In 1961, Sheila Varian became the first woman to win the Reined Cow Horse Open Championship at San Francisco’s Cow Palace.
In the world of reined cow horses, the Cow Palace in San Francisco is a magic place. Showing horses at the Cow Palace is the equivalent of a musician playing Carnegie Hall. The idea of a “palace for cows,” as one newspaper headline of the era read, was conceived at San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition due to the huge popularity of the livestock show. Local business leaders decided to build a permanent structure to house future expositions — out of the inclement San Francisco weather. Twenty-five years later, in 1941, the first Grand National Rodeo was held there in honor of Will Rogers.
Some 20 years later, another significant event would take place at the Cow Palace. It was the fall of 1961, and at that year’s Grand National, a quiet, young schoolteacher would ride her 5-year-old Arabian mare and show against the best, with an outcome that would take the place apart. Sheila Varian grew up in the rural Central California town of Halcyon and seemed drawn to the ways of the vaquero and the Pacific Slope bridle horse. She knew early on that if she were to do it right, she would have to train her horses by herself. She sought out the best and learned the ways of the hackamore and the bridle bit. She would take her first horse, an Arabian, on to not only be a solid working cow horse but an undefeated Western Pleasure horse in the Arabian show world.
“I had worked toward October 1961 for five years. My little mare, Ronteza, had gone from a young hackamore horse as a 3- and 4-year-old to carrying the spade bit with a bosal through her fifth year,” Sheila told me some years ago. “I had learned what Ronteza needed most for competition was not training but conditioning.”
Sounds like a girl just preparing for a horse show, doesn’t it? Consider this: men had always dominated the Stock Horse and Reined Cow Horse world. Its history in California traces back to the 1800s when the vaquero grew to great prominence on the haciendas — with plenty of good weather and time for roping, gathering and moving cattle. The vaquero’s horse skills became the stuff of legend. He was gentle with his hands and was stylish and proud. Well-bred horses were his pride and joy. The vaquero trained his horses to work the cattle and then showed them off at casual Sunday competitions at neighboring ranchos. In October 1961, the Reined Cow Horse competitions were continuing that tradition — with mostly men in the saddle. But that year, Sheila Varian was entered to ride in front of 10,000 San Franciscans who paid to gather in the Cow Palace Livestock Pavilion and watch the Reined Cow Horse Championship.
The story of what happened that weekend at the Grand National Rodeo is best told in Sheila’s own words.
“I had never verbalized my goal of winning the Cow Palace, not even to myself — why else would one work for five years single-mindedly? It was always a pleasure with Ronteza. Riding a good bridle horse has always been like a song to me: The movements my horse and I make together are the melody that floats through the air. Eliminations were held for the lightweight and heavyweight horses on Thursday morning. Ronteza was obviously a lightweight, although she had developed into a stout Arabian. Siting on Ronteza waiting to compete was the epitome of two paralyzed individuals. We stayed in the back behind the other riders, perfectly still. Ronteza wouldn’t move. If she were ready to be ‘on,’ I would feel her heart pounding through the fenders of the saddle. Between our two hearts ka-thumping away, we were both motionless, waiting.
“My number was called, and I rode into the brightness of the fabled Cow Palace arena. As we loped into our figure eights, everything about her felt soft and right, and I began to relax and concentrate on smooth round figure eights. I could feel we were on the money. We finished our dry work and rode to the end of the arena to receive our cow. With the work we had done to this point, I could feel Ronteza was invincible in her mind. She thundered down the arena wall. When the last horse rode, we were all summoned back into the arena for the announcer to call the five horses forward that would be showing in the lightweight class on Friday evening. My number was called first and then four more. There stood Ronteza and I in a line-up with the legendary stock horse trainers of the time.”
The lightweight class was scheduled for Friday night, and when their class was called, Sheila would ride first. “Half-frozen and breathless, Ronteza and I rode into the Cow Palace and loped into our pattern,” she continued. “My mare didn’t notice the thousands of people in the stands or the cattle driving up the chute in the alley alongside the arena, and neither did I. We were in our own land. Ronteza, head low, was ready to simply put the steer back through the neighbor’s gate. Just like at home. Just like all those days and years before. Little Ronteza was brilliant; she knew what to do and I was fortunate enough to be along for the ride. The chute gate opened and a brockle-faced, black steer came whistling out. Ronteza worked that steer the way all great cow horses had before her. In what seemed like seconds, our ride was almost complete. All that was left was to circle the steer — showing how a game horse would fearlessly push a cow into a small circle to the left and then to the right. As Ronteza drove her steer for the final time, I asked her to drive hard, pushing between the fence and the cow.
“She was galloping all out with her head down, charging for the shoulder of the cow to finish the circle. Suddenly, her feet hit hard-packed dirt, and in one motion, she was falling, skidding on her side, not able to catch any dirt to stop herself. I was standing over her, my feet on either side, the reins still in my hands. The rules raced through my mind in slow motion. Go off your horse and you are eliminated. Ronteza lay flat on her side. I stood over her — still technically “on.” Ronteza saw the steer galloping, now 10 feet ahead of her. She lunged to her feet, pulling me right along with her, and drove for the steer’s head and shoulder, pushing in with all her strength to force the circle small and tight. She didn’t notice me leaning over her outside shoulder trying to untangle the rein from the shank of her spade bit. No matter. She finished up her circling — single-minded on that cow.”
On that night Ronteza bested the best as she was called out number one. Sheila and her little mare had made the finals. When the arena gate swung open for the third and final time, Ronteza and Sheila Varian trotted out into the brilliance of the Cow Palace lights. The screaming crowd had taken Ronteza into their hearts. She was not a Quarter Horse, like the rest; the girl riding her had fallen while working her cow, and even with the fall, the judge had placed her first.
Sheila remembered that final go as if it just happened, “The third run was déjà vu of the two before. The feeling of perfection was so intense, I remember thinking I could have urged Ronteza to drive her cow to the top of the auditorium seats and she would have done it easily. Her mouth felt as soft as a knife cutting through warm butter. Later, after all the horses were shown, my memory is only of exhaustion. My number was called, and we had “Won the World” — my little Arabian mare and me. The little horse that had ignored the bumping and pushing of the crowded back gate, the blinding lights of the arena, and the roaring crowd stood quietly as the flashes from the cameras recorded a moment in time at the Cow Palace.”
Winning the World
Sheila and Ronteza had achieved the high score at that year’s Grand National Rodeo Reined Cow Horse Open Championship at the Cow Palace, a feat that brought accolades from all over including a wire from Western Horseman that read simply, “Congratulations STOP Extraordinary Win STOP.”
Sheila Varian passed away in the spring of 2016 from inoperable ovarian cancer. She was 78. Her life with her beloved Arabians was dedicated towards the making of great using, bridle horses. Her Varian Arabians in Arroyo Grande, California, had been the home of many grand champion Arabians — all lovingly raised by Sheila’s own hand, like little Ronteza, who showed way back in 1961 what a great cow horse could be.