I didn't come from a family of horsepeople, but some of us are just born to love horses, and I love them," says Sheila Varian. www.varianarabians.com
Truth is, Varian and horses have had a special magic together from the beginning. It was evident in the instincts of a 14-year-old who rode home in a horse-trailer manger calming a skinny, scared filly, and forming a bond that would last a lifetime. And it was evident in the determination of a young woman who went up against top professional male trainers at San Francisco's Cow Palace to become the first woman and first amateur (and her mare, the first Arabian) to win the prestigious open reined cow horse championship.
Today, Varian's love for horses can be seen in the barns and pastures at Varian Arabians in Arroyo Grande, California, where for 52 years her horses have set the standard for beautiful, sound, good-minded Arabians that are as good on the trail as they are in the show ring.
Varian has personally trained and ridden horses to national championships in halter, stock horse, English pleasure, and park. And hundreds of national titles have been earned by the 900 horses bred at Varian Arabians, many with the Varian 'V' following their names.
At her ranch in the rolling hills and sun-burnt arroyos of central California, Varian stands stallions that represent five generations of her breeding; mares in the pastures are ninth- and tenth-generation Varian-bred.
Since the United States Equestrian Foundation started keeping statistics for champions sired, her handsome black-bay stallion, Desperado V, has topped the Arabian sires' chart. Several times, the Arabian community has honored Varian with breeder of the year awards; in 2005, the Arabian Breeders Association presented her its lifetime achievement award.
One of her greatest thrills, she says, came in 2003, when she was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. In many ways, it was a return to her roots - to the young girl who was fascinated by the old California vaquero style of riding, and who studied the masters' time-consuming and exacting tradition of training young horses from hackamore to two-rein to spade bit.
Varian's friends will also tell you that she's a wonderful storyteller with a delicious sense of humor. Academy Award-winning film director and Arabian horse breeder Mike Nichols remembers meeting her in 1973. "I visited her ranch to see her horses and was deeply impressed," he recalls. "I fell in love with one mare, and, as yet being uneducated in protocol and good manners in such things, I said to Sheila, 'Can I buy her?' Sheila, with her usual lightness and tact, said, 'You'll have to marry me first.' " Nichols and Varian have been good friends ever since, and today, he keeps his horses at her ranch.
The lean California cowgirl with the broad smile wears many hats: horse breeder, trainer and competitor, trail rider, rancher, friend, mentor, and inspiration. Read on to meet trailblazer Sheila Varian.
MyHorse: How did you first become involved with horses?
Varian: As a child, I'd gallop to the store on a bamboo stick, pretending to ride. I spent so much time on all fours, whinnying like a horse, that I'd wear out the knees in my overalls. I think my mother and father feared I might never stand, and got a horse just so I'd get up on two feet and speak English!
MyHorse: Tell us about your first horse.
Varian: When I was 8, my family bought a half-Morgan, half-Percheron mare named Judy for $100. My father thought she would be his hunting horse, but with my deft training, she soon learned how not to tie, how to load improperly, and how to be generally unruly.
After one deer-hunting season, I claimed Judy as my own - with my father's blessing. We lived in the idyllic central California town of Halcyon, population 100. My grandparents helped found it in the early 1900s: grandfather Varian was the chiropractor, and my grandmother was the first postmistress and Halycon storekeeper. We were just a mile from the ocean, so I'd ride Judy to the beach. She could run like the wind over the dunes, and we'd play King of the Mountain on piles of clam shells.
I was 12 years old before I got a saddle, because my folks were worried I'd fall off and catch a foot through a stirrup. I seldom used it. I'd just shinny up Judy's leg and climb onboard. Some days, I slept in the sun on her broad back. Judy was 16 hands high, with a big Roman head and little eyes, and I loved her dearly. She was a great horse for a kid.
MyHorse: What is it about Arabian horses that make them your breed of choice?
Varian: Initially, I fell in love with Arabians through Walter Farley's Black Stallion books. My mother became interested through a woman she knew with two Arabian mares. My mother particularly enjoyed researching pedigrees and bloodlines, and we memorized the Arabian studbooks, which we held in our laps at shows instead of programs.
It's easy to love Arabians, because they're so personable. The original Arabian horses were raised on the desert, often living in the Bedouin's tents, so I think their instinctual interest in and appreciation for people runs deep in their genes. The Arabian's lightness and responsiveness are wonderful, as is their willingness to be your partner. And I love beautiful things, and they are beautiful. Arabian horses have never let me down.
MyHorse: Tell us about your first Arabian.
Varian: When I was 13, I was at a horse show and stopped at a stall with a yearling Arabian filly peeking shyly out at me. Farlotta was her name. She was a dreary gray color and not tremendously beautiful, but I felt an overwhelming attraction to her.
I went home and told my folks that I'd seen the most beautiful Arabian filly. About a year later, they heard that she'd been sold to people whose young daughter was unable to handle her. They were either going to sell or destroy the filly. My parents knew I'd loved her and said we'd take her - the price was reasonable. To their horror, when we went to pick her up, she was in a tiny portable corral, just skin and bones. Of course, I looked at her and cooed, "Isn't she beautiful!"
We had an old wooden horse trailer, and Farlotta didn't want anything to do with it. When we finally got her inside, she started to kick, methodically making kindling of the back door. With all the wisdom that young people have, I jumped inside the trailer and climbed into the manger to comfort her during the ride home. Two hours later, we drove into our yard, and she was completely and totally mine.
From that day on, I could do absolutely anything with her. I trained and showed her, and we were undefeated in Western pleasure and amateur-to-ride, and won the Arabian stock horse class at San Francisco's Cow Palace. She was the first spade-bit horse I ever trained. Unfortunately, lack of worming before we got her took its toll, and, when she was 7 years old, she died of colic in my arms. My heart was broken. I don't know if I've ever loved anything as I loved Farlotta.
MyHorse: What would you say to people who think that Arabians are too high spirited to be pleasurable to ride on the trail?
Varian: I think it's a perception and not a reality. It's true that Arabians are sensitive, and you must be smart and gentle in your approach. If you're having difficulties, study, or send your horse to someone who uses the training methods of [master horsemen] Ray Hunt or the late Tom Dorrance. When Tom Dorrance shared his understanding and wisdom it was a very good thing for horses - and
especially for Arabian horses.
MyHorse: What three qualities do you most value in a trail horse?
Varian: I like a horse that can walk out and cover ground. I like them to be aware of their surroundings. And I like them to be quiet and thoughtful.
MyHorse: What's the very best ride you've been on recently?
Varian: This spring, I went to my cousin Jack Varian's ranch, the 20,000-acre V6, to help bring cattle down from the high hills for the Parkfield Rodeo - Parkfield, California: population 18. For three days, we camped and gathered cattle. On the last day, I rode on the ridge top of The Slopes, and I watched fat cattle peeling off the mountain and determined dogs and riders moving through the herd. It was quiet up on top, like watching a silent, slow-motion movie below. Gorgeous!
I rode my 5-year-old Maclintock V son, Julibation, who quietly, softly, and very capably went wherever I pointed him, sometimes straight up or straight down. Jubilation is a big, strong, gorgeous horse, and it was gratifying to have people say, "I've never even considered owning an Arabian, but I'd sure like a horse just like him!" Jack's kids and grandkids rode, too; it was a slice of true Americana. At night in my tent, I just wanted to clutch the memory of all that beauty.
MyHorse: Who's your all-time favorite trail/ranch horse?
Varian: Lightly Bey V, my 1981 gelding, born of a long line of Varian-bred horses. In the early '80's, I had a girl riding my young horses with me. If she had challenges starting a youngster, I'd ride it. So, when she asked me to ride a 3-year-old Huckleberry Bey son, I told her to load him in the trailer, and I'd take him to a friend's ranch for the weekend.
When I unloaded the colt, I thought, hmmm, he's not very big for age 3. But I hobbled him on the lawn, then bridled and saddled him - careful with the cinch. I mounted, and off we went, straight up a mountain. I noted that he didn't rein very well, but he was willing, and scrambled up and down banks with ease.
The next day, we did more of the same, and I threw a rope off him onto bushes and fence posts. I couldn't figure out what anyone might think was wrong with him. I left him at my friend's, and went home, planning to ride again the following weekend.
My friend called on Monday and said, "Sheila, this horse has testicles." I hadn't noticed, because my attention had been elsewhere, and at that age, his body wasn't fully developed - but the problem colt was actually a gelding!
It turned out that the wrong colt had been loaded up, and all weekend I'd been riding a 2-year-old stallion that had never worn a saddle! (I don't start colts until they're 3 years old.) With that, I figured, this is a horse for me - he could do anything, go anywhere, and do it with a smile on his face.
Lightly Bey V got me back to my roots: He was the first spade bit horse, trained in the classic vaquero way, that I'd trained in over a dozen years. He's naturally a shy, almost timid horse, but if I ask, he'd walk through fire for me. He always does the right thing and puts himself in the right place. Today, he's turned out 24/7 in a 16-acre pasture, and he does whatever he pleases.
MyHorse: Who's your current favorite trail/ranch horse?
Varian: Murietta V. When he was born, he was one of the prettiest colts I'd seen, so he's named after Joaquin Murietta, a legendary "Mexican Robin Hood" of California's Gold Rush days, who always rode a beautiful horse. Murietta V is sturdy, strong, and substantial. And he's comfortable and calm in rough places, and willing to learn. He can take the lead with a "down the road" walk that really covers country, or he's perfectly comfortable to stay with the pack.
MyHorse: How did you become interested in the California vaquero style of riding?
Varian: When I was a girl, the Spencer family had a ranch nearby. Mary "Sid" Spencer was a superb horsewoman and a real ranch woman who could do anything: build a barn, geld a colt, shoe a horse. Dr. Spencer, a former cavalry veterinarian, trained his horses in the tradition of the old California vaqueros, who were legendary horsemen, and I was fascinated.
The Spencers owned Morgan Horses, and trained everything in a hackamore and finished them in spade bits. As a child, I'd go to the Paso Robles Fair and plant myself in front of their stalls. Eventually, they figured it was easier to take me under their wing than to trip over me all day. Sid taught me what a correct, balanced, good-legged horse was. One day, Dr. Spencer let me ride his Morgan, Little Horse, while we gathered cattle. As we walked, I felt what a real spade-bit horse was like, and I knew what I was working toward. I've never forgotten that feeling.
MyHorse: Why do you think the vaquero style training is enjoying a resurgence in popularity?
Varian: Traditional vaquero-trained horses carry themselves differently from the average riding horse. The time and skill taken in training creates a beautifully balanced and framed horse. And with that special finish comes a true joy of partnership. It is worth every effort. You can go to town in a Volkswagen just as quickly as you can go in a Mercedes - but some of us just like to travel in a Mercedes.
MyHorse: You were the ride clinician on last year's first annual Arabian Horse Association trail ride in Fort Robinson State Park in Crawford, Nebraska. Were there any surprises?
Varian: Seeing the country around Fort Robinson - I'd never realized it was so spectacular. We stayed at the old Remount Station, an historic site, and the staff did a phenomenal job of sharing the history and their pride in it. It was also great to see five Desperado V offspring on the trail!
MyHorse: What makes you laugh on a trail ride?
Varian: Horses. They do the funniest things. I used to have a gelding named D'Artagnan. Like all my trail horses, he was broke to hobble - but obviously, I did a poor job with him. When I rode across the neighbors' land, I had to pass through large wire gates, so often I'd dismount and hobble him to practice my hobbling. It worked once or twice - until he figured out how to run with the hobbles. Quickly, he learned to run home faster than I could catch him!
MyHorse: What's one major challenge you face on the trail, and how do you overcome it?
Varian: Really thick brush is often a challenge on the trails and ranches where I ride. I teach every horse of mine to walk way behind me when I lead them. That way, if we need to get through thick, overgrown brush, and I have to dismount and crawl on my hands and knees (with a loose tie rope tucked into my belt), I know I'll look back to see my horse with his head down pushing through the brush, five feet behind me. That way, he won't step on me.
MyHorse: Do you think horses have a sense of humor!
Varian: Absolutely! Bay-Abi, whom I got when I was 19 and he was 2, was a clown with a puckish sense of humor. When I first trained him, I was going through a bossy stage. If he was out in the pasture and I told him to come, I wanted him to come right now and arrive standing as close to me as possible. Bay-Abi always came on the run, and arrived in a cloud of dust, snorting fire. Close up, his 15 hands looked about 20!
Bay-Abi was a strong breeding horse who sired 275 registered Arabians: 65 champions, and 24 national winners. We had 25 years together, and I feel so fortunate to have had him. Today, six generations of Varian Arabians carry his blood.
MyHorse: What are your favorite equine books?
Varian: The entire Black Stallion series by Walter Farley, and Breed for Success, by Riley and Roberts - required reading for every horse breeder!
MyHorse: Tell us about your book club.
Varian: Some girlfriends and I call ourselves the "Readers and Riders," because we're all into good books, and trail and ranch riding. We take turns selecting a new book every four to six weeks. When we finish, we ride out, have a picnic, and discuss our latest book. One of my favorites was Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and I also loved Steinbeck's East of Eden, because it's set in the country I know [California's Salinas Valley].
MyHorse: What three people of any era would you invite for an evening around the campfire?
Varian: I'd invite Jack Swanson, a Cowboy Artist of America, who has the most wonderful tales of when he was young man with an abiding love for the vaquero way. I'd have Dick Gibford, a poet, storyteller, and cowboy. And Dave Stamey, a dear friend, and incredibly fine writer and performer of cowboy music, who would serenade us. Now, if it was to be sans campfire, the three people I would most enjoy listening to and learning from would be Diane Sawyer, Maya Angelou, and Oprah Winfrey.
MyHorse: What are your most treasured possessions?
Varian: My two dogs, a Papillion named Libby, and a miniature Australian Shepherd named Rosa. The original Ansel Adams' photographs done for my uncle, Russell Varian, of all his favorite places. My vaquero gear. And of course, my horses.
MyHorse: What's your idea of perfect happiness?
Varian: It is a spring day, 70 degrees, and I'm on a good horse, moving cattle off a mountain. That is perfect hapiness.