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.