Heavenly Gait

Posted on: May 11, 2020

Heavenly Gait
When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk;
He trots the air, the earth sings when he touches it…"
Henry V, Act III

Paca-paca, paca-paca, fine unshod hooves clack against the cobbled courtyard of a Peruvian hacienda in the outskirts of the capital Lima. Bougainvillea drapes a stone arc between a chapel and stable. Palm trees line the long drive to the house. Their ramrod straight trunks are branchless until the very top where fronds spurt out giving an overall impression of massive feather dusters. The life size statue of a bull on the lawn honours the generations prior to the agrarian reforms of the 1970s when plantation livestock breeding and agriculture flourished and this family raised fighting bulls.

The 16-hectare compound is lush in foliage, lush in old world colonialism, lush in wealth. As its name implies Hacienda Recoveco is a refuge, an oasis that stands in stark contrast to the laboured, impoverished life in the dust-dry desert lying just outside the front gate and stretching the entire length of Peru. A chalan, or Paso trainer, in surprisingly clean white pants and shirt, red bandana and sombrero, leads the stallion from its stall out to paddock. The morning is quiet except for the gentle reassurance of the trainer to his mount and, again, the sound of hooves rapidly striking stone like a metronome set on high. Paca-paca, paca-paca. It is the sound of one of this country's national treasures, the Peruvian Paso.

If it were brought to life from a Roman military monument the Paso stallion that stands quivering with anticipation, could not have been more majestic. His full, flowing mane drapes an extremely muscular neck, his forelock cascades to flaring nostrils, his tail follows like the train of a wedding dress. He is of medium height but built square to the ground on the well-muscled legs and durable hooves of a battle-charger. But for all his power and solidity he skims the ground when he moves in the specialized pace that gave the Paso its name and reputation.

What sets the Paso apart is an additional gait not found naturally in other breeds. Pasos are born with the ability and inclination to travel in a rapid four beat lateral movement originally derived from the slower, trained - not natural - two beat lateral movement of a pacing horse. A pacer such as the Standardbred (found on the tracks of North America with a sulky and driver in tow) moves its body like the connected wheels of a locomotive, the legs of one side stepping forward in tandem, then those of the other side, lifting the horse's center of gravity up and forward. The Paso also works side-to-side but places each hoof individually: the right hind leg, then the right fore leg, the left hind leg, and finally the left fore leg. Additionally, the fore legs are lifted high and scallop away from the body in an exaggerated move called termino propelling the centre of gravity forward and slightly side-to-side. Uninteresting as that may be to the non-equestrian it translates into a gait of considerable comfort to the rider, allowing travel on horseback over vast distances without tiring.

Its majestic snorting is terrible.
It paws violently, exults mightily;
it goes out to meet the weapons.
It laughs at fear, and is not dismayed;
it does not turn its back from the sword.
Upon it rattle the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin.
With fierceness and rage it swallows the ground;
it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, it says 'Aha!'
From a distance it smells the battle,
the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
Job 39:19-25

Beautiful and showy as the Paso now is it began like all other breeds with humble working roots. Horses coming with the conquistadors of the Pizarro's Spanish conquistadors in the 1530s were a decisive factor in crushing the vast, wealthy Inca empire that covered about 775,000 square kilometers, from southern Colombia to central Chile and from the coast inland to the edge of the Amazon basin, with as many as 12 million people. The Europeans' mounts - consisting mostly of the North African Barb, the Spanish Andalusian and the Dutch Friesian - gave the Europeans the critical advantage of speed and the ability to strike from above with their ashwood lances called jinetas. It wasn't long before the Spaniards had captured the Incan emperor, Atahualpa. Eventually the natives learned to defend themselves against the cavalry, digging small holes in the battlegrounds to trip the horses. By the end of the conflict, the native leader Manco Inca was riding a captured Spanish horse. But it was too late. The empire that had reigned for a century had been crushed and its vast coffers of gold emptied, thanks largely to the Spaniards invincible horsepower.

This was not the first appearance of horses in the Americas. Sixty million years ago a rodent-like quadruped, only 30 cm tall, started the genetic ball rolling towards the equus of today. But climate changes led to its extinction in the Americas until thousands of years later it was reintroduced as a domesticated servant of man.

In the early years of the vice-royalty of Peru, established in 1542, the king of Spain issued numerous ordinances to strengthen the colony's horse stocks and prevent its cavalry from becoming feeble: Riding in carriages was banned, as it was thought to weaken the animals and soften the rider. Laws were enacted to encourage the breeding and perfecting of the Paso and display their prowess in various games, including bull fighting. Wary of the horses falling into the hands of potential rebels, the Spanish forbade most Indians to ride.

Eventually, as colonization took root the need for the battle charger gave way to a showy horse but one still capable of traveling long distances over rough and varied terrain and uncertain pasturing. The Atacama, one of the world's driest deserts, stretches along the entire coast of Peru, only occasionally punctuated by oases. Moving inland the landscape gives way to the Andes, the highest chain of mountains in the world after the Himalayas, and subsequently drops into the humid, almost impenetrable Amazon basin. Judicious breeding produced a rustic horse with a large thoracic cavity that helps it cope with long distances and high altitudes; it also developed resistant hooves and powerful muscles, as well as compact bones and tendons able to withstand difficult conditions.

The early 19th century was the high point in the breed's history. The unique characteristics of its gait were already taking shape with the mechanics of its movement being perfected into four smooth beats. The bump-free ride was essential in the surveillance of vast agricultural lands developed by the colonialists. The horse also went back to war. Just as the region's colonial dependence came on horseback so did its independence; in 1824 more than 300 years of Spanish rule came to an end. The decisive battles of Junín and Ayacucho were cavalry battles. But the horse's stature fell in the post-independence confusion of anarchy, revolution and uprisings and with the introduction of rail travel and later, automobiles.

The breed began to rebound in the 1920s under President Augusto B. Leguía y Salcedo, a horse fancier who instigated the first Peruvian Paso Horse Competition. This gradual comeback led to the founding of the Association of Breeders and Owners of the Peruvian Paso Horse in 1947.

The agrarian reforms of the 1970s, which saw land re-distributed to the peasants and crop yields plummet, might not have significantly reduced the Paso population of about 8-10,000, but it did completely wipe out some of the best bloodlines and produce many foals that were weak or did not survive. Despite the faltering, the government was determined to keep the Paso uniquely Peruvian and banned the export of the horse at that time.

The land reforms also resulted in a dispersal of the horses, which previously were owned by a few dozen elite. Today an important breeding hacienda might boast a hundred horses; back then a plantation with Pasos would saddle twice that many each day to be worked while hundreds of others grazed at pasture.

Now that the horses are allowed to be exported, a growing interest in the breed outside of the country, primarily in North America, has fueled the latest resurgence of interest.

At Peter Koechlin's Hacienda Recoveco on the outskirts of Lima about 100 horses graze on cane grass, including eight stallions in individual paddocks. Head of the Peruvian environmentalist organization Pachamama, Señor Koechlin blends modern activism with a traditional lifestyle, running the plantation that has been in his family for generations. Tall and lanky, his blonde hair covered by an extremely fine straw hat, he has the slightly arrogant demeanor of a privileged colonials' descendent. But his pride in the Paso is clear. "The Paso is a majestic horse. He has brioso - wants to live much - but he is not crazy," he says.

The walls of the harness room of Mr. Koechlin's hacienda, are lined with ribbons and its trophy shelves covered with silver cups, including awards for best national breeder for five of the last 10 years. Not wishing to facilitate eventual competition, he rarely sells his stock to other owners within Peru. He does sell to North American hobbyists who are drawn to the Paso's beauty, uniqueness and comfort as a pleasure horse and are willing to pay on average $25,000 to $75,000 - even as much as $150,000 - plus shipping costs for one of the prized breed.

The harness room also boasts irreplaceable tack. A complete set weighs up to 23 kg; by contrast a typical jockey's saddle and bridle weigh a total of less than three kilograms - not quite the weight of one Paso stirrup. The tack includes four levels of bridle worn simultaneously, one of which includes a mask that can be slipped over the horse's eyes to make him stand untended and untied or to still a nervous horse. The extensive hardware seems at odds with the soft mouth and manageability of the horse, one that in the past was often trained with silk reins. Besides the bridles, the horse sports a heavy saddle, crupper, tail guard, breast plate, straps hanging low over the hock joint of the back legs and a saddle pad. Much of the gear has, or once had, practical working purpose; some, like the numerous nickel or sterling rosettes, are clearly for show. Included also is the pellon, or fleece saddle cushion for the rider, made from the wool of a particular sheep. Every individual hair of the sheepskin is gathered in small clusters and twisted into thousands of thin, tight dreadlocks.

"We don't make pellones any more," says Alberto Barreña, a soft-spoken man who, together with his wife, owns a small atelier that crafts Paso tack. "The wool is expensive and difficult to find and it takes at least nine months to make one." He knows how to make them, but few do, which is why the pellones in Señor Koechlin's collection are more than a half-century old and are well guarded.

The Barreña atelier, found after much searching along unmarked streets in an area of Lima where cars are not left unguarded, is busy with the work of men and women following generations of family tradition.

On one section of the roof, men cut and braid sets of 36 linguine-thin strips of goat leather around a core of braided calf leather to form round reins. On the other side of the roof Mario Catañeda sweats in the foundry casting and polishing rivets, rosettes, bits, buckles and other hardware, his hands blackened with rouge, a polishing compound. Elsewhere, Lucho Ore cuts, dyes and tools the leather for the saddles and tail guards, while Victor Casco, down on the main floor, carves and stains the truncated wooden pyramids that will become the stirrups. The conquistadors rode with stirrups of iron, but these were soon replaced with indigenous arabesco wood, pointed with sterling or nickel. As with the horses themselves, the revival of the traditional Paso tack is largely sustained by exports: North American buyers account for 70 per cent of Señor Barreña's sales.

Señor Jose Antonio Otero is another of Peru's passionate Paso breeders. Despite the fact that he is the nephew of the Paso association's first president, he says he is at odds with the organization, because he insists the horse's breeding should not be confined to the Peruvian elite. "The Paso" he insists "is the creation of a country, not of one man." Otero initiated a school for Paso trainers and riders located at the National Agrarian University in Molina on the outskirts of Lima. A retired poultry businessman, he used to raise a million chicks a year; now he raises horses. Over the last 35 years Otero's Hacienda La Palizada, near the capital, has raised more than 1,200 Pasos. He tells me his horses reflect a more traditional looking Paso; they are less fine-boned, more solid in their build than those of other breeders.

As the early morning fog lifts from the valley at the back of the Otero's hacienda, a large herd of geldings calmly graze on tropical grasses and alfalfa. Later, each one will receive a portion of hydrogenated oil, molasses, mineral salts, vitamins and fish meal mixed with the remains of milling flour. A young colt, completely black except for a thin line of white on a hind hoof, runs free on the lawn beside the small tiled cottage. His nostrils flare as he rapidly paces across the grass, encouraged by three chalans. He cocks his head towards his admirers, unabashedly arrogant.

In the stable, in a well-bedded box stall, a mare licks her newborn foal. The filly is a mere couple hours old. Her short twitch of a tail, more like that of a white-tail deer, flicks at flies as she searches for her mother's milk. The mare is brought out into the light of the courtyard. Behind her on wobbly legs the foal emerges wide-eyed at this new world. She is still so weak that her pasterns are nearly parallel to the ground instead of rising up from the hooves. Yet she is bright and eager. The mare ambles but to keep up with her the filly must shift gears. Although fresh from the womb the foal is unquestionably Paso. The work of generations of Peruvian breeders and the nobility of the horse itself are there in the first unsure but unmistakable Paso steps: Paca-paca, paca-paca.

Written by: Pamela Coulston
Published August 26, 2001
The Ottawa Citizen (Citizen's Weekly section)

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