‘A wonderful life’: farewell to much-loved judge Ursula Roberts

  • By Aly Vance

    Mrs Ursula Roberts died on 11 December 2021, having reached the age of 100. Her landmark would be of no surprise to those who knew her, as typical of her generation, she was definitely made of “tough stuff”.

    During the war she drove an ambulance through the Blitz, after which she threw herself into family life and her energy into the Pony Club, and became one of the most prolific Arabian judges and show organisers in Europe.

    Born Ursula Wharton, she was brought up hunting with the Cheshire Hunt and was a founder member of the Cheshire Hunt branch of the Pony Club in 1929, later passing the institute of the horse exam.

    In 1944, she married Captain John Roberts (Bob) who supported her in all her activities for the next 65 years. As he was an Army officer, they moved around southern England with their two daughters, and everywhere she became involved in the local branch of the Pony Club, finally becoming district commissioner of the East Sussex branch. She also helped start the discipline of Pony Club tetrathlon.

    With an acute eye for a quality animal, Mrs Roberts followed in her father and great-grandfather’s footsteps by becoming a judge for the British Show Pony Society and was greatly in demand, particularly for lead-rein and first ridden classes. She adored encouraging small children and always found the time to talk to every competitor, whatever the size of her class.

    Her knowledge of fine conformation did not stop at horses, as her one “hobby” donkey turned out to be a champion which led her to join the judging panel and go on to become president of the Donkey Breed Society.

    Another opportune moment came in 1970 when she was given a young Arab to use in the family. He went on to be British national gelding champion, both in-hand and ridden, before a successful career in harness. Naturally she also joined the judging panel for the British Driving Society.

    It was that gelding, Splendour Of Sind, who introduced Mrs Roberts to purebred Arabs and in 1972, she started running the south-east region Arab show. A stickler for high standards and politeness in the show ring, she was invited to become show director of the National Arab Show at Ascot, which she ran for many years during the “golden years” of the Arab Horse Society (AHS). With entries of more than 1,000 horses for the show, Mrs Roberts also managed the stabling in a pre-computer era.

    In 1983 she was asked to be chairman of the European Conference of Arab Horse Organisation’s newly formed show commission. They standardised judging practices and brought in disciplinary committees across Europe that are still used today.

    Mrs Roberts was twice president of the AHS, helped start the UK International Arabian Horse Show at Towerlands, and in 1994 she was invited to run Qatar’s inaugural International Arab Show, which has become one of the world’s leading Arab shows.

    Her judging took her all over the UK and Europe as well as Australia and Canada. When asked, she always said that she had been very lucky and had enjoyed a wonderful life.

    Mrs Roberts’ passion for horses passed down the generations, with her daughters Anthea Derby and Charlotte Rowell the fourth generation of judges, and Aly Vance, the youngest of her four grandchildren, an equestrian and racing TV presenter. Her husband Bob predeceased her in 2010.

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