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­­Sheila Varian ­– Visionary Behind the V

Sheila Varian photo

If these walls could talk, what stories they could tell!

One of the reasons the Arkells were drawn to this ranch is because of the deep history woven into every barn plank on its storied property. The ranch is esteemed worldwide because of one woman: Sheila Varian.


From her gutsiness in a man’s world in the 60s and her horsemanship skills that rewrote the script on how we communicate with horses­­ to her iconic smile from under her flat-rimmed Vaquero hat and, most of all, her beautiful Arabian horses that redefined the breed forever, Sheila created a legacy that will far outlive us all.

Sheila Varian historical museum

The world first got wind of her greatness when Sheila – a 23-year-old high school P.E. teacher – won the 1961 World Reined Cow Horse Championships at the Cow Palace in San Francisco… and she did it as the first amateur, first women, riding an Arabian (rather than a Quarter Horse).


With the help of her parents, a young Sheila Varian swiftly pivoted her life path away from teaching, wholly dedicating herself to breeding and training Arabian horses… Arabian horses that were both beautiful and that could win at the highest echelons of competition. For this, Sheila was drawn to Arabian horses being bred in a communist-occupied Poland. She negotiated the sale and importation of three Polish Arabian mares – * Naganka, *Bachantka, & *Ostroga – who would become her famed foundation mares of Varian Arabians.


1961 was a big year for Sheila. Not only did she “Win the World” and import the three Polish mares, but Sheila also purchased a young colt, Bay-Abi. This strapping, handsome stallion was on the end of her lead as Sheila showed him to U.S. National Champion Stallion the following year.


When Bay-Abi was crossed with the three Polish mares, magic ensued. Generations of iconic breeding stallions the likes of Bay El Bey++, Huckleberry Bey++, Desperado V, Maclintock V, and now Major Mac V, all resulted from those serendipitous crosses in the early 60s.


Over the course of her lifetime, Varian Arabians bred close to 900 horses, including countless national champions. Sheila’s breeding program is nationally and internationally known for its quality of horse.

Unsurprisingly, Sheila was recognized for her courageous leadership and vision, including:

  • Arabian Horse Trust Breeder of the Year in 1991, 1992, 1994, and 1998

  • Co-Founder of the Arabian Breeders Association in 1997 and recipient of the ABA Lifetime Breeders Award in 2005

  • Recipient of the 1999 Monty Roberts Equitarian Award for trainers in the western riding discipline who chose to train horses in the absence of violence or pain

  • Recipient of the 2001 USA Equestrian Ellen Scripps Davis Memorial Breeder Award for all breeds

  • Inductee into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Ft. Worth, Texas in 2003


The Varian Equestrian Center is honored to carry on Sheila’s equestrian heritage, as well as preserving the famous “Varian Arabians History Wall” in the show barn and the Varian Arabians cemetery, both of which are available for visitors to experience by appointment.


Long Live the V.


Would you like to learn more about Sheila Varian? We encourage you to peruse these additional resources:

1275 Corbett Canyon Road
Arroyo Grande, CA 93420

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