Their smooth-as-silk action gets into your soul," says Annie Keith of Jamestown, Tennessee. She and her husband, Danny, own 10 Paso Fino horses, and wouldn't have it any other way. "Spending all day on the trail without a single bounce or jog is my idea of pleasure riding."
The Keiths own and operate the Timber Ridge Horse Camp Ground, adjacent to hundreds of miles of trails in the popular Big South Fork River and Recreation Area.
"While some of the trails we ride can be quite formidable, our Paso Fino horses approach every obstacle with surefooted confidence," Annie says. "They have the heart and spirit to meet every challenge. Aficionados call that 'brio.' The Paso Fino is a proud breed, and we're proud to ride them."
In recent years, as a generation of aging baby boomers discovered the benefits of the smooth-moving gaited breeds, the Paso Fino has enjoyed increased popularity. Today, the Paso Fino Horse Association boasts 45,000 registered horses, and 8,500 members.
PFHA executive director C.J. Marcello encourages trail enthusiasts to join the association's trail riding programs. "Both the Pasos for Pleasure and Ticket to Ride programs award national recognition and prizes for hours logged in recreational riding or on trail rides," he notes. "The Paso's fluid natural gait, athleticism, balance, and stamina make them great partners on the trail." Read on for more about this smooth-gaited breed.
'Love at First Ride'
Betty Rankin of Spring Hill, Tennessee, spent January 1, 2005, on the trails with her Paso Fino gelding, Tio. "We have a saying: 'Whatever you do on New Year's Day, you'll do for the rest of the year,'" she says, smiling. "And I plan to do lots of trail riding this year!"
Betty and her husband, Kenny, have owned Paso Finos for 11 years. "We had 16-hand-high Tennessee Walkers," says Betty, who's a petite five feet tall. "Nothing against them, but life with a compact, 14-hand Paso is just so much easier. And their smooth-moving gaits - well, it was simply love at first ride."
The ultra-smooth gaits that the Rankins love are natural to the Paso Fino. In fact, it's so instinctual that it's not unusual to see a newborn foal moving in gait around the pasture. While training may refine the Paso's natural gaits, artificial training aids are neither necessary for any horse nor allowed in the show ring.
The Paso's lateral, four-beat gait leaves three feet on the ground at all times. The footfall is evenly placed: right rear, right fore, left rear, left fore. There's scant up-and-down movement of either the horse's shoulders or croup to impact the rider. It's a rhythmic and evenly cadenced gait, and any movement is absorbed by the horse's back and loins.
The Paso's smooth gait comes in three distinct speeds:
- The Classic Fino is slow-moving and collected, with a rapid foot-fall, like dancing in place. The Fino is primarily a show-ring gait, not used on the trail.
- The Paso Corto is an effortless, medium-speed gait, most commonly used on the trail. It's comparable in speed to a trot, and the athletic Paso Fino horse can travel at the Corto for hours, effortlessly carrying his rider for great distances.
- The Paso Largo is the fastest, least collected gait, but should always maintain balance and smooth action.
The Paso Fino also performs the same gaits as other breeds, including the four-beat walk, and the three-beat lope or canter.
While Kenny and Betty Rankin ride their Pasos into Tennessee's lush woodlands, Jule Drown - who pens The Trail Rider's Cactus Country column - rides her horses into the high desert and mountains near Tucson, Arizona. Rocky terrain, rattlesnakes, and prickly cactus are just some of the obstacles Drown and her Pasos routinely encounter. She's found the compact horses to be maneuverable and surefooted on tight trails, and quick to learn that they should avoid close encounters with snakes and cactus.
"We give rattlesnakes a wide berth, but sometimes the cholla cactus is more difficult to avoid," Drown says. "On narrow trails that may be only 12 inches wide, we often come upon cholla growing in clumps with thousands of three- to four-inch needles. They're heat-activated by our bodies to attach to us, and they really hurt." The cholla's barbed spines penetrate skin easily. In fact, it's sometimes called the "jumping cholla" for its unwelcome tendency to reach out and grab passersby.
"I always carry a big-toothed comb just in case I need to remove their spines," Drown says. "My horses quickly understood they should avoid the cactus and not panic if we're caught. Paso Finos are exceptionally fast learners!"
In her first year of competition, Mary Pulte of Farmington, New Mexico, and her 11-year-old mare, Rosabella de Carmin ("Bella"), were the North American Trail Ride Conference 2004 high point Paso Fino horse-and-rider duo in the country. An avid trail rider, Pulte says NATRC rides sharpen her trail skills, satisfy her competitive urges, and provide a great opportunity to meet other trail-riding enthusiasts.
In NATRC events, the first to finish aren't necessarily the winners, an important distinction from endurance riding. The rides (not races) cover courses with natural obstacles that must be completed within a predetermined amount of time. Winners are then determined by a compilation of scores earned by both the horse and rider. Horses are judged on condition, soundness, and trail ability; riders are scored on trail equitation, courtesy underway, stabling, and more.
All breeds compete on equal footing. Mary Pulte reports that her Paso Fino's natural talents served her well. "Pasos are smart, and their willing attitude makes them wonderful partners on the trail," she says. "Bella is quick, agile, and responsive. My greatest challenge was teaching her not to prance up hills and waste energy! By our third ride, she'd calmed down and learned to conserve her energy. She improved with every ride.
"And the Paso Fino's small, tough feet are custom-made for trail riding," Pulte continues. "Bella's Corto has been clocked at five miles per hour, and is perfect for flat stretches, while her fast walk is the way to climb the steep, rocky terrain we have in New Mexico."
Pulte recently purchased another Paso Fino mare for her daughter, Carla, 14. Horses must be 4 years old to compete in NATRC events; the minimum age for riders is 10 years old. Entire families take to the trail for recreation together.
"One of the greatest benefits of NATRC is the people you meet, and the welcoming, family atmosphere and camaraderie," Pulte says. "One fellow rider in particular, Beverly Frick, gave me the encouragement and inspiration I needed."
Beverly Frick of Highcrest Paso Finos in Conroe, Texas, has inspired a generation of NATRC riders. She was 55 years old when she purchased her first horse, a 2-year-old Paso Fino filly. "I was as green as green can be - so green, my daughter, a trainer, wouldn't let me ride my own horse," she says.
The Paso Fino Horse Association has identified breed characteristics of the modern day Paso Fino horse:
A compact body, standing between 13.2 and 15.2 hands high, averaging approximately 14 hands high, and weighing 700 to 1,200 pounds.
The head should be refined and in proportion to the body, with large, eloquent eyes. Ears are relatively short, and tip inward. The neck is effortlessly arched, breaking at the poll.
The body has great depth through the heartgirth, and a well-sprung rib cage. The back is nicely muscled, with a barely sloping croup. Legs are straight and strong, and standing slightly under in the rear is common. Bones are flat and sound; hooves are durable and without excess heel.
Of any color, including gray, black, bay, chestnut, roan, or pinto, with or without white markings.
Not one to be daunted, Frick applied herself in the arena and on the trails. In 1999, she rode her gelding, Ocho, then 11 years old, to the NATRC Region 4 novice horse of the year title (of all breeds). The following year, they took honors in the open division.
"Pasos are a tremendously versatile breed," Frick says. "Ocho's stamina and comfortable ride allow him to excel on the trail, yet he's a champion show horse, too."
Christina Lyons, of Beatrice, Nebraska, and her 10-year-old gelding, Bandidato, made up one of NATRC's top Paso Fino teams in the country last year. "NATRC provides a great opportunity to build a partnership with your horse and learn to overcome obstacles on the trail," she says.
Lyons was stressed from balancing family, work, and pursuit of her master's degree. She found that her little gelding, whom she nicknamed "Bandit," was the perfect antidote. "Once I'm on the trail, the stress just melts away. Every gaited horse owner talks about their horse's smooth ride and loving disposition, but with Bandit, it's true. He's a keeper!
"And Bandit can maintain the Corto for hours," she adds. "It's so smooth - perfection."
The only real challenge Lyons encountered was finding tack that fit her 14-hand-high Paso. However, for $150 she found a saddle on the online auction site, www.eBay.com, designed specifically for Paso Finos. It's shorter than traditional saddles and sits high off the spine due to heavy inside padding. Lyons also had a standard breastcollar modified to fit her small horse. She rides with a bitless bridle, as do many Paso owners.
Pick Your Paso
Carol Garcia has been riding Paso Finos since 1990. Her husband, Julio, a native of Puerto Rico, was in the saddle by the time he was 3 years old. From their Hacienda Nueva Vida Paso Fino Farm near Nashville, Tennessee, Julio trains Pasos, and Carol runs a successful equine brokerage, specializing in matching people with the perfect Paso Fino for their skills and goals.
Recently, she helped country superstar Shania Twain purchase four Paso Fino horses to take to her farm in Switzerland. "They're her first Paso Finos," Carol says. "She's an accomplished horsewoman and was looking for companion animals that her entire family could enjoy at home and on trails. She had Andalusians at one time, so the elegance and presence of Paso Finos appealed to her. Then she fell in love with their sweetness and brio, and of course, their naturally smooth gait."
Carol offers this advice to potential Paso buyers:
- Find a Paso Fino club in your area, and find a mentor. Ask for information about the breed and contact information for local breeding farms. Ride as many Paso Finos as you can, and learn to feel their natural gait. This is especially important if you're coming from a nongaited breed. The Paso's smooth gait is what the breed is all about, so you should learn as much as you can about it. Look for a soft eye and a horse that's interested in people. The Paso is known for its ability to bond with humans and actually seek our companionship. If you want a buddy to love, they give love in return!
- Study bloodlines. Some tend to be "hotter" than others, so you might wish to avoid the more spirited horses that do well in the show ring, but might not be the best choice for the trail. Find a horse whose "family" excels on the trail.
- Look for evidence of good care (and, conversely, neglect), and ask to see the horse's health records.
- Examine the feet. Pasos have tough, well-formed feet and should wear light shoes that don't interfere with their gait.
- Check the prospect's back for any soreness from a poorly fitting saddle. Pasos don't have any special considerations for saddle selection, except that they're compact horses with short backs. Riders shouldn't use a big saddle with long bars, which is made for a larger, long-backed horse.
- Finally, when you've found your perfect Paso, take some lessons from a trainer specializing in Paso Fino horses. Learn the specific cues to get into and maintain the Paso's unique gait. Then enjoy! There are lots of memories out on the trail just waiting to be made.
Ready to look for the right horse for you? Go to Equine.com, the premier classifieds site of the Equine Network, to search for the perfect horse!