Paso Fino: Smoothest ride ever

When Christopher Columbus made his second journey to the New World, he had in mind taking home lots of riches from the new territories that he had “discovered” for Spain.

What he likely did not realize was he was bringing a treasure of his own along in his ship – Paso Fino horses. In 1493, he disembarked with 20 horses, five of them mares on the island of Borinquen at the bay of Aguada, (today Añasco) and gave the region the name San Juan Bautista.

Columbus had no idea that 500 years later those horses would be spreading all over North America, and they would be prized in modern times for the very traits they had all those years ago.

Paso Fino means “fine gait,” and the horses live up to their name. Some say it is impossible for the eye to catch their leg movements, and yet the horse can actually be moving very slowly.

Marijean Harris moved to the Centre Wellington area just off County Road 29 on the Eramosa-Garafraxa Townline two years ago from Terra Cotta, and renamed the farm Forest Gait Farm. The spelling of “Gait” was no accident because she breeds Paso Fino horses for pleasure riding, lessons, trail riding and simply for the love of the breed.

She said with her husband working in Kitchener, the move brought them closer to his work, but she loves the area, too. “It’s beautiful – especially Fergus and Elora.” She quickly learned Wellington County has more horses per capita than any other county in the province, and, she said, “There’s more varieties [of horses].”

Paso Finos developed on the Iberian Peninsula and were the mount of choice by the Conquistadors, the Spanish soldiers who came to the new world to conquer the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs and to send home gold and other treasures.

The reason for their choice of mount would be obvious to anyone who has ever ridden a horse for the first time. When the horse trots, the riders gets taken along on a bump, bump, bumpy ride. Novices are taught to post, a method of dealing with the discomfort of riding a trotting horse.

Now, imagine a Conquistador in Mexico or South America riding a horse while wearing full battle armor, and marching through swamps, and across plains and desert as they were forced to do. They might never have reached the fabled cities they eventually looted, simply because of the discomfort of the ride.

Harris explained Paso Finos simply move their legs differently than other breeds and “because they have a smooth gait you don’t bounce in the saddle. They don’t trot. They’re like equine Sportscars.”

The Paso Fino is a blend of the Barb, Spanish Jennet and Andalusian horse, said Harris. It was bred by Spanish land owners in Puerto Rico and Colombia to be used in their plantations because of its endurance and the comfortable ride it provided.

All Paso Finos share their heritage with the Peruvian Paso, the American Mustangs and other descendants of Colonial Spanish Horses. Puerto Rican and Colombian horses, as well as Paso Finos from Cuba and other tropical countries, have been interbred in the United States to produce a modern American Paso Fino show horse.

The horse became popular with Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. They learned of the breed during their service in the Armed Forces in Puerto Rico, and when they returned home, they imported their horses, rather than sell them. That stock provided some of the first Paso Finos bred in the United States.

When Harris first came across the breed, she had never ridden. Her reaction to the Paso Fino was similar to those of the American soldiers – who could not stand the idea of selling the horse off when it was time to go home.

“A friend of mine had one,” Harris remembered. “She invited me to come and ride. I never rode before. I instantly fell in love with them.”

Harris explained there are three types of Paso Fino, including the classic Fino, the performance horse and the pleasure horse. The latter has more extension in the leg and, “It’s what I’m breeding here,” she said of Forest Gait Farm.

That farm has about 26 acres of pasture, forest and trails, leaving it an excellent and scenic place for people to come and ride. Harris has a 12-stall barn, ten Paso Finos, and is planning to add to her business.

She offers horse leasing, where people can come and rent to ride, and she tries to match the horse to the rider’s skill level.

One woman in her 60s was there, riding out on a horse over 20, and they seemed perfectly suited and quite happy to hit the trails on a bright, sunny day.

Harris said the smooth ride is only one of the reasons why people like the horse. It ranges from 14.2 to 16 hands, so it is smaller than most, the horses are very gentle and, because of their smooth gait, they can also carry heavy loads.

A Paso Fino horse is also very versatile. Riders can try several competitions at elite levels.

The horse:

– won a Wind Rider Challenge championship;

– won 100 mile endurances rides;

– won competitive trail rides;

– has won USEF/PFHA sponsored regional, national and international shows;

– won drill team competitions;

– can be ridden for hours on the trail without rider fatigue;

– can show the brilliance of the breed in parades and demonstrations;

– can be trained to drive; and

– can work cattle.

The Paso Fino comes in all the usual colours of the horse world except one. It does not have appaloosa colours.

Harris offers boarding, lessons and also sells horses when people contact her. Type in “Paso Fino” on Google and Forest Gait Farm is one of the first websites there.

She has been involved with the Paso Fino now for over 20 years and is a certified Paso Fino riding teacher. She received that accreditation from the Paso Fino Horse Association, based in Kentucky.

She said she likes the breed because “They are very people friendly.”

A step into the pasture is a great demonstration of that. The stallion, two mares and a colt come running as one enters the pasture, nibbling and fussing and seeking carrot treats.

Harris added, “They are brave and willing horses. They are a little smaller, so they are easier to get on and off, but they are strong.”

Because the Paso Fino was placed on several islands for hundreds of years in some cases, and then imported to North American, the genetics have become a little jumbled. The three types have been interbred, in some cases to improve all the traits of the three types.

Harris said the PFHA now tests horses for their DNA to ensure they have the correct genetics as well as the gait to be named Paso Finos.

As well, the Paso Fino Horse Association oversees and regulates registered Paso Finos in the United States. It was founded in 1972 under the name American Paso Finos, and later changed to its current name.

It registers and promotes both Puerto Rican and Colombian horses, and under the PFHA, two groups have been frequently crossbred.

However, in recent years, particularly as the numbers of Colombian horses has begun to significantly outnumber those of Puerto Rican bloodlines, horse owners have started a trend favouring what is called preservation breeding to preserve the undiluted strains of each of the types of Paso Finos.