Sheila Varian
Horse trainer and breeder
Sheila Varian
Sheila Varian is a breeder of Arabian horses who lives and works at the Varian Arabians Ranch near Arroyo Grande, California. She grew up with a strong interest in horses, and was mentored in horsemanship by Mary "Sid" Spencer, a local rancher and Morgan horse breeder who also introduced Varian to the vaquero tradition of western riding. She started her horse ranch, Varian Arabians, in 1954 with the assistance of her parents.
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  • 2016
    Varian died on March 6, 2016 at age 78.
    More Details Hide Details Varian grew up in Halcyon, California with a strong interest in horses, combined with a fondness for horse books such as the works of Marguerite Henry and The Black Stallion series written by Walter Farley. She credited Farley's books as the origin of her interest in Arabian horses. She was given her first horse, a Morgan-Percheron crossbred, at the age of eight, and rode bareback until she obtained her first saddle at age 12. Although her parents, Eric and Wenonah Varian, did not have an equestrian background, they always supported her interest in horses, allowing both her and her older sister the freedom to ride horses as much as they wanted. Varian matured to be tall, and has stated that while she "struggled" with her height as a young person, she found comfort in riding horses: "all my troubles went away."
  • 2015
    In November 2015, Varian announced that she would be working with the California Rangeland Trust to place her ranch into a conservation easement to protect it from development.
    More Details Hide Details She had begun the project with the intent that her longtime ranch manager, Angela Alvarez, would operate the horse breeding program after Varian was no longer able to do so, and then once Alvarez was no longer able to run the ranch, the property would be gifted to the Trust to be sold, the conservation easement running with the land, and attempts made to find a buyer that would also be interested in maintaining the Arabian horse breeding program.
  • 2013
    Varian was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013 and died on March 6, 2016, at the age of 78.
    More Details Hide Details At news of her death, the web site for the California Rangeland Trust crashed due to the high amount of web traffic, necessitating supporters of the trust to set up a backup crowdfunding site for donations to the conservation effort.
    In 2013, the Varian breeding program was ranked by Arabian Horse World magazine as the all time number one breeder of both English-type and Western-type Arabian horses.
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    After she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013, she sought to place the 230-acre Varian Ranch into a conservation easement to protect the land from development, and in 2015 announced that the California Rangeland Trust would partner with her to purchase the development rights and to allow her long-time ranch manager, Angela Alverez, to operate the horse breeding program after Varian.
    More Details Hide Details After Alvarez, the property would be gifted to the Trust to be sold, the conservation easement running with the land, and the Trust would try to find a buyer that would maintain the Arabian horse breeding program as well.
  • 2005
    Within the Arabian industry itself, Varian was honored in 2005 with the Arabian Breeders Association's lifetime achievement award, and was the Arabian Professional & Amateur Horseman's Association 2009 Breeder of the Year.
    More Details Hide Details Varian was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 2003. She was honored for both her contributions as a horse breeder and as a trainer, but the honor represented, in many ways, her roots in the vaquero tradition. Other inductees that year included western artist Glenna Goodacre; musician, artist, cowboy poet and pickup rider Ann Secrest Hanson; and classic cowgirl trick rider and barrel racer Velda Tindall Smith (1908–1990).
  • 2002
    In 2002, requiring an outcross stallion not closely related to her own horses, she purchased the Brazilian-foaled Jullyen El Jamaal, who has bloodlines not previously incorporated into the Varian program, as well as a line tracing back to Bay el Bey via Bey Shah.
    More Details Hide Details Varian continued to seek performance ability in her mares; in the Varian program, every mare is trained under saddle and must prove suitable as a riding animal. Varian did not originally work her ranch name into the names of her horses, but today all Varian-bred horses have a registered name suffixed with the capital letter "V". The Varian ranch also acknowledges the importance of the mares by using the first letter of each mare’s name to start the name of their foals. Varian-bred horses are freeze branded with the Varian "V" logo. Vaqueros were the horsemen and cattle herders of Spanish Mexico, who first came to California with the Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino in 1687, with two expeditions in 1769, and the Juan de Anza expedition in 1774. They were the first cowboys in the region. She learned horse training methods that derived from this tradition. In her teens, she was mentored in horsemanship by Morgan horse breeder and cattle rancher Mary "Sid" Spencer. The Spencer property, called Forsyth Ranch, was near Arroyo Grande on land that is now under Lopez Lake. Spencer helped Varian learn the underlying principles of training and riding horses, how to work cattle in the mountains, and introduced her to vaquero training methods. Spencer also did all of her own ranch work including shoeing, gelding, horse training, baling hay, and truck repairs. She learned how to handle well-trained horses by riding one of the Spencer family's finished Morgans, a gelding named Little Horse.
  • 1979
    Subsequent generations of Varian stallions continued the pattern of winning in the show ring and then producing champion show horses across multiple disciplines. Huckleberry Bey was 1979 U.S. National Reserve Champion Futurity Stallion, 1981 U.S. National Top Ten Stallion, and 1984 U.S. National Reserve Champion English Pleasure. He then became the leading sire of US National Champions for five years, and in 1999 his likeness was reproduced as a Breyer horse model.
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  • 1969
    She leased the young, then unproven stallion Khemosabi for his first breeding season in 1969.
    More Details Hide Details She also made use of horses owned by other ranches, such as the Polish import Bask, whom she linebred to his 3/4 sister, Varian's Polish import Bachantka, producing another significant foundation mare, Balalinka, dam of Barbary.
    The cross produced, among other champions, Varian's successor to Bay-Abi, the 1969 colt Bay el Bey (Bay Abi × Naganka), who was U.S. Reserve National Champion stallion twice, 1977 Canadian National Champion stallion, and a regional champion in English pleasure.
    More Details Hide Details At the time, the Arabian industry had little interest in western disciplines, so Varian competed with her horses in English riding classes. Of Bay el Bey, she commented, "He could easily have been an open reining horse, but I made him into an English pleasure horse because he could do it, he was so athletic." Her English champions also included Bay el Bey's full brother, Mikado, a gray stallion who was a champion park horse. Bay el Bey was best known for his offspring, who collectively earned him the nickname, "The Kingmaker." He sired 441 foals including three sons considered his finest: his own successor at Varian Arabians, Huckleberry Bey (whose dam was Taffona, a daughter of Raffon); U.S. Reserve National Champion Bey Shah (out of Star of Ofir, who was by Bask); and Barbary (out of Balalinka (Bask x Bachantka)), who won a total of seven national titles in halter and park horse competition. Barbary was purchased from Varian as a yearling by film producer and Arabian owner Mike Nichols. These three sons of Bay el Bey alone sired a combined total of 650 champions.
  • 1962
    Trained and shown by Varian, he was the judges' unanimous choice for U.S. National Champion Arabian Stallion in 1962, later won U.S. National Top Ten awards in both Arabian English pleasure and Western pleasure, and thereafter was awarded the Legion of Merit.
    More Details Hide Details Even though he was not bred to any mares until after he was fully trained, and thus his first foals did not appear in the show ring until he was 7, he sired 275 registered Arabians, including 65 champions and 24 national winners.
  • 1961
    By 1961, Varian Arabians had a small number of mares. The most notable of her early champions was Ronteza, a daughter of the stallion Witez II out of the mare Ronna. Ronteza was the second Arabian Varian purchased, and she trained the mare herself. The pair, undefeated in competition against other Arabian horses, went on to beat 50 horses of all breeds to win the 1961 Reined Cow Horse championship at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, California.
    More Details Hide Details Varian was aware that both Farlotta and Ronteza were sired by stallions imported from Poland, out of American-bred mares, and believed this bloodline cross was a major source for the good qualities of these mares. Thus, Varian looked for Polish-bred Arabian mares to breed to her American-bred Bay-Abi. However, Poland was at that time an Iron Curtain nation, and importing horses from there directly to America was quite complicated. To accomplish her goal, Varian sought the assistance of British horse breeder Patricia Lindsay, who traveled to Poland and purchased three mares on Varian's behalf. The mares arrived in California in December 1961. They were Bachantka (sired by Wielki Szlem out of Balalajka, who was by Amurath Sahib), purchased from the Albigowa stud; Ostroga (Duch × Orda by Omar 11), from the Nowy Dwór stud; and Naganka (Bad Afas × Najada by Fetysz), from the Michalow stud. Bachantka and Naganka had been trained and raced in Poland. Bachantka had a record of 2/15 (0-1-3), and Naganka a record of 2/12 (3-4-1). After her arrival in the USA, Bachantka also had a brief but successful horse show career.
  • 1959
    In 1959, Varian and her mother Wenonah purchased a two-year-old bay stallion named Bay-Abi (Errabi × Angyl).
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  • 1954
    Varian and her parents began using the farm name "Varian Arabians" in 1954.
    More Details Hide Details She credited her parents for helping her believe that she could do whatever she wanted to do and for trusting her own judgement, which gave her confidence in her own ability to work with horses. They worked as a team to build a horse business; Eric, an electrical contractor, built fences and managed the land, Wenonah studied pedigrees, and Sheila handled the horses. In time, their ranch expanded from 21 to 150 acres. As a young adult, Varian completed college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and taught high school physical education for three years, until 1963, when running the Varian Arabian ranch became her full-time job. The ranch was self-supporting from 1963 on, with the short-term assistance of loans from Sheila's aunt, Dorothy Varian, which were promptly repaid. Ultimately, the ranch grew to 230 acres. Varian preferred the Arabian breed because "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 they are beautiful. Arabian horses have never let me down." She valued horses with good dispositions and athletic ability as well as attractive appearance. She does not breed Arabians for a specific discipline, instead describes her breeding philosophy as “consistently continuing to breed for more quality and never losing disposition or athletic ability.” Following these principles, Varian has produced some of the most influential Arabian stallions in the breed.
    She started her horse ranch, Varian Arabians, in 1954 with the assistance of her parents.
    More Details Hide Details Raising and training horses was her full-time occupation beginning in 1963. She used vaquero-influenced methods of training horses, although she adapted her technique over the years to fit the character of the Arabian horse, which she viewed as a horse breed requiring a smart yet gentle approach. Varian produced a number of influential Arabian horses whose bloodlines are found in a significant number of winning Arabian show horses in the United States. She began her breeding program with a small number of mares whom she bred to her national champion stallion, Bay Abi. She then acquired three mares from Arabian farms in Poland at a time when that nation was still behind the Iron Curtain and importation of horses to the United States was very difficult. These mares and Bay Abi formed her foundation bloodstock., the Varian horses at stud represent the sixth generation of her stallion breeding line, and her foundation mare lines have produced nine generations of offspring. For her accomplishments, Varian received recognition from the United States Equestrian Federation, as well as several awards from various organizations within the Arabian horse industry. For her contributions as breeder and as a horse trainer in the vaquero tradition, she was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in 2003.
  • 1937
    Born on August 8, 1937.
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