"After traveling over three continents and riding countless trails on every breed of horse, gaited and non-gaited I found the end of the rainbow in a small town with two caution lights," Arlene Magrino wrote in the Fall, 1997 issue of The Trail Rider. She went on to say: "The Peruvian is by far the smoothest riding horse. I've ridden them all and believe me this is it! Any horseman, novice or professional, who hasn't ridden one on the trail should do so ."
Kim La Flamme owns the horses that so impressed Arlene Magrino. He's been raising Peruvians for seventeen years. All but 15 of his 65 horses are pure Peruvian. The others are Peruvian crosses, usually with Spanish-type Mustangs and Barbs.
La Flamme's ideas about horses are different from those of many modern horsemen. That's partly because they came from different sources. For one thing, his great grandmother was a Blackfoot Indian; and he grew up around single-footing mustangs and Indian horsemen who had ridden them for generations. He was always attracted to horses of the naturally-gaited kind, and he has a lifetime (50 years) of experience with them.
"I was particularly drawn to the Peruvian because of its distinct characteristics," Kim says. "To me, it's the ultimate horse." Kim, his mother, Della, and his 14-year-old daughter, Alisha, are all hooked on Peruvians. His mother was a rodeo trick-rider for years, and his grandfather was best friends with horsemen such as well-known teacher of natural horsemanship, Ray Hunt.
"Peruvians are natural and efficient," Kim points out. "Everything about them seems logical, the way a horse should be." To support this statement La Flamme points to the breed's conformation. "With some breeds, the conformation that's best for working is considered a fault in the show ring," he states. "The Peruvian, however, has a functional conformation that helps him do the things he's supposed to do."
La Flamme points to the Peruvian's size as being helpful to the breed's balance, quickness and agility. A bit smaller than what many people prefer - because of today's rather warped standards - Peruvians are the size that best suits their purpose rather than some artificial standard.
"For example, the bigger Quarter Horses bred for halter classes," La Flamme points out, "lack the maneuverability of the smaller cutting horse type. Horses should be bred according to function not according to what pleases the eye or flatters the ego."
In her article, Arlene Magrino agreed: "I own a large gaited horse, but for the kind of rugged trail riding I do, there's nothing like that smaller, athletic, old classic Spanish Colonial type that seems to have been bred out of most of our gaited breeds of today."
The La Flamme Ranch is surrounded by hundreds of miles of trails that should easily meet anyone's standards, no matter where else that person had been privileged to ride. The ranch has beautiful trails through its vineyards and is within riding distance of ocean beaches, mountains, redwood forests, beautiful rivers and equally beautiful lakes. Riding those trails makes the smoothness and ground-covering gait of the Peruvian all the easier to appreciate. What's more, these horses not only treat riders gently but also carry them safely because the mechanics of their gait make them extraordinarily surefooted and athletic.
"The comments I hear most often are from people who are surprised at how good the Peruvians are in the mountains," La Flamme says with a grin as if he knew it before anyone else did. "Even though these horses were bred primarily to ride - not to look at - they're still among the most beautiful horses I've seen," La Flamme continues. "They have beautifully arched necks and a high head carriage. Their coats are the same vivid colors of the old Indian and Spanish Colonial horses. They also have a wonderful combination of energy and spirit, combined with tractability. This makes horse and rider seem like one when there's work to be done. This kind of horse was almost lost. It feels good to be helping bring them back."
When La Flamme talks about "bringing back" the naturally gaited horse, he isn't exaggerating. Even in a world where horses are enormously popular, there are far fewer Peruvian horses than there are eagles. There was a time, however, when trotting horses were the rarity. In those days it was much more common to see a smooth-riding "ambler".
Prior to the seventeenth century, the majority of horses were naturally-gaited; and the back of a horse was the best - and sometimes the only - option for travel. People had to ride, whether or not they knew anything about it; and they wanted the smoothest horses available. Horses that trotted (called "bone-shakers") were considered suitable only for pulling, as pack animals or as mounts for servants.
Even knights - who required trotting horses for battle - often rode naturally-gaited horses to the battlefield, leading their "chargers" behind. During the seventeenth century, networks of roads were built; and people began traveling in horse-drawn vehicles. This and other factors led to increased breeding of trotting horses. Within a single century, the gaited horse shifted from the rule to the exception. It was the most dramatic change horse breeding had ever seen.
Even so, horsemen in Peru continued to esteem and breed their naturally-gaited Caballo Peruano de Paso; and in Oregon, Kim La Flamme does the same but with a difference. Kim aims for horses that wouldn't suit most traditional Peruvian breeders. For one thing, he wants to breed pintos in a breed where great efforts have been made to eliminate "excessive white markings" of any sort.
"Most people are amazed to see my pure Peruvian pintos," La Flamme says. "They don't realize that this breed has the sabino and overo genes right there under the surface, just waiting to re-emerge." In fact, there are many traditionalists who don't want this gene to "re-emerge", mostly for aesthetic reasons.
"Growing up with what I consider the cousins of the Peruvian Paso - Spanish Barbs and Mustangs - I feel differently," La Flamme explains. "My grandfather always told me to 'look for the spotted horses because they gait better than the rest.' I found that he was right.
" La Flamme doesn't base his breeding program on what's doing well in the show ring. "I like to kid people by saying my culls go to show homes," La Flamme grins, knowing full well what show breeders say about their culls going to trail riders. "Seriously, though, I have no quarrel with traditionalists. I believe the Peruvian horse is what a horse should be, and for that we owe thanks to the traditionalists. I believe they've done a lot of good but have gone a little too far in a couple of areas, such as trying to breed out the white markings and to eliminate certain other colors."
La Flamme has a point. Peruvians come in a tremendous variety of stunning colors. These extraordinary colors are no surprise since the breed carries a strong injection of Barb blood; and the Barb, after all, was the fountainhead for most of today's strikingly-colored breeds. In the Peruvian breed, even the standard bays, browns, blacks, chestnuts, livers, palominos and buckskins can be of incredibly rich tones and hues. The breed also produces a broad range of duns, including red, golden, black and isabella, with its distinctive white mane and tail. The black and brown grullas can be absolutely stunning.
The preference for solid colors has led to the production of fewer animals of "mixed" colors; but these can still be found by those who admire them. The grays can be eye-catching. Another remarkable color is the "powder blue roan". Technically, this is a classic blue roan color, which comes from a mixture of black and white hairs. However the mixture and hue are such that the horse appears to have light blue hair evenly distributed on its body; and there is a similar "pink" variety of red roan. The palominos have more than once caused their owners to be branded "selfish" for refusing to reveal what "miracle" product gives them their deep, rich, shiny tone.
"Today smooth-riding horses are making a comeback," La Flamme says with a smile. "As we get older, we don't want to ride the bounce no matter what we're doing - endurance riding, cutting cattle, team penning, parading, hard mountain riding or just cruising through a vineyard."
For further information about Peruvian horses, visit the Internet Web Site of the American Association of Owners and Breeders of Peruvian Paso Horses at: http://www.aaobpph.org
Ray Hunt is one of America's best known teachers of round-pen work and natural horsemanship. He was one of the predecessors of what are now called "Horse Whisperers".
In Peruvians, overo and sabino colorations occur. No instance of "splash white" or tobiano has been documented, though they exist in some of the Peruvian's close relatives. Since Peru's breeders have been trying to reduce what they call "excessive white markings", it's possible that the genes for these were once there and have been bred out.