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Rae-Dawn… a 25 year reflection of grass-roots beginnings, turned global aspirations

When looking ahead, 25 years seems like such a long time. But if asking Murray and Shirley Popplewell how 25 years has changed their landscape from being involved with Arabian horses, they simultaneously share how quickly those years have flown by. “Looking back, 25 years went by in a blur,” exclaims Murray. And yet, here they are, celebrating Rae-Dawn Arabians’ Silver Anniversary and a life well lived surrounded by beautiful Arabian horses.


“Reflecting back on our trials and tribulations navigating this wonderful way of life, we have continually been surrounded by beautiful horses who inspire us every single day,” continue Murray and Shirley, “but more importantly are the outstanding people who have come into our lives and whose kindness have contributed immensely in moving us forward.”


The Popplewells and Rae-Dawn Arabians’ early years were unassuming. Even before naming the farm—Murray and Shirley’s venture into Arabian horse ownership began with the purchase of two horses for pleasure trail riding; a purebred Arabian gelding for Murray and a Half-Arabian/Half-Quarter Horse mare for Shirley—breeding and showing was not even in their peripheral view. It was the purchase of these two horses that led them to explore the local happenings of the Saskatoon Arabian horse community and their subsequent introduction to Ed and Laura Friesen’s Wunderbar Arabians. “Ed and Laura introduced us to the breeding and show world of Arabian horses,” says Murray, “for which we are forever grateful.”


Shortly thereafter, the Popplewell’s budding Arabian horse endeavours began. While travelling to different shows, they took note of one farm that seemed to always be present. “Dave and Sheila Schall and brothers Jeff and Jerry, of Shada Arabians, were so inviting and took an interest in us as well,” shares Murray. “At that time, the Canadian National Arabian Horse Championships were held in Regina, Saskatchewan, which was only a two-and-a-half-hour drive to our farm. We, with our outpouring enthusiasm about our first foal and how beautiful she was, convinced Jeff and Jerry to come and see her. And so, after the show, Jeff and Jerry made the drive to Saskatoon. “We were so grateful to them for making the drive,” continues Murray, “as it was the first time trainers in the Arabian horse business came to our farm.” They were so excited to have guests, that they wanted to demonstrate the time and training they had been putting into their first foal born earlier that Spring. “Shirley brought the filly into the attached garage, around the cars and up onto the house deck,” chuckles Murray. “Looking back on it, the Schalls were so gracious with their time and so patient with us,” reflects Murray. “At the end of the visit, they turned to us before they left, and Jerry said ‘If you want a show horse, Shirley, maybe don’t take it in the house with you!’” Both smiling in unison upon the memory of that visit, Murray laughs, “I would have loved to have heard their comments on their drive back to Regina!” The Popplewells have enjoyed their friendship with the Schalls for many years; the very first breedings purchased to outside stallions were to those standing at Shada. Breeding to Starof Fame V resulted in RD Starletta Fame. “I still have my Starof Fame V keychain that the Schalls were handing out to everyone that entered the arena on Stallion night at the Canadian Nationals that year!” shouts Murray, who is quick to give additional thanks and appreciation to the Schalls for their instrumental role in the early developmental years of Rae-Dawn Arabians.


Rae-Dawn’s first Canadian National Championships to exhibit horses presented RD Jornada+, a stunning chestnut colt sired by Odyssey SC. Beautiful and upright, RD Jornada still to this day is a favourite of Murray’s. “There were 11 colts in the class and Jornada was the only horse who didn’t make the top ten,” he says. “We were completely defeated as we carried the gate alone, honestly speaking.” He recollects, however, being approached by Andrew Sellman later that day. “The kindness and encouragement shown to us by Andy after the class was immeasurable,” finishes Murray. “We were seriously questioning whether to continue with Arabians. I honestly thought RD Jornada was the winner, and then to be last and out of the top ten was a big blow.” Fortunately, the words of wisdom spoken by Sellman to the Popplewells offered encouragement and perseverance. And the following year at the Canadian Nationals proved a different result for the Popplewells. “Back in the day, the judges cards were placed on display in a glass encasement and we had to wait until day’s end to go and view them,” Murray shares. “We went many years not making a card, and so we were thrilled to have made even one.” Shirley adds, “And you have to remember, that those days saw very big classes, so making it onto a card, let alone into the top ten, was a very big deal for us.”


Murray and Shirley attended their first United States National Championships as spectators, which were being held in its final year in Louisville, Kentucky. “We went and bought tickets for Friday night, which was nearly sold out, and of course, we were sitting up with the sparrows,” laughs Murray. “It was an amazing experience even though we knew no one.” But on Saturday evening that all changed, when the Popplewells were approached by a very kind man who evidently realized they were newcomers to the show, and to the Arabian breed. “This kind gentleman approached us and graciously invited Shirley and I to join him at his box and enjoy his seats overlooking Freedom Hall,” says Murray. This man turned out to be the late Warren Bentley of Geneva Arabians. “I don’t remember what horses won or who was even showing that night,” recalls Murray, “but what I do remember vividly was the genuine kindness Mr. Bentley showed to us both, and it was wonderful.”


When Rae-Dawn Arabians began to set its sights on the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show in Scottsdale, Arizona, it was Tom Blakemore who graciously opened his barn on Arabian Park Drive. “Tom allowed us to use a couple stalls and his facility so we could prepare a few of our horses for the show,” says Murray. “I again lose memory of what horses we brought down or how they even placed at the show, but I do remember his kindness shown to us and we are forever grateful. He refused to accept any kind of payment for our time there at his farm and to this day, we are so, so thankful for his hospitality and generosity.”


“Perhaps 2008 could be the precursor of what was to come,” smiles Murray. Though they were not intending to purchase a stallion for their breeding program, a fiery bay colt somehow sparked a fire within Murray, and as they say, the rest is history. That colt was then 2-year-old Bey Ambition and was perhaps the most significant step in the blossoming Rae-Dawn Arabians’ breeding and show program. “We are forever thankful to Bey Ambition’s breeder Lucy Whittier for allowing him to come into our lives,” reveres Murray.


It should be noted that shortly after the World Cup show in 2008, the Popplewell’s purchased their satellite farm in Scottsdale to complement the Saskatoon operation. Ironically, what is now Rae-Dawn Arabians Scottsdale, was the former Blakemore Arabians. More kindness and encouragement was shown to the Popplewells with the friendship and influence of fellow Arabian Park Drive neighbor, the late Bob Pomeroy. “Truthfully, we wouldn’t have Rae-Dawn Arabians Scottsdale if not for the support of Bob. He really pushed us to go all in, to take the next step,” says Murray. “He encouraged us every step of the way, and so it’s no understatement that the year 2008 was a pivotal year for Rae-Dawn Arabians.”


Another important figure that comes to mind is the late Richard “Dick” Ames, “who was an incredibly involved businessman and accomplished so much in his life, but always took time to greet others and offer words of encouragement, even to us,” remembers Murray.


Of course, no story of Rae-Dawn Arabians and the Popplewell’s journey with Arabian horses can leave out the contributions of Sam Peacemaker and his PCF Arabians. “In a busy world, and a very competitive and proprietary industry where we are all trying to breed the next best horse, nowhere do you find a man like Sam Peacemaker, who literally opened up his entire breeding program and showed us horse after horse,” nods Murray, “sharing with us what worked, what didn’t work—sharing insight on what is predictable. Sam allowed us to purchase some of our very best show and breeding stock from him, and we are thankful.”


Another key element and highly successful collaboration with Rae-Dawn Arabians “is Michael Weinstein’s breeding program with the assistance of Sandro Pinha’s Arabians International,” comments Murray. “They allowed us to purchase some of their cherished breeding stock.”


Other individuals bear acknowledgement, such as breeder extraordinaire Manuel Durini of Ecuador and his trainer Mike Wilson, for their unwavering commitment in allowing and facilitating the purchase of MD Massima and keeping their word after she was crowned unanimous champion and they had a lineup of buyers ready to purchase her. These are things that encourage them to keep going.


And those that bring in and stand stallions at their farms from all over the world? The Popplewells appreciate that this is not easy work and certainly not a money-making endeavour. Farms like Royal Arabians, Midwest Arabians, Arabians International, Byatt Arabians, Shada Arabians, Allgood Arabians, Sahara Arabians and Orrion Farms; for these Murray and Shirley are forever grateful, as it allows them to enhance their breeding program.


Looking back on the past 25 years, the Popplewells are constantly reminded of the goodness and people that make up the Arabian horse industry. They particularly note the unending dedication of Cindy McGown and Mark Davis, who work tirelessly to support and grow every single aspect of the Arabian horse industry. “Cindy and Mark must not sleep,” laughs Murray, “they go non-stop year-round, infusing a lot of excellence into the industry, and back us all in some way or another,” he exclaims. “They are an inspiration.”


“Then you have the generosity of our neighbours Steve and Christina Poore of Orrion Farms, who orchestrated the construction of one of the most beautiful farms in the world and opened it up to all of us to enjoy and indulge,” notes Murray. “Where else do you find this kind of hospitality and kindness?


“You see, for Shirley and I, we are truly thankful to enjoy these beautiful Arabian horses daily—horses that inspire us to keep pushing forward; but just as equally, we are grateful for the kindness and the goodness we have received from so many people we have met along the way and who have remained beside us in building us up every step during these last 25 years. This is perhaps,” he concludes, “the best prize of all.”


With the momentum Rae-Dawn Arabians has to push forward, we can only imagine what the future holds and what remains on the horizon for the farm’s show and breeding program. If reflecting on the past 25 years gives any indication of where things are going, the old adage of “hang on to your seat” rings true for the Popplewell’s of their love of the Arabian horse and the people that make up this wonderful way of life.


Written by Braden Davidson

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