Breed evolution: More than 400 years ago, Spanish conquistadors brought horses from Europe to South America. The African Barb, Spanish Jennet, Friesian, and the Andalusian all made the long voyage, and contributed their genetic strengths to the breed known today as the Peruvian Horse.
Eventually, the horses were used by settlers on the vast haciendas of Peru. Owners selectively bred for the smooth, rocking gait, stamina, and willing temperaments that characterize the breed today. For centuries, owners maintained a closed population within the borders of Peru, protecting the breed from dilution by discouraging outcrossing with other breeds. Only within the last 40 years have Peruvian Horses been imported to the United States in appreciable numbers.
Peruvian Horses feature a striking, sumptuous mane and tail, average 14.2 hands high (but range between 14 and 15.3 hands high), and are powerfully built. Owners treasure the breed's brio, often described as its special spirit. But "brio" is also used to describe the Peruvian's combination of confident presence, elegant appearance, and kind, willing heart - all of which endear the handsome horses to their owners.
Peruvian owners and breeders are adamant that the breed's natural gait remain just that, and no training methods may be used to modify it. To that end, in the show ring, all horses are presented without shoes, with hooves no longer than four inches.
From the walk, the Peruvian moves naturally into the paso llano, a lateral, four-beat gait, resulting in a side-to-side rocking motion, as opposed to the vertical movement of the trot. This signature gait is very smooth, evenly spaced, and executed with termino, a rolling movement that starts in the shoulders and ends as the front legs move to the outside during extension.
The Peruvian also performs the sobreandando, a four-beat gait, but faster than the paso llano, and unevenly spaced. In addition, the breed performs a normal pace and canter to complete its five-gait repertoire.
In 2005, the breed's two primary organizations merged to form the North American Peruvian Horse Association. There are 16,800-plus purebred Peruvian Horses registered with NAPHA, and approximately 1,100 horses registered with their Part Blood Registry.
Owners tell us: "The Peruvian Horse is the Rolls Royce of riding horses, definitely with an automatic, not manual, transmission," Ray Wood says with a twinkle in his eye. "They're naturally gaited and ultrasmooth; no bounce at all. All you have to do is sit and enjoy their gentle rocking ride."
The Oklahoman owns Wood Guest Ranch and Equestrian Center in Boswell, with 54 Peruvians in his pastures. Elegant and gentle, they're perfect for his guests. Wood also hosts trail rides that traverse the nearby Clear Boggy Bottom, a valley two miles wide and 30 miles long, with a river meandering through the middle. Three lakes enhanced the serene beauty.
Wood bought his first Peruvian in 1990, impressed by their naturally smooth gait, kind temperaments, and their brio, the breed's special charisma and enthusiasm for life. He also appreciates their strength and stamina over distance, willing attitude on challenging trails, and a gentle demeanor that makes them suitable for the entire family. And he isn't alone.
Third-generation horseman Lynn Omohundro rides his Peruvian Horses daily on his family's 460-acre ranch, Rafter Z Peruvians, near Summerville, Oregon. He was first introduced to the breed through a friend of his parents, whose health challenges had prompted him to choose the smooth-riding Peruvian.
"I've raised and trained all breeds of horses, but one ride on a Peruvian, and I was hooked," Omohundro says. Today, he owns a dozen Peruvian Horses, and trains others, using the techniques of Pat Parelli, Tom Dorrance, and Pedro Cantaro, a Peruvian specialist.
A few hundred miles to the north, in central Washington State, Pam Brandon has been raising and riding Peruvian Horses for the past 27 years. Their mellow, sweet-natured temperament initially won her over, and their naturally smooth gaits continue to amaze her.
"Unlike some other gaited breeds, you don't need to push them into the bit to get them to gait," she says. "Peruvians don't have to work at it - it's easy for them."
On the trail: Omohundro doesn't have to trailer to trails - he just rides straight out into the Blue Mountains and surrounding wilderness areas. "We have creeks for water training, hills, and meadows," he says. "And trails that weave through stands of tamaracks, and white and red fir."
Omohundro's enthusiasm for trail riding translated into success in the show ring: Last year, he rode his eye-catching palomino Peruvian mare, CBP Katia, to the North American Peruvian Horse Association's 2007 High Point Trail Horse award.
Brandon, who lives on 40 view-rich acres atop historic Nahahum Canyon, rides out her back door and into the Wenatchee National Forest. There she and her neighbor, fellow Peruvian owner Nancy Van Bergen, have spent years grooming meandering trails through aspen and Ponderosa Pine.
In spring, when the snow melts, dainty avalanche lilies, golden balsam root, and blue lupine are revealed. It's always a treat to spy white-tailed deer, bear, or wild turkeys on a ride, though Brandon would be happy if she never again saw the cougar that stored a kill under her hay tarp last winter.
"That aside," she says with a chuckle, "it's a horseman's paradise."
Selection savvy: Evaluate your horsemanship skills, and look for a horse that will be a good match. Take a knowledgeable horseman shopping with you. Horses should have clear, bright eyes, shiny coats, and clear skin, without being too thin or fat.
Require good temperament: Peruvian Horses should be calm and sensible, with good manners. Watch the prospect move to make sure he gaits naturally and moves freely. If you're new to gaited horses, take lessons from a trainer familiar with Peruvian Horses.
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