By Sheila Varian
The first horse arrived at my house when I was eight. Judy was a Morgan/Percheron cross that stood 16 hands and weight in about 1,200 pounds. My dad was crazy about hunting deer, and Judy was supposed to be a good hunting horse. She stood ground-tied, you could shoot off her back, carry deer in behind the saddle, haul her in any kind of truck. But somehow I managed to school her out of that in approximately one hunting season.
My father, being a mighty hunter, rode only during deer season so he wasn’t able to enjoy the fruits of my labors until August 7th rolled around the next year. I had done well. My dad raced down the mountain after a buck, pulled out his gun, hauled Judy to a stop, and let go one shot — at which time good old shoot-off-the-back, ground-tying Judy bucked my dad off into some bushes and galloped merrily back to camp. My dad swore the only reason he didn’t shoot her as she ran off was that he didn’t want to put a hole in our new saddle.
Judy hung right in there on my training techniques when it came time to load in the trailer to come home. She wouldn’t and didn’t. It was like the Irish militia going head to head with the Italian mafia. But even Judy had to concede when they drove up the tractor.
I was 12 years old before I got a saddle. I used to tie my shoes together, when I wore them, throw them over Judy’s neck, stick my big toe into the indentation right above her knee, and shinny up her leg. My dog used to ride behind me whenever he got tired, so there we were, my dog and I and the feathers I always wore in my hair so I could play Indian on a minute’s notice. Judy, Perky and I went hundreds of miles.
My first Arabian was FARLOTTA. I don’t know if I’ve ever loved anything as I loved FARLOTTA. She was frightened, belligerent, thin and wormy when I got her, but nothing mattered except that she was mine. I ate my dinner in her manger, I dreamed in the sun lying stretched out on her back. For a long time she bolted and ran, half a dozen times every ride. I never told my folks how many times we almost didn’t get home. I trusted FARLOTTA though, and she trusted me. She was a tall, long-necked mare, and I finished her in a spade bit, the first spade bit horse I ever trained.
Never beaten in a western pleasure class, winning the Western Pleasure Championship and then the Stock Horse Championship at the Cow Palace All-Arabian Show, FARLOTTA was gorgeous under saddle, and one of the best friends I ever had. I held her in my arms when she died at age seven, a victim of those old worm-infested days, and to this day I can’t talk openly about her.
I’ve been so very fortunate in having a mother and father who, although they were not horse people, recognized some of the capabilities that I had as a child, and felt my need to be totally involved in something. My dad and mother had interest that was unswerving and supportive, always willing to take a gamble or walk the next few years. They certainly didn’t trust my every judgment, and they had a great deal on input, but from the time I was a child and said that this was the way we should handle the horses, they went with my judgments — after I had gone through my "bar exam," which at our house was giving all your reasons why (loudly, as I recall).
Now that I’m older and look back, I recognize their extra willingness to put themselves totally on the line for me. My dad did the maintenance around the farm. He and I and four college students (one of them was Jim Curtis, owner of Curtis Arabians in Washington) put in all the fence posts and watering system on the original land. My mother’s joy came from researching bloodlines and pedigrees, and I learned from the fruits of her labors.
We went everywhere with our stud books under our arm, and we had them memorized. In those days, we didn’t go to a show with a program and a limited partnership prospectus in our hand, we went with our stud books and Alice Payne, and it is was made into a great contest. The Arabian business was smaller and more easily learned then, and because of my parents’ efforts I got a tremendous education. By the time I was 21 or 22, I had a photographic knowledge of most of the early horses.
You must know, too, that a tremendous amount of the education I have behind me has come from very capable horse people who weren’t concerned with whether it was an Arab or a Morgan or just a saddle horse, but whether or not it was a good horse. At that time I wasn’t worried whether or not it had Black Beauty in its pedigree three times, but that its knees were straight, it had the correct layback of shoulder and a good attitude. I don’t think you forget the people who have helped you.
The day I discovered I was a public figure in a small way and had an opportunity to do something worthwhile was a day my visions began to expand. The ranch enlarged from the original 21 acres to 150 acres. We had initiated an apprentice program — we supplied room and board and our knowledge, for the apprentices’ work capacity. I taught school for three years until there weren’t enough miles left in my body at the end of a day. My dad had retired due to his health in 1962, and by 1963 the ranch had started paying its own way so I stopped teaching. We had BAY-ABI++ and six mares, including the three imported mares *BACHANTKA, *OSTROGA and *NAGANKA, plus RONTEZA. We didn’t spend much, because we didn’t have much. A couple of years we didn’t breed the mares because we hadn’t sold enough horses. My aunt Dorothy Varian loaned us $5,000 each year for five years, to keep the ranch going. That was our only loan, and the ranch paid it back promptly.
No hired help, no arena, not much in the way of amenities of life — RONTEZA won the Open Stock Horse take at the Cow Palace, and made me friends in the open horse world that I’ll have for life. She was the only Arabian ever to win at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, and at that time I was the only girl and only amateur.
BAY-ABI++ followed the next year by being named National Champion Stallion in Estes Park, first on all three cards. The next year he was U.S. National Top Ten in English and Western Pleasure and received his Legion of Merit.
I was the Golden Girl. Job offers galore, invitations to everything, people even calling long distance. But I didn’t think I was ready to test my wings in the big wide world yet, so I stayed at home and worked on our program. We kept winning and growing, and I kept learning.
Our care of the horses has always been highly regarded. Mares are cleaned up and handled with dignity while foaling. Horse checks occur three times a day on every horse on the ranch — a system that makes every horse special. The ranch is now divided into divisions: breeding, training, maintenance and office work. I oversee all of it. I’m positive that our staff here at Varian Arabians is as good as can be found anywhere in the country, not only for expertise but for taking this job as an opportunity. We all feel we have something special here.