Ahead of Her Time
Sheila Varian’s horse sense transcends breeds, disciplines, geography and convention. Her story from a young, horse-less girl to an Arabian horse legend is one for the ages.
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.
Cow Palace 1961
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.
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.
Sheila Varian Honors
- All-Time #1 Arabian Breeder of Both English-Type and Western-Type Horses *Ranked by Arabian Horse World Magazine
- 2001 USEF Ellen Scripps Davis Memorial Breeders’ Cup
- 2003 Cowgirl Hall of Fame Honoree for her Horse Breeding and Training, and her Passion for the Vaquero Style
- 2005 Arabian Breeders Association's Lifetime Achievement Award
- 2009 Arabian Professional and Amateur Horseman's Association Breeder of the Year