The Peruvian Paso horse is one of Peru’s national treasures, and a breed internationally known for its graceful gait, spirited nature, endurance and elegance. But what are the origins of the breed, a horse born to a continent devoid of the species some 500 years ago?
The Peruvian Paso Horse: Columbian Exchange
Approximately 10,000 years ago, the ancestors of the modern horse roamed freely across the region now known as the Americas. After having spread across land bridges to Europe and Asia, the horse disappeared from its homeland. Not until the discovery of the New World by Europe and the subsequent colonization of these lands did the horse once again set foot upon American soil.
With the second voyage of Columbus to the New World in 1493, the first horse since the Pleistocene period arrived in the Americas. Horses, a hugely valuable commodity in the New World, were first brought to the island of Española (or Hispaniola). Breeding programs were soon implemented to supplement the influx of horses from Spain and, according to Alfred W. Crosby, “By 1501 that island [Española] had twenty or thirty, and by 1503 there were, at the very least, no fewer than sixty or seventy”.
Peruvian Paso Origins
The horses brought by Columbus, and by later arrivals, were a mix of three breeds: the Andalusian, the Barb and the Spanish Jennet. Not only did they serve as pack animals in a land lacking such beasts of burden, they were also vital as an instrument of warfare.
The first of these horses to arrive in Peru came with Francisco Pizarro and his Conquistadors in 1531. Horses allowed the Conquistadors to field highly effective mounted shock troops on the battlefield, a terrifying sight to their Inca enemies who had never seen such animals. Rapid communications between colonial towns and military outposts were also made possible, another distinct advantage held by the Spanish in the campaign against the native population.
The Peruvian Horse & the Fall of the Inca Empire
After the Spanish had firmly taken control of the New World, their horses, although still used to deter and counter uprisings, began to serve a purpose beyond warfare. Communication was still of vital importance, but so too was agriculture.
While the horses were slow to breed in the higher and colder Andean regions of Peru and the humid tropical zones, successful breeding programs were implemented in and around the former Inca heartlands of Cuzco. The Columbian Exchange had seen the arrival of foreign livestock in the New World, but plantations were far more common in Peru than ranches. This, combined with the expansive geography of the region, saw the development of a very particular breed of Peruvian horse, one that would later become known as the Peruvian Paso.
Long distances required a horse with stamina, and long hours spent on a plantation necessitated comfort and a smooth ride. Narrow highland passes and difficult jungle terrain also favored a smaller horse. While cattle-ranching or carriage horses needed bulk and power, the Spanish found that a mobile, lighter horse with a smooth gait was ideally suited for their needs in Peru.
The Emergence of the Peruvian Paso Horse
While naturally gaited “travel” horses in Europe and other parts of the New World were giving way to “trotters” (better suited for pulling carts and also for racing), in Peru the opposite was true. Bred in relative isolation for four centuries, the Peruvian Paso horse developed with little crossbreeding from outside the original Spanish stock. Breeders deliberately retained the natural gait required for a smooth ride and the stamina needed for long distances.
Verne R. Albright, founder of the American Association of Owners and Breeders of Peruvian Paso Horses, emphasizes the special qualities and remarkable history of the Peru horse: “For several centuries, no outside blood has been introduced into the Peruvian Paso breed, and it is now the only naturally gaited breed in the world that can guarantee its gait to 100% of its offspring”.
The Peruvian Paso horse has faced many trials in the last century, at times placing the survival of the breed in doubt, but the Peruvian Paso is now firmly established in Peru and its popularity continues to grow on a global scale.
- Alfred W. Crosby – The Columbian Exchange, Praeger Publishers, 2003, ISBN 0275980928
- Bonnie L. Hendricks, Anthony A. Dent – International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995, ISBN 9780806138848
- Verne R. Albright – “Peruvian Paso”, www.hiddentrails.com