Sheila Varian

Sheila Varian, shown riding her spade bit horse, Murietta V, died Sunday, March 6, 2016, at her ranch in rural Arroyo Grande. She was 78.

One of the most well-known women in the world of horses, especially Arabians, died Sunday, March 6, at her rural Arroyo Grande ranch, Varian Arabians.

Sheila Varian was 78 and succumbed to a battle with inoperable ovarian cancer that spread to her liver. She was diagnosed with the disease in late 2013.

Varian leaves behind a legacy of horsemanship in the equine community, where she was known as one of the world's leading breeders and trainers of Arabian horses, and her death has sent ripples of gratitude and grief across the globe.

"She was truly an inspiration, woman of vision and passion," Pauline Maurer Larson wrote on a CaringBridge page set up for Varian in the days prior to her death. "The Arabian breed was changed for the better because of her labor of love."

Larson's comment is just one of close to 70 posted at, where nearly 74,000 hits have been registered since the page was created. 

On a Facebook page titled "Arroyo Grande Memories," former students on Monday began posting their fondest memories of Varian, who also taught physical education classes at Arroyo Grande High School in the early 1960s.

"She was an amazing individual in so many ways. So gracious, kind and full of integrity," Melanie Martin, who worked at Varian Arabians in the late 1990s, wrote on the page.

"Those who are not involved with Arabians may not realize she was a worldwide icon in horsemanship and Arabian breeding. People all over the world are mourning her passing."

Varian was born Aug. 8, 1937, in Santa Maria. She began riding at 8 at her family's home in Halcyon, just outside Arroyo Grande.

The Varian Arabians ranch was started with the help of her parents when she was 14, and Varian had been breeding horses there since 1954. She lived on the 200-plus-acre property since 1958.

The horsewoman broke boundaries in 1961 when she and her Arabian at the time trotted away with three first places during their historic win at the Reined Cow Horse World Championships in San Francisco.

Until that time, the contest had been dominated by quarter horses.

She was the first and only woman and the first amateur — and her horse was the first Arabian — ever to win the prestigious award.

Varian also was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 2003.

Prior to becoming ill, Varian partnered with the California Rangeland Trust in an effort to maintain her ranch in perpetuity.

The trust is still accepting donations to reach the $2.5 million mark needed to preserve the ranch, but memorial donations should be directed to

The fundraising page set up for the Protect Varian Ranch project crashed due to the volume of traffic heading to the site in the days following Varian's death.

Per her wishes, the Varian Arabians ranch will continue under the direction of longtime farm manager Angela Alvarez and be utilized as an educational and historical event center for the Arabian horse, said Evie Tubbs Sweeney, Varian Arabians spokeswoman.

"I could not bear the thought of if I was not capable, or I die immediately, this place would be broken up," Varian said in August 2015. "There would be houses all over it, and the animals would have no place to go.

"Now, everything on this place will be safe and you will be safe to visit here," she said, referring to the Rangeland Trust agreement. "Now I am comfortable and can rest easy knowing that this place will be taken care of."

April Charlton covers South San Luis Obispo County for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow her on Twitter@WordsDawn



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