by Sheila Varian
The very first thing I have to say is that I love horses. I've loved horses since I was a little girl. I didn't come from a family of horse people, but some of us were just born to love horses and I love them.
I eventually read the Walter Farley Black Stallion series of books and fell in love with Arabian horses. I loved their beauty, I loved their intelligence, I loved the imagination of it. When I was about fourteen years old, I was able to purchase, through my parents of course, my first Arabian mare named Farlotta. At the same time, I was becoming very interested in spade bits.
I was fascinated by the history in California of the spade bit horse, and rode with a woman rancher that trained spade bit horses. She didn't show horses, but she knew how to ride, train and care for a horse better than anybody. Sid (Mary) Spencer did all of her own shoeing, gelding, and training. She baled the hay and did all the ranchwork, as well as repairing her trucks. On her ranch I got to ride a Morgan named Little Horse, that Sid’s husband trained. When I was listening to Valerie today talking about visualization, that was the exact feeling I had in my hands when I picked up the reins on Little Horse.
That feeling has stayed with me for years. I knew exactly how I wanted this feeling to be when I got to that point with my 2nd Arabian mare Ronteza. I trained her as a spade bit horse and took her to the Cow Palace, where she won the Open Reined Cow Horse division. She was the only Arabian horse and I was the only girl, and the greatest part was I had no clue that this was something unusual. I was riding alone at home and I didn't have a so-called "teacher," so I was doing a great deal of visualizing, remembering the feel I got riding Little Horse.
As I have always said, and this is probably the most important thing about my breeding program, if you have had a great horse, most of what makes that horse great is the horse itself. I've always said Ronteza took me by the hand, because I was 21 years old when she won, and no 21-year-old knows everything by any manner of means. What I did know, and this has stood me in good stead all these years, was to listen to her, to pay attention to what she had to tell me. And if I asked her to do something, and I gave her instructions that were not clear to her, I learned that if I would just wait, she would sort them out, and get me out of trouble. I knew that she would straighten out the situation, so I believed in her. I think that in what we do in life, and where we go, is often a matter of believing in, and trusting in life. Greg Ward has a great saying: "Have the faith." I think often that's the case. We let an animal bring to us what they have to bring, and if we can understand and pay attention, and listen to what our horse has to tell us, we can develop many things that we never consciously knew about because we "had the faith."
Because of my interest in spade bits, I developed a breeding program for my Arabian horses that includes English horses and Western horses. English horses are very strutty, they trot big, and they have a lot of style. The Western horse wants to drop down to the ground during a maneuver. Because I love both disciplines, and because a spade bit horse carries his head like the Old Spanish vaquero horse, I developed a horse that carried a higher neck set. The original spade bit horse carried a high, proudly carried head. You've seen photographs of those horses. That has had a tremendous influence on my program in breeding, because I wanted to develop a horse that had all this carriage.
Arabian horses have to be beautiful in my mind, but first they must be functional. Having been educated by a woman that was a master of using a horse, I learned about feet and knees and joints and a horse with a good disposition. As I went along in my growth period, it became obvious that what I wanted to do was breed my own type of Arabian horse. My folks were helpful, because they weren't necessarily interested in the horses, but they were interested in me. They supported me, not particularly financially, but they did support me with tremendous backing. My mother memorized pedigrees, my dad built fences, and I took care of the barns and horses and the training. I got a college education, because that was their deal. "You go to school, Sheila, you get an education, get five years of schooling, so you can support yourself if this doesn't work." So I did. I became a teacher and enjoyed it very much, but shortly I was working full time on our little farm.
I was kind of making it, not well, but you know if you're not making a lot of money, but you're having a swell time, you really don't mind. I never minded not having a lot of things, and I have now decided that probably the luckiest thing that happened to me was, that since I didn't have a lot of financial backing, it made me proceed slow enough to learn my trade. It didn't allow me to skip any steps. I had to learn how to trim my own horses. There were not enough finances at the time to hire a farrier, so I trimmed my own horses, and I learned a lot about feet. Of course I did all of my own stall cleaning and I did my own foaling. We did all of the fence building and we did all our own training. We did all the things that make you knowledgeable. For anybody wanting to get into this business of breeding, I think it is very difficult to come out on top if any steps are skipped. I think the word perseverance is mandatory. I believe that you must start at the bottom and work your way up.
Valerie Kanavy was talking about the fact that an animal is a functional animal, and I believe that to the core. I don't care what breed he is, he must be functional, because that's what horses are for. A Quarter Horse, an Arabian, a Thoroughbred, no matter what breed he is, if you bring a good one in front of me, I'm going to like it. I may breed Arabian horses, but the first time I saw Doc Bar, I thought he was so beautiful I couldn't breathe. I think that any true horse breeder will love any horse if it’s a good one. I am now down to the eighth generation of my original mares, and down to the fifth generation of my original stallions. I have 150+ horses at any one time on the farm.
Ronteza, Bay Abi, Bay El Bey++, Huckleberry Bay++, and Desperado V have all been major players at my farm. Our horses have become the winningest horses in our breed, the reason being because judges pin beautiful horses that perform and owners want to be part of the training and most of the raising and enjoying. There was a time in our breed (the 1980’s) when people wanted to look at the horses and have somebody else show them. Now we all want to participate. Those of us that have been breeding hands-on horses have remained successful.
When I was thinking about how to talk about making good business decisions - buying, selling and breeding horses, I thought that for me, this can be split into two topics: Buying and selling, and breeding. Buying and selling to me means that any horse is available for purchase. Breeding means that some horses are not available for purchase. If you are going to breed, you must have some horses that you never sell, or that you don't sell until they have produced what you need. I must admit I'm pretty much of a softy, and the horses that have really done good things for me are going to be at my farm for their lifetime.
I take a lot of pleasure in the fact that I have had generations of horses that have lived with me and never left my farm. Arabian horses live a long time, some of them living to be twenty-seven to thirty years old, so I've kept them for years. But I get a lot of pleasure walking out and petting them and saying, "You've been good to me, you paid the bills, you supported me, you traveled me all over the country and the world, you've always been there, and you've made my life a joy." So as a breeder, there are certainly horses I don't sell. I carry them on through their generations by taking the first letter of each mare’s name to start the name of their foals. Now I have generations of B horses and P horses, or M or E or whatever, their pedigree comes down through their name. I now add a V after the foal’s name for Varian, which is also a very good marketing technique. It also makes me proud when I see horses in a showring carrying a "V" after their name.
Now that you have a bit of my background, let me expand on a breeding program success. One of the most important parts of a horse that you must start off with in a breeding program is starting from the bottom up - literally. I’m talking about feet. If I have a stallion who doesn't have good feet, and he can't ride barefoot through the hills, I’ll tell you honestly that no matter how good he is, I will not keep him as a stallion. Our breed has been known for its good feet for centuries, and I'm not going to lose that reputation.
Also for me, every mare has to go under saddle. She has to prove herself as a riding animal. I used to insist that every mare had to be a champion. I now have had so many generations that I don't necessarily take each horse to the showring, but I have to know that they ride. I have to know that they train. I have to know that they're fun, pleasurable horses for me to be with. I'm a girl; I don't want a horse pushing me around. I don't want to have to jerk on one. I don't want to have to hit one. I want an animal that responds to me as a soft, gentle, willing horse that can go out and do a hard days work. I ride hard. I ride in the mountains a lot; I do a lot of cattle work. A lot of people think you can't rope off of Arabians. I rope all the time on my Arabians. I cover country on them, and they're gentle and capable. For me, if an Arabian horse can't tie to a tree, then I don't want him. Valerie was talking about horses that eat well, sleep well, and that tie to a tree. A lot of people don't think that’s important in a breeding program, but I do. I think the horses have to be useful as well as pleasant, beautiful, and kind. I think that all goes together in a breeding program.
Now you've got your breeding program going. You've got the horses you love. You've enjoyed it, and now you have to finance it. And breeding animals is very, very expensive because it's long-term. You have a filly; you're going to wait for four years before she'll be ready to breed. By the time she's four or five she'll have a baby and you've got to raise that baby. Most people don't have that kind of patience. If you're going to have a breeding program, however, you’re going to have to learn patience. Also, of course, you've got to learn how to support your program. It became paramount for me to learn how to do an advertisement layout. What is important in writing an ad to promote your animals, that you put down all the things you would journalistically - how, why, when, where and how much ?
I see so often in ads people will put in a picture of a horse, and then they don't explain what the ad is about. Is the horse for sale? Offered at stud? What is the price? Where is your farm? How do I contact you? Is there a web page? Is there a phone number, a fax, an email address? Is there someone available to answer the phone? Can you give proper instructions? How fast can you get a video out on those horses? If someone is going to purchase a horse, I guarantee that you've got a small window of time to work with. They call on Monday and you get the video or information to them that day. If you wait to call them back on Friday, you've probably lost your person to purchase the horse.
Consider carefully how to learn to prepare ads. And you should learn how to make videos - where to set it up, how to present it, and who does the video. We could not afford to go out and hire a videographer, so we learned how to take the videos, to do the photographs ourselves. We do our own videography. Possibly not with all the slow motion, but I have to tell you, people often appreciate a normal horse. With Arabians, people can come on with so much glitter, slow motion, horses dancing across the desert and the trees, that sometimes I'm even shocked. We don't do that. We make it very straight forward and very clear. The price is there, what the horse has done, and what its heritage is.
We don’t sell a horse that has a health problem unless I have made a point to tell the interested people about it. Normally I don't sell horses that have health problems, and I don't sell horses that have mental problems. I do not sell horses to a young person that would not work out for a young person. I also don’t sell by auction. I want to look you in the eye, and I want to know that the horse I'm picking for you is the right one. I say we're the Nordstroms of the Arabian world, and if you need something, we’re going to get it for you. If you want it now, we’re going to get it for you now.
We transport semen and horses all over the world. When you want semen from Varian Arabians, if you call us on Monday by ten o'clock in the morning, you will have it on Tuesday. We ship Monday, Wednesday and Friday using FedEx or on the airlines depending on the destination and urgency of the shipment. Ours is a business we live in. If we have an economic downturn, and because horses are a luxury item, our business is one of the first to suffer. To make sure Varian Arabians is protected, we stay ahead of it. We are quick. Our contracts are easily read and are very clear to everyone. We never try to take the complete advantage. We make our contracts so that it works for both of us. Now you may say, "Gosh, you sound to good for words." Maybe so, but that's why we’ve been successful over my fifty years. Stand behind your product, believe in it, and offer as good as you keep to others.