Sheila Varian: Full Circle Inspiration

We all have childhood heroes and those we look up to. Growing up on the frozen tundra of Manitoba, there was an urgency to my rummage of every Arabian Horse magazine arriving monthly by mail. I clung to the images of the stallions and mares, memorized their lineages, their offspring, and the farms they were raised on. I don’t ever remember not knowing about Sheila Varian. Sheila has always been my personal elect of someone who was accomplished, unaltered by others opinions, focused and successful. Not to mention her global influence of the Arabian breed with her program at Varian Arabians in Arroyo Grande CA.

Sheila Varian

Sheila made her mark early on. As a young woman in October 1961, Sheila and her little bay mare Ronteza took the San Francisco Cow Palace by storm. They were up against the stiffest competition consisting of only Quarter Horses and accomplished bridle horse men. Against all odds, Sheila was the only woman riding the only Arabian, and the only mare. There, they defeated the top names in the reining industry with the high score in the Open Reined Cowhorse Championship. In reining parlance at the time, this was considered “Winning the World”. That is what the tall, lanky girl from nowhere with her little bay Arabian mare did. The magnitude of their achievement that night went down in history.

Sheila & Roteza “Winning the World” in 1961

When I was old enough to learn of Sheila’s accomplishments, she had my rapt attention. It became my purpose to read every article and come to know her and the horses she bred, raised and showed to great accomplishment. Sheila Varian changed the face of the Arabian breed, one great cross at a time.  For me as a youngster, her influence was deep as my life revolved around my own part-bred Arabian gelding. Over the next quarter century or so, I came to know a lot of horses, and horsemen but I never forgot about Miss Sheila. Always watching from afar, as she continued to heavily influence the Arabian breed, in both the show ring and in the breeding shed.

As my life transformed from hard labour and riding horses for a living to the full time artist I am today, extensive travel was involved early on in my art career. June of 2007 I found myself in sunny California participating in several Art Shows while visiting good friends, Don and Rosemary Anderson in Atascadero CA. During that visit, the three of us attended a California Rangeland Trust fundraiser at Rancho San Julian in Lompoc, CA. I can still feel that cool breeze coming in off the ocean through the smell of the tall eucalyptus trees, the people, the camaraderie and the joy of the evening. Then I remember the air standing still. I forgot all the sounds, the smell, the people standing near, it all escaped me. Across the crowded room, there she stood. In her most wonderfully appropriate cowgirl outfit, unique in her own way and taller than most. My childhood hero in the flesh. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t use my words. I was seven years old again.

Sheila Varian was in the building. Thank goodness for my friends, as Don had been in high school when Sheila was teaching P.E. at Arroyo Grande School District known as Lucia Mar. And it was Don who introduced me to Miss Sheila that evening. My memory escapes me as to how we conversed, and while I desperately tried not to stare, I vividly remember her voice, her belt buckle and mostly her kindness. I was in the presence of greatness, and as I write these words today, I am still in awe. The evening was nothing short of magical, and I left with a warm heart and levity in my step.

Fast forward to 2008, back in sunny California, ‘running amuck’ as my friend Rosemary calls it, we joyfully found ourselves fully immersed in Varian Arabians Summer Jubilee weekend. Listening to Sheila speak with her broad sense of humour, the crowds of people that came to see all the ‘V’ horses, participating in the mare walk, and Dave Stamey serenading Sheila with Happy Birthday songs. We watched the ‘V’ stallions dance at liberty as they were shared with us all, we all mingled and celebrated the passion for the Arabian breed, and for Sheila’s list of accomplishments as a legendary breeder and trainer. It was one big family gathering. Just when I didn’t think things could get any better, Sheila asked if I would like to go riding with her and some of her friends after the weekend festivities. Unquestionably, my schedule was cleared and we met early the next morning at her house. She invited me in, and promptly handed me a bridle. We sat on her living room floor and changed out a couple of headstalls and bits before we headed out to ride in the hills far above the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

Sheila & Shannon riding together 2008

My childhood dream came true. I not only met my hero, but got to ride with her, doing what she loved the most – riding in the hills above her ranch. Oh how my life was complete. I met Sheila only once more before she passed on March 6, 2016. The world lost a legendary horsewoman who changed the face of the Arabian breed with over six decades of breeding and major accomplishments.  2003 Cowgirl Hall of Fame Inductee; 2008 USEF Performance Horse Registry Leading Breeder Award, over all breeds; the list goes on far too long to list.

A second fast forward to August 2018, when I was honoured as the Featured Artist at Vaquero Heritage Days in San Juan Bautista CA. The excitement to travel again to California was palpable. As new friends and old gathered at historic St Francis Retreat and set up in the beautiful adobe buildings under the stately oak trees, it proved to be a most memorable weekend. Full of collectible silver, jewelry, rawhide, silks, gear, art and all adornments of the vaquero lifestyle. As I perused the trappings, I found myself fondling a well used bridle, silent in disbelief. Could it be? Is it? Why is this here? My friend Bill Reynolds gave a gentle nod, that it was in fact Sheila’s bridle. I recognized the headstall, the bit, the rein chains, the well used romals. It was 2008 all over again. This is the very bridle Sheila used the day we rode together ten years earlier. It was her ‘go to’ bridle. *Jullyen el Jamaal wore this bridle, Deseperado V wore this bridle, this bridle has the years and sweat of all the great ‘V’ horses in it. And it was for sale. As I stood there in disbelief, my mind was spinning. I went to this event with absolutely no intention of making any such purchase. But there it was, I could not leave that bridle there and stay in clear conscience with myself.

Miss Sheila’s bridle is now my most coveted possession. Just when I didn’t think my experience of coming to know Sheila and riding with her couldn’t get any better, it did. I remain in strong disbelief that this paragon is in fact with me. But it is and I will treasure it for all of my remaining days.

So little girls out there with a childhood hero and a dream, never doubt what can happen with those that you deeply admire. Keep an open heart and believe in possibility. If this kid from Kenton Manitoba can turn things into the opportunities that have come my way, then anything is possible. If you keep believing, dreams really do come true.

I thank each and every friend who contributed to making this dream come true. You all know who you are and what role you played.

So, simply, thank you. And most of all, that includes you Miss Sheila.

Footnote: Protecting & preserving Varian Arabians and Sheila’s vision through the California Rangeland Trust, can be furthered through this heartfelt video , please enjoy.