Breed evolution: More than 500 years ago, when Columbus made his second voyage to the New World, he landed in what's now the Dominican Republic. Onboard his ships were mares and stallions of Barb, Andalusian, and Spanish Jennet descent. These horses and their offspring formed the cavalry remount for the conquistadors that explored uncharted territory in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Columbia, and Mexico.
In relative isolation, the generations of horses that followed developed distinctive characteristics representing their ancestry: the durability and stamina of the Barb; the charisma and elegance of the Andalusian; and, perhaps most treasured of all, the naturally smooth, even gait of the Spanish Jennet. These horses became known as Los Caballos de Paso Fino - the horses with the fine step.
Centuries passed, and the Paso Fino remained a well-kept Latin American secret. That is, until World War II, when American servicemen stationed in Puerto Rico "discovered" the fluid-moving horses. After the war ended, American enthusiasts wasted no time importing Paso Finos from Puerto Rico.
Then, in the mid-1960s, importers started shipping Paso Finos to the United States from Columbia. Today, the Paso Fino Horse Association reports, most American Paso Finos are a combination of bloodlines from those two countries. The PFHA currently boasts 45,000 registered horses and 8,500 members. In addition, it has popular riding programs that award national recognition and great prizes for hours logged in recreational riding and trail rides.
The original Paso Fino horses, bred as mounts for explorers forging new trails in the wilderness, had to be incredibly tough and surefooted for the task. More than 500 years of selective breeding has retained those characteristics, as well as others that Paso Fino owners treasure today: sweet, people-oriented dispositions; intelligent, trainable minds; sturdy conformation; incredible versatility; and of course, a naturally smooth gait.
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, 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; and the Paso Corto is an effortless, medium-speed gait, most commonly used on the trail - comparable in speed to a trot, the athletic Paso Fino can travel at the Corto for hours; 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.
Owners tell us: Cindy Oswald, who lives on a ranch in northern Idaho's rugged mountains, discovered the Paso Fino late in life. "I had a successful horse business for 30 years, and rode all types and breeds of horses," she says. "But in my heart, I knew I was still searching. I had a vision of my ideal dream horse; one that was beautiful and intelligent, and that would continue to excite me and touch my soul, renewing my joy of riding."
Oswald found her dream horse in the Paso Fino. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't feel awed," she says. "Each time I ride, I rediscover the magic they create. They have a proud and courageous way of going, with a strong desire to please and incredible stamina. They are also a beautiful breed and make you feel beautiful."
As a little girl, Jan Zito would listen intently to her mother's stories describing her early years growing up in Colombia. "My mother lived on a coffee plantation," Zito recalls. "Every Saturday, she would ride her Paso Fino into town to collect the payroll. She would tell us of the many adventures she had on the way." Zito's father also told stories of working as a geologist in the Amazon with his Paso Fino/mule crossbreed.
As the wide-eyed girl listened to her parent's colorful tales, Zito dreamed she'd one day own a cherished Paso Fino. Fortunately, she was able to make her dream come true. Today, she and her husband, Paul, own Hacienda de los Niños, and have 20-plus years of experience owning, training, and breeding the elegant horses.
"We simply love and appreciate the Paso's intelligence, playfulness, and loyalty," Zito says. "They are a delight to be around and so easy to train when you have an atmosphere of mutual respect."
Maridel Merritt and her husband, Larry, own and operate Syringa Ranch near Bonners Ferry, Idaho. "While all breeds have something to offer, I find that not only do the Paso Finos give you a nice, smooth ride, but there's also just something about them that touches your heart," says Maridel. "They have big hearts and tremendous personality."
On the trail: As a smooth-gaited saddle horse with great stamina, it's easy to see why trail riders are so taken with this breed.
Paul and Gail Springer of PFL Horses moved to Northern Idaho just so they could ride their Paso Finos out their back door and into the forest.
"It's like having a little bit of heaven, and riding our Paso Finos just makes it more pleasurable," says Gail. "There's no bounce, and we can go so much farther in a few hours than we used to be able to on our heavier stock horses.
"The gait is the prime reason we have Paso Finos, but now that we've experienced their friendly, willing natures and intelligence, we could never go back to the other breeds."
Avid trail rider Jan Gibson of Lonesome Coyote Ranch enjoys both recreational and competitive trail riding with her Paso Fino mare, Contessa. Also a breeder and breed promoter, she wows crowds by riding a spirited Paso Fino with a full champagne glass in hand and spilling nary a drop.
Gibson says the Paso Fino is her ideal pleasure horse. "Paso Finos are smooth as silk, and so smart and willing. They're beautiful, strong, versatile, and fun to ride. What more could you want?"
Carol Garcia and her husband, Julio, own Hacienda Nueva Vida Paso Fino Farm near Nashville, Tennessee. Carol has owned Paso Finos for nearly 20 years. Julio, a native of Puerto Rico, was in the saddle by age 3.
Carol runs a busy equine brokerage, specializing in Paso Finos. An avid trail rider, she's recently launched the Paso Fino National Trail Ride Directory, a website devoted completely to Paso owners who enjoy sharing stories and photos of their trail-riding adventures.
Selection savvy: Contact the breed association to find members in your area, then find a mentor, says Carol. Ride as many Paso Finos as possible. Learn about their gaits. Look for a soft eye and a horse that's interested in people. Study bloodlines. Some are "hotter" than others, and more appropriate to the show ring than the trail. Find a horse whose "family" excels on the trail.
Look for evidence of good care (and, conversely, neglect), and ask to review the horse's health records. Examine the feet. Most Spanish Horses inherit tough, well-formed feet. Check your prospect's back for any signs of soreness from a poorly fitting saddle. When you've found your perfect horse, take lessons from a trainer thoroughly familiar with the breed.
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