was going on and also stimulated their hormones to bring them to breeding condition. The land had gentle slopes and the paddocks were made on contours that carried the horses round nicely when the galloped without requiring them to break their stride or having to go uphill or downhill.
“We did have some nice paddocks there and they could really get going. It was a gradual turn so they could go like hell. The paddocks were made on contours, so when they galloped along the contours they were more or less on level ground the whole way.”
Daybreak at Byerly
At Byerly, the day would begin early at six and Shelagh would off to the stables soon after. The syces would be getting the horses ready to go out. The yearlings would begin training in how to walk nicely when led, or how to be driven with long reins attached to a head collar and later to a bit. They’d then be taken round the farm on a walk, one behind the other.
Shelagh remembers how she loved riding around the farm very early in the morning on snowdon, her daughter’s horse, who also won many races, or Nicolia, bred on the estate, or Nicolina who was bred on the stud.
“There were lots of partridge round the farm, and peacocks and jungle fowl. It was nice to go out early morning because they were all out then, pecking at the new worms and insects that come out. And then I would go to the downs because where we were was very undulating country so you could go for a lovely ride for miles.”
The horses were fed five times a day-a way to ensure that horses ate fresh feed and didn’t get stomach problems. Shelagh would be there for every feed, expect the night feed, when she and her husband would also be having their dinner, but with a clear view of what was going on in the well-lit stables. After dinner, one of them would go around to check that every horse had it’s hay net tied properly, had water available, and had finished its feed.
“We just had one mare who was always getting colic. She was a crib biter so we had to try to stop her doing that. Crib biters, get hold of the bar and taken in air. They either bite the bar and suck in air. There are all kinds of gadgets, which are all quite useless in the end. The most effective remedy we found was putting a 12 volt wire in the stables. That soon stopped the habit and once they learnt that the wire was not pleasant we switched it off. We had whole paddock like that.”
“One was always in the stables, watching things, Watching out for something, you could suddenly something that could be a hazard for a young horse for a person. I used to create hell with syces when they took stupid chances. There are certain things you should know when handling horses. They are big strong animals. You need to know the right way to do things so that the horse is safe and you are safe.”
Newborns in the stables
Shelagh rarely missed a foaling. She recalls being anxious every time a mare was expecting and took great care to ensure the mare was given a healthy diet. The only birth she missed was when she left the stable for an hour and came back to see that the foal had arrived. At Byerly, she had a bedroom and bathroom built in the foaling block and she would be there when a mare was expected to deliver. A very reliable night watchman would call her when a mare showed uneasiness.
“Its better not to worry the mare, it’s a natural process and the best thing is to leave her to it. But you have to be there in case, for instance, she gets too close to the wall and the foals exit would be hindered. So we would have ropes ready to put round the setlocks and pull her away so that the foal could be delivered without any bother.”
The makings of a winner
“You could quite often tell a lot [about the promise of a horse for the races] when they were young because of the way they galloped in the paddocks.”
By 1970, the Stud began developing a reputation for producing good winners. A sensible approach to horse rearing based on sound knowledge and steady attention to detail showed results. Byrely Stud became known for its winning horses. They weren’t all classic winners – winners a of the Derby, 1000 Guineas (fillies), 2000 Guineas (colts) – but they were good bread-and-butter horses, that would win enough races to make their owners a profit. Although, as Shelagh recalls, some owners would also be out of pocket– that was also part of racing.
Byerly’s Horses produced a good number of successes in the Classics, mainly in South India – Bangalore, Madras, and Ooty with some wins in Bombay and Calcutta. The Irish mare Tasha, produced Nicola, who won many races and later also became a great one to breed. Nicola’s daughter Nicolina, remained Shelagh’s horse till the end, after she’d sold the farm and moved to Bangalore. Their first stallion Red Indian produced many winners. A later stallion Mr. Mauritius also made a name for himself in siring excellent progeny.
In 1973 the Stud was syndicated into a partnership comprising Mr de Wet Van Ingen, Jimmy Mehta, Mr Pratap, Mr Jaisingh, Mr Lalit and Mr Laxmikumar Goculdas, nephews of Mr R.M.Gokuldas, a well known patron of racing with the Fosters as managing partners. In 1995 after the death of her husband, Shelagh Foster sold Byerly.
A truly inspiring horse person
“I loved them all, they were all very nice. Some of them were Crusty; they put back their ears. Our own animals were never like that. The ones that came in were sometimes crusty, especially the ones from the race course. Naturally on the race course, they'd been hyped up, highly fed and kept cooped up so they did get a bit ratty in stables. But there were others that were absolutely sweet and charming.”
That Shelagh loved all her horses is evident in the care she took of them, the attention to detail and the patience with which she trained them. Steeped in horse lore and horse life, Shelagh’s own life has been one of adventure, hard work and experience, all of which she has embraced unafraid and with open arms. She sets a lofty example for those around her has touched many with her energy, attitude and dedication.
“My earliest memories of Fred and Shelagh are as a young teenager accompanying Dr.Kunchur on one of his farm visits to Byerly. Tucked away in the back of beyond this quaint remnant of the Raj left an indelible impression. Not the least among these was my introduction to an exotic blue cheese! Over ten years later, armed with an MRCVS and the experience of an internship in Equine Reproduction from UCD, I was honored to count Byerly Stud as my first client. Initially this involved catching a bus (often only standing room) to Hasan from Bangalore and having a car pick me up – A rather tiresome journey, but well worth it! In the formative years of my professional life I learnt as much, If not more from Shelagh and Fred, than the service I provided. The attention to detail, the neatness and orderliness of the farm was truly astounding. This was the early 80’s and the present day disposable culture was still to catch on. Each mare had neatly labeled individual packets of cleaned sleeves, bandages etc that cloud be recycled! The record keeping was meticulous. No frills, but Everything was ‘just so’. Later after getting married, Rasika adopted the role of ‘driver’ on these outstation visits. Both of us thoroughly enjoyed the tranquility and peace of Byrely away from the hustle and bustle of the city. We had the privilege of hosting Shelagh a few years ago in Pune. Her boundless energy and zest for life never ceases to amaze and will truly remain an inspiration in time to come.”
Dr. Ravi Reddy
“A trundling ride down a dust track twenty five years back opened my eyes to a new world, a world of the Fosters. There I saw for the first time a tiny lady clapping her hand calling to her horses and her lads. ‘Come on! Hurry up! Doctor sahab is here!’ I just stood and watched how lovingly she was in control of her farm, the Byerly Stud. As visits went by it struck me that being a woman and tiny means you can still dream of having a life with horses without restraint. Sheila Foster may not know it but she gave me the ticket to dream of having it all. Being a wife, a home maker, a mother and a hands-on horse woman. Her dedication to horse breeding was evident in her sleeping station next to her foaling barn, truly something for the books. She ran a warm and wonderful home; you only had to taste her bread and jams. Major Foster, always clam, would look at his little effervescent lady with admiring glances. Sheila Foster you showed me what a horse women should be.”
“I visited Byrely Stud only once thirty years ago, and I remember being impressed that Maj. Fred Foster had hedges around his paddocks, topped by an electric wire which discouraged horses from approaching. He also had a rain gauge to determine precipitation – and grew coffee.”
Galaxy Bloodstock – Canada
“Mrs. Foster began helping the Kehelan Stud sometime in 1999. She paid attention to the Youngstock that were boarded at Lumbini Stud. She was singularly responsible for the success of the horses that were raised there after weaning. She had a keen eye from years of experience with horses and never missed a trick. When she moved down from Byerly she brought her famous mare Nicolina with her, own sister to Nicolette and dam of a classic winner. One day she said to me that she wanted to start riding again I was incredulous and said ‘Mrs. Foster I think these yearlings may be a bit of a handful’. Pat came the reply l’d like to ride my mare Nicky (as she would call her) who was by then all of 23 years old. The highlight of the visit to see the yearlings was the tea that was served after the rounds. The tea was always just perfect. The cake that was always served was a piece de resistance to the point that when Mr. Bernard Duvernay, the Master Farrier from Switzerland scheduled his visit, he always request that Mrs. Foster keep the cake ready for him on his visit.”
Dr. Hasneyn Mirza