Loved… That is what the iconic Sheila Varian would have felt, had she been at her usual place at this year’s Varian Ranch Summer Jubilee in Arroyo Grande, CA. She would have watched “her horses”, and marveled at all that she had accomplished with her vision of bringing about a specific and strong line of Arabian horses.
“She read every note. It gave her strength, and she felt so loved,” expressed Lisa Thompson, a close friend of Sheila’s, who spoke at the Varian Ranch Summer Jubilee about the comments people made to the Caring Bridge page for Sheila after she got sick. “She read each comment and was amazed that so many people followed her and sent her messages and well wishes…and prayers.”
Ride along with us as we experience both this year’s special Summer Jubliee which took place August 6-7, 2016, as well as a look back on Sheila’s life, through the eyes and hearts of a few special attendees.
Humor and Passing the Join-up Baton
“One thing that came through over and over as her friends and familiar customers shared stories, was that Sheila had a great sense of humor,” recalled Chris Weigl, a Santa Ynez resident who was so glad that she lives close enough to make the trek to the special event. Chris captured these quotes that display a bit of Sheila’s “humor”.
“You are so lucky to know me.” – Something Sheila told friends after arrival to a luxurious resort.
“If you fall off, roll under a bush, recover, and then get back on your horse.” – Sheila Varian
“During the event, the tradition is to turn out the sale horses one at a time. They come through a series of stalls and into the arena, where they run at liberty. They are then asked to ‘join-up’ in order to be led out of the arena. This year, one youngster wouldn’t ‘join-up’ to go back. Angela stepped up and got the horse caught and led away. Sheila used to be the one who would do that; she always got the horse to go along. So, in that moment, Sheila passed the baton,” Chris recalled. It was a special and particularly moving moment to witness.
Continuing on, Chris described something new that Angela Alvarez (Sheila’s right hand lady) put together. “Angela took Sheila’s house and made it into a museum. Experiencing this museum in and of itself would make a trip to the Varian Ranch worthwhile. Sheila’s tack, awards, trophies, pictures, clothing…everything that told Sheila’s story was on display in the house. Angela did a beautiful job. It was really something!”
Chris has admired the Varian Arabians for quite some time. She considers the stallion “Audacious” to be out of this world. She also fell in love with a young, steel-gray stallion who she will continue to dream about, because, “I knew he was just too much!”
These lovely photos were taken by Chris at the Jubilee, and you can find more samples of her photography at Chris Weigl Photography.
The Riderless Horse, A Museum and Connections in Minnesota
“The event opened with Angela Alvarez welcoming everyone by herself in the place where Sheila always was. Then, to the Dave Stamey song, ‘Come Ride with Me’, came Sheila’s three close friends, Audrey Griffen, Lisa Thompson, and Kristen Reynolds. Lisa was riding Sheila’s older ranch horse Murrieta V and was leading Jubilation DDF who was saddled with Sheila’s Doug Cox custom saddle…empty. The ‘girlfriends’, as they were referred to, rode around the ring as the song played on, and I can assure you there were very few dry eyes in the crowd,” shared Susan Ward of Minnesota, who was in attendance with her 90 year old mother, Sally.
Susan also was touched by the museum. “When I saw the National Stallion Championship plaque won by Bay Abi in 1962, it was so humble compared to the bling and huge trophies of today. Yet, earning that championship was so monumental. Sheila was very young at the time, and unknown. She so believed in following her vision, in staying true to that vision and her horses. In an industry where breeding fads come and go, Sheila never lost sight of what she wanted to breed…a beautiful athlete. It was because of her reaction to winning this title – for a time feeling like she nor Bay Abi deserved it – that Sheila realized she would never again listen to what anyone said about her horses. This statement was powerful in the documentary, and is a life lesson for all of us. I know her words will forever be imprinted in my heart and mind and that is to stay true to one’s vision.”
Why make the trek to California from Minnesota? Susan explains, “When Sheila passed away, I happened to be in Texas, and I was so sad I just couldn’t speak to anyone for days.”
“My mother, Sally, who lives in Arizona visited with Sheila at the Scottsdale Arabian Show in February of each year. She won’t admit it, but I think she found Sheila and the Varian horses and told Sheila how much I loved her breeding. I do think Mom made Sheila aware of my admiration and my desire in the early days to have a ‘V’ in my barn someday. In 2012 that happened when Mary Maya V (Bravado Bey V x Maya V) came to Minnesota to live with me! ”
“Sheila was very kind to my parents every year as they made the pilgrimage to see ‘their Sheila’, sometimes purchasing a video or a little something to send me. When Sheila passed, the first person I called was my mother, who had been aware of Sheila’s illness. She was just about as sad as I was. So when the registration notice went out in May for the Summer Jubilee and Celebration of Life, I called my mother and asked if she would like to go with me.”
“I have been to Varian Arabians twice, once in 1975 and again in 2012, but had never been to a Summer Jubilee, as this time of year is difficult to break away from my work. But nothing was going to stand in my way this year. Mom celebrated her 90th birthday in April and still gets around and even drives, so I knew she would be able to endure the 2-day schedule. She learned so much from watching the horses at liberty and under saddle and from the clinicians, Lester Buckley and Rob Bick.”
Susan was kind enough to describe her personal connection to Varian Arabians. “I go way back in my admiration to 1975 when I first visited Varian Arabians. I have one mare that was bred by Varian Arabians and have another by Desperado V.
The horse in the tee shirt is my Desperado V daughter. The girl presenting this to Sheila during a trip to MN, is Mallory Olson, the Vice President of the Huckleberry Horse Club. Sheila was very good to the club members, sending them articles, photos, and information about the Varian horses, etc. The club name was chosen by the kids because we used the Breyer Huckleberry Bey model to begin learning the parts of the horse.”
Sheila Lightens the Moment and Passing the Mare Teasing Baton
“When the ladies (or ‘girlfriends’) rode into the arena, they had to dip under the rose bushes that go over the arbor that leads to the arena. As Audrey dipped down, her hat was caught up by a rose bush, setting her hat askew. The ladies were laughing claiming it was Sheila’s way of lightening up the moment,” expressed Julia Crookston of Santa Barbara.
Julia continued, “Lester Buckly rode Major Mac V. He is the perfect segway to Sheila’s way in terms of working with horses. He rode in the main arena never more than 20 feet from the crowd. Major Mac is a 4-year-old stallion being ridden in a hackamore. There were some baby playing actions, and Lester just let him be. This horse was what Sheila was so invested in – he is the culmination of decades of successful show horses and breeding.”
“Audrey related that Sheila was a great story teller and shared a typical Sheila story,” Julia retells the story: “Sheila and her ‘girlfriends’ arrived with their horses at Paws Up Ranch, a super-deluxe dude ranch. Upon arrival, Sheila and her friends open their room and are greeted with luxury – there was even a hot tub in the room! Sheila turns to her friends and says, ‘You are so lucky to know me!’ As the weekend went on, every time one of the ladies had the opportunity they would express, ‘I am so lucky to know Sheila Varian!’”
With Sheila’s passing, it’s natural for the many admirers of her horses and breeding program to wonder what the future holds for Varian Arabians. Julia shares a moment that helped define it for the attendees, “Throughout the weekend it was told how Sheila would ride Bey El Bey out to tease the mares. Shelia passed this job onto Angela who came to work for Varian Arabians as a young lady in her early twenties. However, Angela was to lead Bey El Bey out to tease the mares. One day Angela said, ‘I‘d like to ride the horse’. Sheila replied, ‘Nope, you are too fat!’ Of course, Angela did not fit the description.
At the Jubilee we met another young lady in her twenties, Kristy Gillot, who is Angela’s assistant. She appears riding Maclintock, a senior stallion who still looks like a million bucks. We witnessed Kristy riding Maclintock out to tease the mares.” There was an audible catch in Julia’s voice as she recounted witnessing this moment.
Julia admits that she really didn’t know Sheila, but did know who she was. Once, as a young girl showing Welsh Ponies, a tall lady dressed in white pants, walking with the grace of a giraffe passed by Julia at a major horse show. Julia’s trainer turned to her and said, “That’s Sheila Varian and she’s a really big deal!” Julia Crookston resides in Santa Barbara and has a 29 year old Bask Arab (Syrprize/Petey) and owns the Goodland Kitchen Market in Goleta, CA.
The Future of Varian Arabians
Now that the torch has been passed, and the visionary has left us, what plans do Angela and crew have to continue with Sheila Varian’s original vision? This was the last Jubilee. In its place, there will be a similar event, but with a different name.
Julia helps us to understand the “vision” with this beautiful explanation,
“It’s been going on already. Sheila set things up. There will be bumps, but the things that Angela is cooking up are all about advancing the breed, keeping good minds, and breeding good work horses that are also ‘pretty’. There will be a lot more clinics and special events; Sheila left Varian Arabians in the hands of very smart people who love what they do. Her love was the horses, and her mind was the business, yet she didn’t let these two aspects cloud each other.”
Susan summarized the weekend with these words, “All weekend I heard people tell of Sheila’s wisdom and generosity in sharing what she had learned in her lifetime. Also, her kindness and willingness to talk to people and answer questions; it didn’t matter if they were horse people or not. If you loved horses, especially Arabians, you had enough in common to establish a relationship with Sheila.”
Chris reflected back over the weekend where so many people told stories and appreciated Sheila and had this to say about the future,
“There will be some big changes, there are great things planned!”
Sheila Varian will be greatly missed. Her passing rocked the entire Arabian industry. Yet, in the fashion of her life, even though she is gone, her work and vision lives on in the many horses who started either at her ranch or are by/out of one of her well bred horses. Sheila set in motion a plan through The California Rangeland Trust to protect the Varian Arabian Ranch in Arroyo Grande, California from possible development. There is no doubt that the Varian legacy will live on, and that makes all of us smile.
A huge thank you goes to three contributors to this story, Chris Weigl, Susan Ward and Julia Crookston, and the staff and family of Varian Ranch. Thank you for letting us experience saying goodbye to Sheila through your eyes and hearts.
Cover Photo Credit: Diana Vierra