Zee Varian: The Great American Cowgirl

I would like to introduce to your readers my wife of 63 years Zee Varian. If you're looking for a cowgirl that was a champion in the show ring for 40 years, who raised and trained all our ranch and show horses, and did most of the cow work on our 20,000 acre ranch, all the while, having and raising four children that have in turn given us nine grandchildren and two great grandchildren, then I’ve got a story for you.

I met my wife at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo or Cal Poly for short. She was part of the first contingent of 100 girls that changed Cal Poly from a boys school in 1957 to a co-ed school. Zee was raised at her family’s riding stable in Culver City, California and I was raised as a city kid graduating from Palo Alto High School in 1953. We married when I graduated from Cal Poly in the summer of 1958 with a degree in Animal Husbandry. My folks, as a wedding present, gave us a house with 10 acres for $12,000 that was not near big enough for a guy that thought that the King Ranch in Texas was about the right size. So we sold our wedding present to my first cousin and friend Sheila Varian (who donated her skills and personality to the Arabian Horse world and created the world famous Varian Arabian line of horses). We were now free to look for ranch number two which I found west of Paso Robles. It was 2700 acres with a house for $70,000. My parents loaned me the funds that I still owe to this day. Then we added Sheila’s $12,000 to operate on and we were on our way to gain a lot of knowledge about the ins and outs of the cattle business. Lessons that would test my passion for our new occupation over the next three and a half years.

Luckily in our third year of mighty, mighty “slim pickings” and innate feeling that this ranch was going to starve us to death, a gentleman from Los Angeles wanted a ranch to hunt Blacktail Deer. I assured him that there were plenty and for $150,000 he could move right in. With our $150,000 and a stroke of luck, I took Zee, who was a gamer, and the advice of a friend who said “you need to go east 50 miles young man to the Cholame Valley in the Diablo Mountains where you’ll find the town of Parkfield population 18.” This town had a one room grammar school for my growing family that would start all our children and grandchildren on a wonderful path to higher education. Five miles past that, we found a place to put down our roots. This November what started with one child and the two of us, is now 20 husbands, wives, and kids getting ready to mark our 61st year on The V6 Ranch.

It’s 1958 and Cal Poly is having its annual Poly Royal, showing off the school and its students. The Rodeo Club was filling the stands to watch the horses buck and the ropers rope. There was also a fairly new event called the Hackmore Class. This was Zee’s first class to show her Thoroughbred mare Pocahontas and what do you know, she won her first class at a newly remodeled college that now had 100 ladies sprinkled amongst 3500 men. This was the start of a woman entering stock horse classes in an all male world for the next 40 years. Zee’s next step into the western horse show world was to join the California Reined Cowhorse Association and to give birth to two girls and two boys by 1965 to cheer her on. With four children and the guarantee there wouldn’t be anymore, it opened the door for Zee in 1966 to win her first Hackmore Class followed by wins at the Monterey County Fair. Then came a real accomplishment in 1969 when Zee won the CRCHA year end championship in the Open Bridal Horse. In 1970 at the Salinas Rodeo, Zee was called out first as 19 men watched her receive one of those coveted Salinas Open Bridle Class silver bits on her great mare Poly D’Or. Zee continued her winning ways all through the 1970’s and in 1979 she won the ladies, the non pro Snaffle Bit Futurity, and finished 14th in the open Snaffle bit on Poly D’Or’s own daughter Sugar D’Or, from a crowd of 264 contestants. It’s the 1980’s, and Zee is showing at all the Snaffle Bit Futurities and bridle classes in 5 of the 6 western states. The 90’s was a time to slow down a bit and take stock of her 13 saddles, three horse trailers, 60 plus buckles, and a fair amount of cash and accolades.

All this time we had a ranch to take care of that I stocked with mostly Mexican cattle. That meant going down to the border town of Nogales, Arizona to receive the cattle I had bought in Mexico then ship these cattle to Zee. I would call her and say, “Hi I’m sending you 300 hundred head they’ll be there tomorrow morning. We have more to come and I know they couldn’t be in better hands. I’ll be home in a week or so. Love You.”

It’s 1991 and I remember the date well. Zee and I had just watched the movie “City Slickers” and as we were walking out of the theater I said “we can do that” and so for the last 28 years my family have been entertaining and teaching paying guest to help us with our four day cattle drives four times a year. Zee again remembering from her riding stable days knew exactly which guest belonged on which horse. This new venture into the world of Agritourism has been a perfect fit for Zee and I as it has created a new asset that has allowed our son John and his wife Barbara to now make their living by hosting different riding groups to Cowboy Academies that teach the skills to be a Cowboy.

Time has now dictated that Zee, 82, and I, 86, spend more time watching from the sidelines but we have found a most necessary new job. That is to check and fix what’s broken on forty or more water troughs and stock ponds that takes three or four hours out of each day that we thoroughly enjoy. We use an all-wheel-go-anywhere, easy in easy out vehicle that is not nearly as much fun as our horseback days but it keeps us in the game and still feeling useful.

My, my, my it’s already August 2021 and I asked Zee, “What do you think about our time here?” She said, “I’m still enjoying the journey.”

See ya, Jack

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