New Beginnings – Varian Equestrian Center Continues the Varian Legacy


By Evie Tubbs Sweeney


As Featured in the 2024 Winter issue of Arabian Horse World


She was just eight years old, an impressionable young California girl on one of many trips with her grandparents to bucolic Catalina Island. The island gifted Caprice childhood memories of its sweeping views, absence of automobiles, charming shops, and beautiful beaches. But today, they were doing something different. Something special. They were to attend a grand open house hosted by El Rancho Escondido – home of Philip and Helen Wrigley’s famed Arabian horse breeding program.


“The staff presented their Arabian horses in majestic pomp and circumstance. I’d never seen anything like them. They were the most magnificent creatures I’d ever laid eyes on,” Caprice recalls.


Little did Caprice know at the time that she and her future husband, Simon, would own one of the most famous Arabian horse ranches in the World: The Varian Arabians ranch in Arroyo Grande, California.

Laguna Niguel is the Arkells’ primary residence. Imaginings of a quieter lifestyle, as well as being close to Sophie in her college years, drew them to Nipomo (just a few miles south of San Luis Obispo) where they built a second home. Additionally, Simon had always adored the area. An alum of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, as well as the home base of his Olympic athlete training (Simon is a two-time Olympic athlete in pole vaulting), it was always the plan to relocate there permanently once their youngest son, sixteen-year-old Graham, graduated from high school. But while they loved Nipomo, dreams of a home with more land, grazing animals, and an abundance of nature took root in their hearts. 


Caprice first happened upon the Varian Arabians ranch through Zillow. Its conservation easement – a request from Sheila initiated by the California Rangeland Trust – appointed limitations on the property’s use, leaving it slightly under market value compared to surrounding properties with no easement restrictions. Caprice followed the property for a time, then asked Simon to pay a visit on his next trip to San Luis Obispo.

Simon and Caprice Arkell

“I immediately fell in love with it,” Simon said. “It was a stunning property. Then we began learning about its historical depth, and the more layers we peeled back, the more reasons there were to pursue it. I couldn’t believe this was even available. The easement restrictions did not bother us; it aligned with our principles.”


It didn’t hurt that Simon’s oldest daughter, Sophie, a sophomore at nearby Cuesta College and a seasoned barrel racer, is passionate about the horses… not unlike a young Sheila Varian who enjoyed the excitement and athleticism of working western disciplines.


It was a complex situation. The ranch was home to eight employees, a bustling reproduction vet team, hundreds of horses, and a legacy that many felt extremely protective about. It also had been in a soft lull since Sheila’s passing.


“The question was, could we grow it?” Simon asked. “We got comfortable with the fact that we could.”


On July 7, 2023, Simon and Caprice Arkell became the new owners of the famous ranch, renaming it Varian Equestrian Center (VEC).


The Arkells retained all eight staff members, including longtime recognizable Varian Arabians staff Mike Perez (halter and ground training) and Kristy Gillot-Hogue (manager).


“It’s been wonderful having our reproduction team here at the farm, and they’ve brought many breeds of horses to the ranch for the last several years,” said Kristy. “But we still have mostly Arabians, and I don’t see that changing. The Arkells have been amazing to all the staff. They are invested in the ranch doing well. I feel confident they are going to honor the heritage of the farm and Sheila, while getting it going again at full capacity. It’s an exciting chapter.”


It is worth noting that Varian Arabians will continue in a virtual capacity, managed by Angela Alvarez, longtime Varian Arabians manager, who will continue to represent Major Mac V and Windy Bey V (both continue to call the property home) for breeding and will assist owners in selling Varian-bred horses… many of whom still reside on site.


“It is wonderful to have new owners who are so committed to keeping Sheila’s legacy alive,” said Angela. “It makes my heart happy and peaceful knowing that Sheila’s vision for the property is preserved.”

Major Mac V still calls Varian Equestrian Center his home.

The team is already hard at work maintaining the ranch as a destination. Additional pipe stalls, small private pastures, a new arena for hosting outside shows or clinics, and an extensive trail system has already been put in place. The trail system is particularly exciting. Boarders can ride down Bay Abi Lane, across the pasture, and up the ridge with remarkable views of Morro Bay and the Pismo Dunes in a stunning two-mile loop. And this is just Phase 1 of three in expanding the trail system.


The focus of VEC will remain a premier full-service boarding facility, complete with breeding, starting, and training options. The only service currently absent is an Arabian show trainer who could provide clients the ability to take horses to shows, which, to no one’s surprise, the Arkells are actively searching for.


“We don’t want any part of the trainer’s business,” said Simon. “If a trainer is the right fit for what our clients will need, we want him/her to treat VEC as a home base. If you have enough clients whose horses will board with us as a result, that’s our partnership. It is synergistic.”


And while all these items lead to a successful business, they are not, in fact, the driving force behind the Arkell’s vision.


Sheila Varian was a Guiding Light to Varian Arabians and the Arabian horse industry, and it appears she continues to be in many aspects for Simon and Caprice as well, though how she touched them is different.


“I knew early on how historic the ranch was because we spent so much time there,” said Simon. “We often lingered in the museum, the history wall, and the main house. But, for me, it really hit home when I watched the movie [‘V: The Legacy of Sheila Varian’]. Seeing actual footage of her doing what she did so well, along with the interviews of who she was as a person was a turning point for me. She was someone I could relate to in many ways because she started out with such a myopic focus of being the very best at her passion. I was successful in taking that risk [with pole vaulting], and she was too. It really resonated.”


Sheila’s cancer also touched Simon, who is actively involved in raising money for cancer through organizations such as Megan’s Wings, an LA-based organization that eases the financial burden of families of children with cancer. Varian Equestrian Center will eventually become a gift drop off location, as well as a location where chosen charities may host their events on property at no cost.


Caprice’s experience was different, yet equally powerful.


Varian Equestrian Center offered a Grand Opening Celebration event on November 12, 2023. To their amazement, over three hundred people flooded the property. Some were people scouting it as a boarding facility or locals simply intrigued by its history. Others were Arabian horse enthusiasts and longtime Varian Arabians clients. Mike Perez and Jaime Hernandez showed off their horsemanship talents in separate demonstrations. Major Mac V enthralled guests with his beauty and charisma. Barns were opened to explore. (In fact, the event was so monstrously successful that the Arkells are considering annual events like this one, similar to Varian Arabians’ beloved came way before ‘boss lady’ or ‘mainsplaining’… she was simply doing her thing. It’s incredibly inspirational.”


In fact, Caprice has become so inspired by Sheila that one of her future plans is offering field trips to local schools to learn about Sheila specifically, and “what a badass this chick was!”

Mike Perez demonstrates groundwork the Varian Way with C Major V (Major Mac V x Crystal Jewel V) at the Varian Equestrian Center Open House.

Longtime Varian Arabians client and breeder, Linda Calvo, remains part of the fabric of VEC.


“Upon hearing that Varian Arabians ranch was for sale, my stomach dropped,” she admits. “What would happen to this magical ranch, and to Sheila’s undisputed legacy? My despair turned to joy when I learned of the exciting plans the Arkells have for honoring Sheila’s legacy and reinvigorating the ranch.”


Lisa Atterbery and Dina Cale, also longtime breeders and owners of Varian-bred horses, shared similar sentiments.


“We all know Sheila not only bred amazing, versatile Arabians but that she created an idyllic environment for them as well,” said Dina. “When we drive onto the property, we can’t help but smile knowing our horses are also smiling. VEC is strongly committed to continuing the idyllic environment Sheila created. Simon and Caprice recognized that specialness, and the talent of the existing staff, and transitioned the ranch beautifully into Varian Equestrian Center. Like so many of us, the Arkells have become enamored with the Arabian horse.”

The doors of VEC remain wide open for anyone who wants to come visit. Stay on property. Peruse the History Wall. Visit the cemetery. Walk the property. Take it all in.


That this ranch’s new owners have been so deeply touched by Sheila’s legacy is no surprise, but rather some level of kismet. Simon and Caprice are committed to keeping it open to the Arabian horse community and maintaining its prominence in the Arabian horse world through current and new staff, while making it available to other horse owners. New lifeblood is pumping through the historic ranch, grounded in determination to not only see it thrive, but also preserve the legacy of a founder they never knew.


“I believe this is part of our journey,” said Caprice. “We can never replace Sheila. But we can continue and enhance her legacy. And that is our mission.”