By Linda White
Whether you log onto the Varian Arabians website for the first time or the three-hundredth time, you find yourself drawn, like Alice Through the Looking Glass, into the vital global presence of Varian Arabians. As you browse through page after page of information and images, you begin to understand that this is a portal: a door into the unique world Sheila Varian created for her horses, for herself, and ultimately, for Arabian horses and the world-wide Arabian horse community.
Over the last three years, as the gravity of her mortal illness became apparent, Sheila and Angela Alvarez worked up a long-turn plan for the breeding program’s future, revisiting Sheila’s original goals and aspirations, and any tailoring to meet the present day. A plan was in place for Alvarez, who joined the team 30 years ago, to carry on the unique stewardship and commitment to the horses, ideals and people that were always Sheila’s modus operandi. Integrity, wisdom, compassion and devotion - and an insatiable hunger for knowledge and understanding have characterized everything Sheila did.
Six generations of Varian stallions trace directly to Bay-Abi, founder of the Varian dynasty, and his son, Bay El Bey (x *Naganka, by Bad Afas.). Their names, and their influence, are repeated in pedigrees again and again, making their genetic gifts accessible to present-day breeders. Bay El Bey earned his nickname, “the kingmaker.” because three of his sons became Sires of Significance, based on for the number of champions each sired.
Huckleberry Bey (x Taffona, by Raffon); Bey Shah (x Star of Ofir, by *Bask); and Barbary (x Balalinka, by *Bask) sired 650 champions collectively. Everywhere you look, the numbers confirm the program’s influence. Some research indicates that there is a Varian Arabian ancestor in 84 per cent of the world’s Arabian horse population. That may sound improbable, but we do know that 70% of the show horses winning today carry Varian blood!
Had Huckleberry Bey sired only Afire Bey V (x Autumn Fire, by *Bask) his place in history would have been assured. 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 for an unheard-of 16 years. That made him the breed’s all-time leading sire of champions, replacing his maternal grandsire, *Bask, who had that title for 30 years.
When Sheila noticed that several respected breeders were having good results in crossing their American-bred Arabians with the Polish imports that were beginning to appear, she reasoned correctly that they might cross well with Bay-Abi (Errabi x Angyl, by *Raseyn.) Bay-Abi’s ancestry was mostly English (General Stud Book, or GSB) tracing back a generation or two to desert-bred. His second dam, *Wierna (Ofir x Kamea, by Farys II), was among the group of horses rescued and imported here from Poland in 1945.
Varian enlisted British breeder Patricia Lindsay to travel to Poland (behind the Iron Curtain in those days) to look for a few good mares that would further Varian’s program, then in its infancy. Lindsay found a promising mare at each of Poland’s three State Studs. She bought them on Sheila’s behalf and exported them to the United States: *Bachantka (Weilki Szlem x Balalajka, by Amurath Sahib) came from Albigowa; *Ostroga (Duch x Orda, by Omar II), from Nowy Dwor; and *Naganka (Bad Afas x Najada, by Fetysz) was from Michalow State Stud. The three mares arrived in California in December 1961.
Not only were they complete outcrosses to Bay-Abi; each brought different genetic elements to the breeding program. The positive influence they and their offspring would exert on Varian’s efforts was greater than she ever envisioned. Those mares’ Bay-Abi offspring created a dynasty of national champion halter and performance offspring who put Varian Arabians and their breeder in the spotlight – where they have remained to this day. Arabian breeding programs around the world were transformed, and breeders’ expectations rose as each generation proved to be superior to the previous one: every breeder’s dream.
The Varian influence today extends far beyond North America. Arabian horse enthusiasts the world over have begun and enriched their breeding programs with Varian blood. Pedigree researcher Arlene Magid looks at the important roles the three imported mares and their descendants played in Varian’s unswerving allegiance to breeding what she valued most in a horse.
“Sheila's great stallions became famous, in large part, because her mares were as good as the stallions,” Magid believes. “She bred or owned more Aristocrat mares (those who have produced four or more champion offspring) than anyone else. Sheila and I used to joke about it. She told me on several occasions that Arabian Horse World, who keeps track of that program, told her she couldn't submit mares for consideration anymore because there were too many!
“Some quick research shows that at least 35 Varian-bred or owned mares were eligible for the Aristocrat designation,” notes Magid. “Autumn Fire, dam of Afire Bey V, was *Bask’s top-producing daughter, with 13 champions, all but one of which were bred by Varian. Bey Shah (Bay El Bey x Star of Ofir, by *Bask) whose daughters are producing exceedingly well, sired the Varian mare La Kijan (x Keepsake V, by Huckleberry Bey), who produced 11 champions – six of them national winners!
“Most folks who know about the importance of the Varian breeding program first think of the great stallions Sheila bred,” she adds. “But as every great breeder knows, no great stallion ever came from a weak dam line. Think of the six generations of stallions Sheila bred, all with Bay-Abi or Bay El Bey as a common ancestor! So, when you think of Sheila Varian, remember that her mares helped make her stallions world famous.”
Brian Murch, who heads the team at Strawberry Banks Farm, has trained and managed the careers of some of the most influential Varian Arabians. “When I was at Lasma Arabians, we got in Hucklebey Berry (Huckleberry Bey x Miz Bask, by *Bask.) He was so gorgeous, so talented, and so good-minded.” Hucklebey Berry was four times a US National English Pleasure Champion; the fourth time was 11 years after the first: 2000 US National Champion English Pleasure, AAOTR 18-39. HBB, as his adoring fans nick-named him, will live on through his show ring stars and champion-producing daughters.
Baske Afire (Afire Bey V x Mac Baske, by Baskevich) came to Strawberry Banks in 2008, bringing two crosses to the potent Huckleberry Bey/*Bask combination. It was not surprising that he became the #1 sire of performance champions as early as the 2011 US Nationals. At the time of his death, Baske Afire was indelibly established as one of a handful of stallions whose significance to the breed will continue indefinitely.
In late 1988 Sheila sent Afire Bey V to Tim and Marty Shea, at Shea Stables, where he remained for 27 years: the remainder of his life. David and Gail Liniger bought Afire Bey V in September 1989, and never parted with him. The Linigers’ many honors included being named 2012 United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Breeders of the Year, out of all breeds, thanks to Afire Bey V’s record-breaking genetic prowess.
“Everything in our barn has Varian breeding,” says Christine Ryan, of Ryan Show Horses. “We stand Vegaz (Apollopalooza x SM Forever Bay, by MHR Nobility) for Ken and Susan Knipe.” Vegaz was 2006 US National English Pleasure Futurity Champion; 2008 US National Champion English Pleasure, Junior Horse; and 2010 US National Reserve English Pleasure Champion. He was bred by Shawn and Carmelle Rooker.
The Huckleberry Bey grandson Apollopalooza (AA Apollo Bey x TF Magical Witch, by MHR Nobility) sired Vegaz. Apollopalooza had an enviable show career in his 10 short years. His victories included the 1999, and 2001 through 2004 US National Champion English Pleasure or Park Horse titles, and the 2000 Canadian National Park Championship.
The Huckleberry Bey/*Bask cross has been highly valued, but the MHR Nobility cross too has yielded its share of memorable performers. Huckleberry Bey daughter Bey Aperitif V (x April Charm, by *Eter) was bred by Leslie and Gordon Walter, and co-owned with Varian until 1988. The grey mare won the 1987 US National Formal Driving Championship for the Walters and Varian Arabians, then went to the Krutoy family’s Andras Arabians the following year.
Bey Aperitif V’s only foal, The Noblest, a bay MHR Nobility son, won two US National English Pleasure Champion titles and became a notable sire of purebred and Half-Arabian performance winners. Andras Arabians’ other famous Huckleberry Bey offspring were 1988 Canadian National Champion Mare, Keepsake V (x Khemadera, by Khemosabi).
The back story of Varian Arabians is the 62-year adventure of a gifted, visionary horsewoman and nine generations of Arabian horses she bred. The program embodies Sheila Varian’s consuming desire: to breed beautiful, talented, willing Arabian horses with athleticism, intelligence and trainability she could respect. These would be horses who met her own no-nonsense demands and high expectations. She succeeded in such large degree that she has won the admiration and respect of breeders everywhere, at every level.
One of Sheila’s last projects was a documentary film, “V: The Legacy of Sheila Varian”. The film and its timeline are important markers in her life, in her contributions to the Arabian horse community, and to the Arabian breed. Arabians carrying Varian blood are a vital ingredient in new standards of excellence in every discipline. Their influence is evident worldwide: in the show ring; on competitive trail and distance rides; in cattle-related and other working western roles, both competitively and on ranches; as 4-H and FFA projects; and as safe, reliable pleasure horses for enthusiasts of all ages.