Remembering Sheila Varian

By Linda White

“Sheila dealt with death as she did with life: she met it head-on”
- Judy Von Duyke

Hard as it may be to fathom, one woman’s significance to the Arabian breed during her lifetime is so vast, so widespread, that the complete story may never be told. Yet Sheila Varian’s and her horses’ lives and achievements are prologue. The Varian Arabian horses that fulfilled her dreams and embodied her ideals will influence the future of the Arabian breed, as catalytic tomorrow as they are today.

Sheila was one of those larger-than-life people we may be lucky enough to encounter once, rarely twice, in a lifetime … or never. Daniel C. Gainey, founder and patriarch of Gainey Fountainhead Arabians, observed that for a horse breeder, a lifetime is never long enough to accomplish everything you want to do. That was clearly the case with Sheila Varian. Through the Arabian horses she bred, and their relatives, now numbering in the thousands, Sheila is immortal. Perhaps equally important to Arabian horse aficionados, her priceless legacy is accessible: often close enough to touch.

Following the 1985 US National Championships in Albuquerque, Tim and Marty Shea treated themselves to an after-Nationals vacation. “We flew into San Francisco, rented a car, and drove down the California coast,” Tim recalls. “We stopped in Arroyo Grande, and went to see Sheila. We had met her and seen her at shows for years, but that visit was when we really got to know her.

“She sold us a horse.” He chuckles. “When Don Severa, her friend and business partner, got hurt, I schooled some horses for her. One of those was Bey Aperitif V (Huckleberry Bey x April Charm, by *Eter). Lou Krutoy and his Andras Arabians had bought her from Sheila in September 1988.” The talented dark grey mare’s crowning achievement was the 1989 US National Formal Driving Championship. “Sheila sent us other horses,” adds Shea. “We trained and sold horses for her - horses that were game-changers for us: AA Apollo Bey, Bucharest V, HA Huckster and Afire Bey V.

“Afire Bey V came in as a late 3-year-old in February 1988. At Scottsdale the year before, Sheila had introduced us to David and Gail Liniger. They sent a Bask Flame daughter to us later that year, and in September 1989, they bought Afire Bey V. The Linigers are fabulous people. We are honored to have had a great friendship with them all these years. They have been a constant in our lives for so long, and we are so appreciative of them. They are still very much a part of the Arabian business; they kept Afire Bey V here with us for 27 years.”

For an unprecedented 16 years, Afire Bey V (Huckleberry Bey x Autumn Fire, by *Bask), recently deceased, had been the leading sire of halter and performance champions at the US National Championships. “He became the breed’s all-time leading sire of champions. All that came from Sheila,” Tim muses. “She was certainly influential in our lives. We had a great friendship, and a wonderful business relationship. We did summer clinics for her at the ranch for 10 years. To me, Sheila was the ‘breeder’s breeder.’ She never did any fad breeding. She bred horses she liked and respected. She would say, ‘I like a horse that gets along.’ By that, she meant a horse that takes care of itself: that eats right, stalls right, ships well, doesn’t get hurt, and stays sound: a low-maintenance horse.

“Because she foaled them out, trained them, showed them and took care of them, she knew them so well, which enabled her to keep everything close to center. She would say, ‘We don’t ever want people to ask, ‘What breed is this?’ We have adhered to Sheila’s vision. In the days when everything had to be pure this or straight that, people didn’t always take her seriously. She stuck to her guns, and time has proven her right. She bred what she believed in. Hers were far and away the best horses - but Sheila was never ‘barn blind.’ I remember sitting with her at shows, and she would point out great things about other people’s horses. She knew and appreciated a good horse.

“I learned so much from her. She would tell me something about a horse, but I wouldn’t be able to see it. She could see things I couldn’t see,” he concedes matter-of-factly. “Looking back, I now understand what she meant, but I sure didn’t, then.

“The horses she bred continue to succeed in every division and discipline out there,” Shea adds. “The Varian horses are willing, they’re athletic, they like people, and they think right, which also makes them ideal for youth and amateurs. No other program I can think of has stayed at the forefront of the Arabian breed, as vital today as it was 60 years ago. Sixty years! That’s a long time to be a leader – in any business.

“Marty and I were so proud of her when she was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.” He smiles. “Marty went to Texas for her induction ceremony. She and Sheila were great friends. They did a lot of riding: riding trails out across the countryside. Marty loved what she called ‘the cowgirl experience.’”

“The last time we rode together was one of the most meaningful experiences of my whole life,” says Marty. “Even after she was diagnosed with cancer, she rode as long as she could. The last time we were together, Kathy Hart, Bill Flemion, who manages the Hearst Ranch, Sheila and I went out on the trails. We would go on wonderful cattle drives with Don Severa, sleeping out under the stars, in bedrolls (like cowboys.) One time, we went into California, and rode on the eastern slopes of the Rockies. The views! Unforgettable.

“Sheila was always kind – to people, and to animals - all animals. That’s just who she was. She even referred to her last illness as ‘a bump in the road.’” Marty falls silent. “You know,” she says slowly, clearly finding it hard to speak, “I never would have expected to be this moved by Sheila’s passing. I will always remember the wonderful times we had. Visiting her farm in 1985 was a real turning point for us. We were so fortunate to have had her friendship all these years.

“She was ever the teacher. She would inspire you with the information she gave. I would think, ‘Oh gosh! That’s great. I’m going to try that when I get home!’ We always came away from there with lots to think about.”

“She was a teacher,” agrees Mitch Sperte, “but if I had to come up with one word to describe Sheila, it would be ‘storyteller.’ That was one of her greatest gifts She could paint pictures with words like nobody else I’ve ever known. She was the best storyteller you could imagine, and I saw her do it over and over, throughout her career. She could captivate a crowd with the most mundane, ordinary event, like trailering Ronteza to a show. She would bring it to life, and lead her listeners into the story as it unfolded.” Sperte joined the Lasma Arabians apprentice program in 1979. Two years later, Varian, who had noticed him at work, offered him a job.

“Sheila was already an iconic figure, so I was very flattered,” Sperte admits. “Most meaningful to me then - and still - is that she had enough confidence in me, and in my ability, to turn the bulk of training responsibilities over to me. Soon after, Don Severa came along. He and she initiated marketing projects that raised both Sheila’s and the horses’ visibility in the public eye. He was sold on the Varian ‘brand.’ Meanwhile, I was training and schooling up-and-coming young horses, like Huckleberry Bey (Bay El Bey x Taffona, by Raffon), Traditio (Gdansk x Halali Tamarisk, by Wiertez), and Comment (Mikado x *Ostroga, by Duch.)

“What I found most remarkable about Sheila was the fact that she stayed true to her vision. She didn’t allow herself to be caught up in fads; she remained faithful to her ideals - which served her very well. Her breeding program has stood the test of time. She obviously had vision, amazing intuition about what would work … and a little bit of luck. Who would ever imagine that crossing Bay El Bey with Taffona (Raffon x Waneta, by Bagdad) would produce Huckleberry Bey? He was so unusual for his time: long-legged, long-necked, refined, and with such upright carriage. He turned out to be a perfect outcross for the *Bask daughters. Bay El Bey sired three sons: Huck, Bey Shah, and Barbary, that put Sheila and Varian Arabians on the map: then, now, and into the future.”

Brian Murch has vivid memories of Sheila from the days when his father, Halsey Murch, was trainer at Gainey Arabians, down the road in Santa Ynez. “I was just a kid, maybe in 7th or 8th grade, and we were at a show at the Earl Warren Showgrounds, in Santa Barbara,” he recalls. “In those days, park classes were bigger, very competitive, and always exciting. That day, this park class came in ... and there was Sheila, on Mikado (Bay-Abi x *Naganka, by Bad Afas). They were breathtaking!

“Then, in came Gene La Croix, onGwalior, and Gary Long, on *Aramus; then Don Hansen and Royal Binis trotted through the gate; and next, Murrell Lacey and *Karadjordge came in. Those five great stallions! I’m sure there were other nice horses in the class, but those are the ones I will never forget. The stands were packed, and that coliseum was rocking! When they lined up, Sheila and Mikado pulled in betweenAramus and *Gwalior. I can see them as if it were yesterday.” Mikado and Bay El Bey were full brothers (Bay-Abi x *Naganka, by Bad Afas.) [Note: Mikado was grey, like his dam; every grey horse must have one grey parent, for the grey coat color to appear.]

Murch continues. “I can remember going up to Varian Arabians, in Arroyo Grande, and seeing those great mares she had. Sheila would present what she called ‘living pedigrees’ to teach people how she made her breeding selections, and what the results were. She was always a teacher. When you think of all she did for the breed ….” Murch just shakes his head. “Unbelievable.”

If you mention Sheila Varian to Christine Ryan, the first words out of her mouth will be, “Thank God for Sheila! What would we have done without her – and without those horses? When I went out on my own as a trainer, Berrynsk V (Huckleberry Bey x Balalinka, by *Bask) was my first Regional winner. The years I trained at Double A Arabians, in Somers Connecticut, we stood BH Santana, who was by Barbary (Bay El Bey x Balalinka, by *Bask). Such good thinkers! I still have two BH Santana grandget of my own, here in training.”

Last fall, Christine showed the Varian-bred Aspecial Jullyen V (Jullyen El Jamaal x Alyce Bey V, by Huckleberry Bey) to 2015 US and Canadian National Top 10 Championships in Western Pleasure, Junior Horse for owner Aimee Browner. John and Christine Ryan purchased Aspecial Jullyen V for themselves in March 2016. Sheila and Don Severa had bought Jullyen El Jamaal (Ali Jamaal x Julle El Ludjin, by Ludjin El Jamaal) in 2002 as an outcross; another breeding choice that is standing the test of time.

“Sheila told us she gave him that name when he was born, because she knew then that he was going to be very special,” Christine explains. “He’s big, beautiful, impressive, and so good-minded. Before his final go at Nationals, we longed him for five minutes before I got on him and rode into the ring. Five minutes. Honestly, how many western pleasure horses - especially junior horses, could you do that with?

“All the Varian horses are so trainable, so agreeable,” she adds. “They are so sensitive, enthusiastic and smart, and so user-friendly! You don’t have to knock yourself out, trying to train them. They love to work, and look to you as a partner. Sheila bred those qualities into them for 62 years; it’s in their DNA.”

[Note to Readers: If you have a special memory of Sheila Varian, or of a horse(es) carrying Varian blood, we would love to hear from you! Seeing your own recollections in a collection of readers’ experiences will be as gratifying to you today as it will be helpful to Arabian horse people tomorrow.]

See also:

The Passing of Sheila Varian