debbie and bunny

Debbie Loucks with the family's horse, Bunny, which is short for "Steel Buns." 

No matter what kind of boots you wear, horse lovers with knowledge of the Santa Ynez Valley appreciate this region for its diversity of breeds, disciplines, training techniques, causes, holistic healthcare and even equestrian arts.

The gradual coming of age for the horse industry in the Santa Ynez Valley for over 50 years may be an inspired story, still unfolding, revealing a kind of ‘mecca’ for creating a better life for horses, and for people too.

It is the dream of every horse-crazy young girl that she and her best (four-legged) friend would grow up together and remain in each other’s lives forever -- of course, with family and career never interrupting their relationship. Boyfriends, school, time and money often derail that dream, but never quite squelch it, right? It's always that happy place, that horsey place she remembers when life gets chaotic. And young boys romanticize about that freedom too.

I was privileged to grow up watching Sheila Varian’s (1937-2016) career become iconic. Varian’s broodmare line started in 1961 with three Polish mares. When a young Sheila started her Varian Arabians farm, she became internationally famous.

But in the Santa Ynez Valley, Sheila was often sought out to share her knowledge of the old time California Vaquero horse training techniques, seamlessly partnering to accomplish the work of gathering, sorting or doctoring cattle.

Sheila had that career that every young woman growing up with horses wanted. She encouraged her riding horses to be willing partners, incrementally. Sheila and her Arabian mare Ronteza won the 1961 Open Reined Cow Horse Championship at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. She was the first amateur, the first woman and had the first Arabian to take that title. Sheila helped pave the way for more cross-over from breeds and disciplines.

She once gave me a great tip about slow being fast. She shared that horses should be taught each movement in segments. The clearer you make each part of a turn or a stop, the quicker and more solidly they understand what you are asking them to do. Teach skills in pieces and don’t run them together until they know each piece well. It's an incremental learning process for horses, for people and dogs, too.

Horsemanship globally is steeped in tradition, yet the Western United States has seemingly birthed a movement away from the often violent and cruel practices of "breaking horses." Many of those visionaries responsible for altering that paradigm live nearby, and choose to share their knowledge that "a movement starts with a clear vision of a world different than the one existing today."

Only when people choose to act upon those changes does a vision become a movement.

Whether you are a horse owner or not, the world is awakening to what can be learned from the nature of our interactions with horses. The flight animal is unique and critical to our understanding of what building trust and communication looks like and can do for people. I invite you to join me on this journey in this regular column and explore the fascination we have with Equus caballus.

Debbie Roberts Loucks grew up on Flag Is Up Farms in Solvang. She is the daughter of Monty and Pat Roberts. You can follow her on her popular podcast Horsemanship Radio. She is founder of The Movement, a recently held international symposium and festival about the transformative nature of horses.

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