adventure — riding with sheila varian b y
J e n
M i l l e r
p h o t o s
A p r i l
V i s e l
y cell phone went off and I glanced at the text from my good friend April Visel. “Sheila invited us to ride” the message read. Never had five words delivered greater joy and excitement. Here we were, summoned to Sheila Varian’s door to embark on a ride together. What exhilaration and anticipation! Then the fear set in. We are riding with Sheila, my lifelong hero. I did the only thing I knew could get me through the next six days of waiting — I called my trainer, the wonderful and talented Barbara Orr. “Help!” I implored her.
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“Sheila’s invited us and I don’t know if I’m ready.” Thankfully Barbara is an understanding soul. She told me to come over right away. I worked with Barbara every day for the next five days, riding Wally, a stocky, wonderfully athletic chestnut reining Quarter Horse dressed in a fuzzy bear suit. Barbara worked me hard. We trotted, we cantered, we did patterns, we did rollbacks, we spun, we slid. In short, we did lots of things that would never come up on this ride — but then again you just never knew. With each turn, each easy lope around the arena, I felt a little taller in the saddle, like maybe I was up to this. The next morning was a beautiful crisp fall day. I met April at her house and helped load up Ben, her trusty Russian/Polish gelding. April is an inspiring horsewoman in her own right — totally fearless and joyful. As we rolled into the gates at Varian Arabians I was feeling nothing but excitement. Sheila had the horses ready and waiting by her trailer. She loaned me her amazing spade bit horse Jubilation V. If I was in good hands with Wally, I was now being lavished with Cadillac luxury. April and I admired Sheila’s vaquero tack. Hand braided horsehair Ortega reins, Bruce Haener silver bits like works of art. The silver conches on Jubilation’s headstall were engraved on one side with Ronteza and on the other with Farlotta. Of course, if anyone knows Sheila’s story, we know these two legendary mares and their place in Arabian and Varian history. I was humbled. “You have the best tack ever,” I said. Sheila just smiled, “Yes, I do,” she grinned. We loaded up and made the short trip to the Biddle Ranch a few miles from Sheila’s place. Thousands of rugged, rolling acres dotted with majestic oaks and sycamores, streams crisscrossing through sleepy valleys. This is Sheila’s playground and where she spends a lot of time riding her young horses, getting them used to all sorts of situations, riding straight up and down mountains, past clusters of cattle nestled under the oaky shade. We mounted up, Sheila on a young black filly named Sweet Enza V out of Sweet Siesta V and by Enzo, and started across the dry plain to the wooded hills and a cathedral of towering sycamore trees. We trotted uphill through them, winding
The view from high atop the California hills looking down on the horse trailers parked below. through shafts of yellow light filtering through amber leaves, the horses steady and sure, the rein chains jingling in rhythm. Sweet Enza was green but never had I seen a more game horse in all my life — all heart and give as Sheila ignored the trail and meandered up and around and through streambeds, rocky outcroppings and any and every obstacle, adding to Sweet Enza’s knowledge and confidence with every step. With Sheila, despite the fact there is a trail, you do not follow it. You blaze your own. Sheila Varian is a trailblazer and you are required to be the same. Once, as Sheila coaxed Sweet Enza through a particularly precarious, rocky gully, April and I decided to stay up top and take the easier route. Sheila turned around and watched our progress: “You girls go back and do it again the hard way,” she admonished with a smile. We did as we were told, turning our horses back and then tracing Sheila’s hoofprints. There is no easy way, only the right one. 3 b ARABIAN HORSE WORLD b july 2010
Sheila takes every opportunity to train Sweet Enza V while on the trail.
Sheila knows this land like the back of her hand, revealing secrets here and there. We rode past a group of ancient Indian grinding stones on a steep hillside, holes worn smooth over thousands of years of use before any of us was here. I felt small and insignificant and happy. We headed out, riding three abreast, cresting a hill and stopping to look out over all the country below us — miles of rolling hills, Sheila’s farm far, far below, and in the distance the ocean, sparkling like diamonds. Sheila told us she rode those beaches as a girl and it was easy to imagine her, hair flying, she and her horse galloping as one across the foamy sand. Some things never change. Hallelujah. We rode straight up hills then slid straight down the other side, hocks buried in the shale, Jubilation surefooted underneath me. I gave him his head and let him go — he knew the way and took good care of me. Across the steepest of ravines, tiny tracks carved into the mountainsides with drop-offs to infinity — I was grateful for Jubilation, so soft in my hands. Several hours later we headed in a new direction. We saw the horse trailers parked far out in front of us on the plain. We rode in step, three of us together, laughing and enjoying the three sets of tiny curved ears pricked forward in front of us — the best window in the world. Back at Sheila’s we hosed off the horses, watered them and then went to lunch. Sheila said, “We should do this again soon.” April and I glanced at each other, probably trying to gauge which of us had a bigger smile. We had passed the test. The second ride came about a month later and once again I was entrusted with the one-and-only Jubilation. Sweet Enza was sold to some lucky new owner, so this time out Sheila rode the young Half-Arabian colt Cimarron Mac V, by Maclintock V out of a Doc Olena daughter. Up once again through the trees, this time branches bare and waiting, but the grass green with recent rain. We stopped at the top of the familiar uphill climb, listening to the horses breathe. A large coyote trotted across the path, stopping just in front of us to watch out of yellow eyes. The world stopped and fell away, just Jubilation under me, relaxed, the sound of the bit rolling. We sat silently. I wanted to hold onto the moment forever. But the coyote pricked his ears and darted away into the long grass and we moved on. In the late afternoon, we came to a small flowing stream and crossed easily, first April and Ben, then me with Jubilation. Sheila came last on the young green colt, recognizing the perfect 4 b ARABIAN HORSE WORLD b july 2010
opportunity to teach the horse something new, building his confidence with all things unknown. We waited on the far side while the colt debated and debated as Sheila coaxed him gently but firmly. He crouched and trembled at the rocky edge and we anticipated that explosive rocket launch across the water. Eventually it came, the colt leaping across to the other side. “You girls go back across the other way,” Sheila said. We turned the horses and crossed again and waited. Again the colt hesitated, deliberating. Finally he squatted on his haunches and leapt again, feet landing squarely in the water as he tried to land on a small rock. Sheila asked me to dismount and she hopped on Jubilation and ponied the colt behind. Jubilation patiently and steadily walked across the water but the colt was nervous and unsteady, convinced this ordeal might actually kill him. Sheila asked me to grab a large stick and tap it on the ground behind the colt as she pulled him across with Jubilation. Tap, tap, tap. Pull. Tap, tap, tap. Pull. The colt leapt across. I jumped across after them and we started the process again. Sheila trains her horses to move forward if she taps the ground behind them, driving them from behind. Slowly but surely it was working. For his part, Jubilation was rock steady. He clearly loved his job. I hopped that stream a dozen times as we spent a good thirty minutes tap-tap-tapping and pulling. With each trip across the colt got better at it and by the end, he managed to walk through the stream. “Next time it’ll be no problem at all,” Sheila smiled, “He might even like it,” she said, patting his neck.
When we got back to the trailer, Sheila handed me the colt and together we coaxed him back into the trailer. Every small moment was ripe with a lesson. As we bounced along in the truck on the way back I looked at Sheila driving, big-brimmed cowboy hat shading her eyes. A trailblazer. I don’t know what possessed me to ask but I did. “Does anything ever scare you? Are you afraid of anything?” Sheila smiled in that knowing way. “Sure. But I never let anyone see it,” she answered. I nodded. Her words filled me more than she knew. Thank you, Sheila. I felt different. I thought about how these two rides had changed me, how the inimitable Jubilation V — and a furry Quarter Horse reiner named Wally — had moved mountains in restoring my confidence as a rider. I thought about how much I admired and loved Sheila and April. I have been riding in every spare moment and can’t wait for the next ride with Sheila.
April Visel aboard her gelding “Ben,” above, and Jen Miller riding Jubilation, right, during their second ride with Sheila. 5 b ARABIAN HORSE WORLD b july 2010