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It’s difficult to encapsulate Sheila Varian’s gift — her innate sense of what is good and right, and how she shares that gift with horses and people. With her signature low-set pigtails, she has built the most influential Arabian breeding program in the world. But in true Sheila style, she didn’t do it like anyone before her.
Varian’s family didn’t even have horses when she was growing up. At the age of 13, she met a local, lifelong mentor. Sid Spencer was a woman of the California Vaquero traditions that raised Morgan horses. Sheila was captivated by the working horse and developed a passion for the vaquero ways. Sid taught her young protégé how to ride in the mountains, how to take care of horses, how to properly use a horse in a hackamore, two rein and spade bit. Perhaps Spencer’s greatest lessons to Varian regarded conformation, a foreshadowing of the girl’s future horse breeding success.
“I loved the working horses, and I was an Arabian lover from the word ‘go’. Arabians were the horses for me!” says Varian. When training, Sheila’s approach was simple, yet visionary. Never having worked with a horse trainer, Sheila was inspired by books like The Black Stallion. She developed a relationship with her horse with soft, non-aggressive training methods. Each animal was treated as an individual and trained according to what they best responded to. She encouraged her horses to play, to be horses and created an intense connection between girl and horse. As a teenager, Sheila would soon meet the mare that would change her life.
Ronteza was a smart, intuitive, round, bay mare that Sheila bought for $750. Sheila trained and showed her in Arab shows in the hackamore, then the two rein and eventually in the spade bit when the mare was 7 years old.
At 21, the young trainer secretly dreamed of showing Ronteza at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, the most prestigious working cow horse show of its day. However, the horses that competed at this show were American Quarter Horses, a breed that had been bred for many generations to work cattle. Varian didn’t even have an arena or cattle to train her Arab mare with. Most trainers would have seen these things as substantial obstacles in the training of a working cow horse. Instead, Varian would ride Ronteza out in the pasture among the cattle to train her. Varian and Ronteza trusted each other, and as Sheila says, the mare “... led me by the hand. If I would listen when I got confused, she would figure it out. And I believed her.”
There were other factors working against the pair’s chances. Ronteza had never been ridden indoors, and she would be the only horse ridden by a female trainer, who was also the only amateur rider entered at the show. Varian had never even attended the annual show as a spectator. So, off to San Francisco they went.
Both horse and rider were frozen in fear as the preliminary round started. Sheila could feel the mare’s heart beat through the fenders of her saddle. They entered the arena and started a beautiful run. But as she started to circle her cow, Ronteza went down. If Sheila stepped off the horse, they’d be disqualified. Instead, Varian stood over Ronteza until she jumped back up underneath Sheila, as if nothing had ever happened! The team had qualified for the finals!
The Cow Palace was the standard against which all working cow horse shows were measured. Ronteza was perfection in the finals, and they won the show. “Ronteza was golden,“ remembers Varian. Her signature moment had arrived. Sheila Varian was on the map as a horse trainer and soon set her sights on another facet of the Arabian horse world.
Ronteza fell during the preliminary round at the Cow Palace. However, Sheila Varian stayed aboard, and the mare recovered to finish the run and qualify for the finals.
Sheila Varian, 21, and Ronteza after winning the Cow Palace Horse Show in 1961. Sheila was the only rider to ever climb aboard Ronteza, and, at the time, together they were the only Arabian horse, only female rider and only amateur rider to win this prestigious cow horse show.
It wasn’t long after the Cow Palace that renowned horseman Tom Dorrance sought out this girl-wonder of the horse world. Although Sheila
didn’t know of Dorrance when he pulled his truck onto her family farm in Arroyo Grande, Calif., he had heard of Varian and Ronteza — an Arabian in a spade bit. Within an hour, he made Varian most curious about things she had never thought about. “He was the guy that was harmony to the horse. He helped me to read a horse and to get horses to understand my body language, “ recalls Sheila. Dorrance was the father of the soft approach to horse training. When Tom returned a year later to check on Sheila’s progress, he was pleased. His influence was hugely important on Varian’s horse handling and breeding program going forward.
The Foundation of Varian Arabians —
The three mares (that became the foundation of Varian Arabians) arriving from Poland in 1961. Ostroga, Naganka, and Bachantka would eventually go on to produce 9 generations for the Varian Program.
Varian’s first two Arabs, (Ronteza, and a mare named Farlota), were both by Polish stallions that had been brought to the United States by General Patton after World War II. Sheila appreciated their athleticism, and she wanted to find a stallion of the same blood. She was beginning to consider the future as an Arabian horse breeder. At 19 years old, in 1959, she made plans to attend the first ever all-Arabian horse auction in America. Sheila saw a “sparkly, round” two year-old stallion in his stall. She bought the prospect for $1100 and started training him. She would ride Bay Abi bareback all around the farm. As history played out, Bay Abi became the U.S. National Champion Arabian Stallion in 1962 under Sheila and later won the U.S. National Top Ten awards in both Arabian English pleasure and Western pleasure and was awarded the Legion of Merit. But Bay Abi’s real impact was yet to be felt.
To have the horses she wanted, Sheila decided she needed to breed them. However, she didn’t want to follow the standard, straight-Russian breeding practices common at the time. True to form, the young horsewoman didn’t rely on what was popular or easy. She did what she believed and wanted to breed athletic, talented horses with good conformation. Sheila’s parents supported her vision completely, and she credits their confidence in her for much of her success. Sheila handled the horses. Her father, Eric, built the facilities at the farm and managed the land. Her mother, Wenona, endlessly studied pedigrees of Arabian horses as they prepared to build their new breeding program.
Bay El Bey changed the Arabian horse breed forever with his signature long, elegant, curved neck and soft poll common to the breed today. He sired 34 national champions and over 70% of all registered Arabian horses born since 1972 carry the blood of Bay El Bey.
The family eventually heard of a band of broodmares owned by the Polish Army that was disbanding. The Varian’s were interested in purchasing one of the mares to eventually breed to their recently acquired stallion, Bay Abi. In 1960, Wenona wrote a letter to Patricia Lindsey, a woman in England, asking her to act as an agent on their behalf in Poland. Lindsey traveled to Poland and sent letters and photos across the Atlantic until not one, not two, but three mares were secured on behalf of Varian Arabians. The investment came to a total of $3,700.
Bringing the Polish females over to breed them to an American-bred stallion was controversial within her industry. Many people were critical of Varian. They told her she was disrespecting the breed. But Sheila did what she thought was right by the horses. She believed in the direction of her program and was a very young pioneer that made unpopular choices to back up what she believed.
She bred Naganka to her stallion, Bay Abi. The resulting foal, Bay El Bey, changed the Arabian horse breed forever with his signature long, elegant, curved neck and soft poll common to the breed today. He went on to sire 34 national champions. His impact on the breed can be summed up with one fact: over 70% of all registered Arabian horses born since 1972 carry the blood of Bay El Bey.
The dominance of the Varian bloodlines is unquestionable. Her horses are willing, light, responsive, sensitive and athletic. Sheila’s impact on the breed is so pronounced. It’s impossible to imagine the industry without her in it. Because of her individualized approach to training each horse, there were distinct attributes from every generation whether they were winners in Western, English or Halter Divisions. She inspired a new generation of trainers, owners and breeders. But even more impactful, she reminds people from all walks of life to trust their instincts, to be brave and to be kind. She was never trying to be different, she was just doing what she believed was the right thing to do by the horse.
The documentary presents the epic story of one of the world's most revered horsewomen. Viewers will be inspired by what can happen when someone digs deep to follow their calling and ends up changing the world.
To order your copy of the DVD or to find out more about the production of the documentary, visit evieinc.net/v-the-legacy-of-sheila-varian/
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