Sheila Varian (August 8, 1937 – March 6, 2016)
For every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to reap; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8
On Sunday, March 6, 2016, Sheila Varian passed away at the place she loved most: Varian Arabian Ranch, surrounded by friends and loved ones. For more than 60 years, she bred Arabian horses - 1180 of them registered at last count - toward her ideal. She envisioned a horse with distinctive Arabian type, beauty, athleticism, a willing temperament, and trainability. In 1954, with her parents’ support, she launched a breeding program at the family’s small ranch near Arroyo Grande, California.
As the ranch’s acreage grew, horses from the Varian Arabian program exerted an increasingly profound influence on the Arabian breed throughout the world. The Varian influence continues unabated, and will maintain its high profile into the foreseeable future. Two years ago, statistics released following the US National Show showed that 84 per cent of the Arabian show horses winning today carry Varian blood!
Sheila’s first Arabian was Farlotta (*Lotnik x Farza, by Sahar). She trained Farlotta and showed her successfully in western classes, but the grey mare was dead at seven, the result of chronic neglect as a youngster. In 1959, Sheila and her mother, who had become an avid pedigree student, found and purchased a 2-year-old colt, Bay-Abi (Errabi x Angyl, by *Raseyn) from his breeder, Loyd Silva. Bay-Abi became her foundation sire. She trained him herself, led Bay-Abi to a unanimous 1962 US National Champion Stallion title, and added US Top 10 honors in western and English pleasure.
The year before, she trained and rode Ronteza (*Witez II x Ronna, by Faronek), her second Arabian mare, to the 1961 Reined Cow Horse Championship at San Francisco’s Cow Palace – defeating 50 other horses, of breeds more familiar to the working western scene. Varian was the first amateur, the first woman, and Ronteza the first Arabian, to accomplish a feat that not only demanded considerable skill, but had been the unchallenged province of cowboys and their Quarter Horses.
Sheila graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and taught physical education at Arroyo Grande High School for three years before resigning and assuming the mantle of trainer, breeder and farm manager of Varian Arabians full-time in 1963. Sheila always listed Mary “Sid” Spencer, a local Morgan breeder and trainer, as the person who introduced her to California’s centuries-old vaquero training method. Her second mentor, Tom Dorrance, taught her an expanded version of the vaquero, “soft approach” to training – a method she adjusted to suit the Arabians’ intelligent, sensitive, more intuitive temperament. Ever a teacher, in or out of the classroom, Sheila shared her training methods with thousands of horse owners. Her breeding philosophy, too, was much in demand, evidenced by in the long waiting list of fans eager to attend her annual seminars and symposia at the ranch.
Observing the success of the Polish outcross on domestic Arabians, Sheila asked British breeder Patricia Lindsay to travel to Poland on her behalf, and select bloodstock that would crystalize her breeding program, still in its infancy. Lindsay found three mares: one at each of Poland’s three significant State Studs: Bachantka (Weilki Szlem x Balalajka, by Amurath Sahib) at Albigowa; Ostroga (Duch x Orda, by Omar II) at Nowy Dwor; and Naganka (Bad Afas x Najada, by Fetysz) at Michalow State Stud. The three mares arrived in California in December 1961.
Each produced beautiful, talented, willing offspring that met and often exceeded even Varian’s unsentimental scrutiny. Naganka’s 1969 Bay-Abi colt, Bay El Bey, won multiple US and Canadian national championships and reserves in stallion halter, and numerous English pleasure honors. Bay El Bay earned his nickname, “the kingmaker,” when it became clear that he was a sire for the ages. Three of his sons: Huckleberry Bey, Bey Shah and Barbary, collectively sired 650 champions … in halter, and in every performance discipline. Arabians descended from Bay-Abi, an estimated 189,000, continue to succeed in halter and performance, nationally and internationally, and to breed on their excellence.
Sheila earned considerable respect and admiration outside the Arabian horse community. Reined cow horse trainers and enthusiasts from breeds more traditionally associated with working western disciplines know, or know of, the famous horsewoman and her achievements. In 2003 Sheila Varian was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, joining the likes of cowgirl and markswoman Annie Oakley.
The many other honors accorded Sheila included the USEF’s 2001 Ellen Scripps Davis Memorial Breeders’ Cup, awarded to someone who consistently breeds outstanding show horses. Sheila received the 2005 Arabian Horse Association’s lifetime achievement award. She was honored four times as the Arabian Professional and Amateur Horse Association’s Breeder of the Year; and in 2008, she was selected the USEF’s Number One Breeder of Performance Horses - of all breeds.
In 2013, Arabian Horse World magazine announced that Sheila Varian was the all-time leading breeder of English and western Arabian horses who competed at USEF-sanctioned shows. For an unprecedented 16 years, the Varian-bred Afire Bey V (Huckleberry Bey x Autumn Fire, by *Bask), recently deceased, was the leading sire of halter and performance champions at the US National Championships. Varian Arabians has stood six succeeding generations of stallions descended from Bay-Abi, and bred nine generations of Varian mares descended from the three Polish foundation mares imported in 1961.
The scope of the positive differences Varian Arabians have made is evident in the numbers. Over the last century, influential Arabian breeders and breeding programs have come and gone; they may only appear in a pedigree three and four generations earlier – or are remote enough to be off the registration certificate altogether. Varian is one of very few dynasties that appear in champions’ pedigrees four, five and six generations earlier – and continue, as vital today as they were half a century ago. In 2004, Varian Arabians celebrated its 50-Year Golden Jubilee. That was 12 years ago, yet on they go, unvanquished.
In 2013, diagnosed with cancer and faced with the immediacy of her own mortality, Sheila became more and more concerned about the future of Varian Arabians. She approached the California Rangeland Trust, requesting that the 230-acre Varian Arabian Ranch be placed in a conservation easement which would protect it from development. The conservation easement would allow Angela Alvarez, Sheila’s trusted right hand and ranch manager for 30 years, to continue the Varian breeding program where it began, and following plans she and Angie had outlined in detail. All it would take was money. Lots of money. Sheila probably looked down from above and laughed at the irony of what happened next.
When her death was announced, the California Rangeland Trust’s website crashed, so flooded was it with donations to support Varian Arabian Ranch’s preservation in a conservation easement. Sheila Varian will be long remembered for the 1180 Arabian horses she bred, but she accomplished far more. She changed Arabian horse breeding forever, and in so doing, she breathed new life into The Versatile Arabian.