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‘Elegant, beautiful and charming’: co-founder of classical riding centre dies aged 87

Sheila Layton MBE FABRS, the co-founder of Contessa Riding Centre in Hertfordshire, died on 9 November aged 87, following a period of ill health.

Mrs Layton was known for her love of quality horses, her dedication to Contessa and her work for the Association of British Riding Schools (ABRS).

She was born in 1933 in Wrecclesham, Surrey, where she lived until she met Ron. The couple married in 1954 and moved to Benghazi, Libya, with Ron’s army career, and there she developed a love of riding.

On returning to the UK three years later the couple lived in Kent and welcomed their daughter Tina in 1959. In 1968, the family moved to Hertfordshire, where they bought a home with land and Mrs Layton attended evening classes on stable management.

In 1970, during a family holiday in Devon, Mrs Layton “fell in love” with a 15.2hh part-bred Arab mare called Worthwhile. The family bought her, and two years later bought a pony, Rendezvous, for Tina, followed by a gelding, Dandy, for Ron.

Mrs Layton and Tina planned to start a business buying and selling horses, and bought an unhandled Welsh mountain pony, with the assistance of their friend Cliff Carrick. Tina told H&H Mrs Layton fell in love with the mare, named Contessa, and they decided to keep her to breed from.

“We then fell in love with the foal and ended up keeping her too. We realised the only way to make the business work was to make money from teaching so I took my instructor exams and Contessa was formed in 1977,” Tina said.

While Tina ran the teaching side of the business, Mrs Layton dealt with the administration and accounting. The riding school catered for riders from beginner to advanced level, and was known for its classical methods of teaching, welcoming visiting trainers including the former first chief rider at the Spanish Riding School, Arthur Kottas.

Mrs Layton and Tina also bred Arabs, which were used in the riding school. The mother and daughter enjoyed travelling to World Arabian Horse Organisation conferences around the world.

“The Arabs were super to teach with. My mother knew quality and she always wanted us to have the best horses we could get for the riding school,” said Tina.

Mrs Layton was a member of the executive team of the ABRS. She became chairman of the association’s inspections sub-committee, and Contessa became an examination centre for the ABRS advanced teaching diploma. In 2006 Mrs Layton was awarded fellowship of the association for her dedication and commitment to the organisation, and in 2010 was appointed MBE for her services to the equestrian industry.

Mrs Layton took great pride in Tina’s dressage career, watching her daughter represent Great Britain in the Stubbing Court CDI in 2000. The following year Tina and her partner Paul welcomed their son Zak, who followed his mother and grandmother into riding.

“My mother was very proud of him. She loved to watch him ride,” said Tina.

Tina said she and her mother had always been together and “a real partnership”, especially following Ron’s death in 2004.

“Later in life she slowed down her work for ABRS but she continued doing the administration for Contessa. She was so well organised and would do five-year plans,” she said.

“She loved her garden and planted woodland all around it. She also enjoyed playing bridge and table tennis and was very competitive in table tennis, but not to win – she was competitive with herself and had to play her best,” said Tina.

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Following Mrs Layton’s death in November Tina said she had received many messages about her mother.

“People have said she was elegant, beautiful and charming. She was known as being formidable; she was tough but always fair,” she said.

“It’s been really nice reading some of the things people have said, and she was held in very good respect.”

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