As an avid horseback rider for most of my life back home in Canada, I love to go riding when I’m traveling. In fact, I’ve decided to try and ride in every country I visit! From Bali, to Iceland to Easter Island, I love exploring the world by horseback. It’s not only a fun and unique way to explore, but it’s also a great way to access places that are otherwise inaccessible. Sure you could hike yourself but you can cover much more ground on a horse!
There are somewhere between 300 to 350 different breeds of horses and ponies in the world today, though this number is hotly disputed (thus the large number range). Many horse breeds are specific to regions or countries, such as the Icelandic Horse and the Peruvian Paso. Spending time with equines unique to a particular country or region can provide a history lesson of that nation as well.
The Peruvian Paso
Peru’s national horse is a direct decedent of the Spanish Horse brought over by Christopher Columbus and Spanish Conquistadors. Though it originally came from Spain, the Paso is authentically Peruvian having evolved into its own distinct breed over the last 500 years. The Paso is considered to be one of the purest breeds of horse in the world today, and said to be “the greatest triumph of genetic selection”.
So what makes the Peruvian Paso so special? The Paso has its own unique gait called the Paso Llano, something which no other horse breed in the world has. Like the Icelandic Horses tolt, the Paso has a 5th gait that is extremely smooth. This gait is a natural one, inherited from generation to generation, and not trained into the horses.
The Paso Llano is a 4-beat, lateral gait. This means that the horse moves its hind legs first, then its front legs, keeping its center of gravity in the same place. This movement results in a very smooth ride.
The Peruvian Paso has a distinctive way of moving its front legs out of the way so that its hind legs can move forward. This movement is called the Termino in which the horse brings his front legs out to the side, forwards and then in again, similar to a swimmer doing the front crawl. In other breeds this type of movement is called “winging” or “paddling” and is considered a negative trait. But with the Peruvian Paso this movement is not a conformation error but rather a celebrated and sought after trait. The Termino is a natural movement for the Paso, originating from the shoulder. For more information on the movement and conformation of the Peruvian Paso, read here and here.
A few facts about the Peruvian Paso:
- The Paso is a medium size horse with the average height ranging from 14.1 to 15.2 hands high.
- Although it is not a very large horse it has a graceful but powerful build.
- Stallions are larger in the chest and neck than mares and are valued for their good nature (stallions of most other breeds are generally ‘hot’ and more moody).
- The Paso is a very hard working horse, exceptionally focused on his rider. The Brio or “spirit” of the horse is a sought after quality found in the Peruvian Paso, as they are very willing workers with lots of stamina.
- The Paso is known to be a very forward and energetic breed with very smooth gaits.
On my recent trip to Peru I knew I had to try riding the Peruvian Paso. After much research I finally found a wonderful hacienda (ranch or estate) located in the town of Urubamba, the heart of Peru’s Sacred Valley.
Perol Chico specializes in multi-day rides geared towards experienced riders but they also offer a 1 day advanced ride. Since I was traveling with my boyfriend K (who is NOT a rider) and we were pressed for time, the one day ride was perfect.
One the morning of my ride I waited patiently at a pre-determined pick-up location in Ollantaytambo. Right on time a jeep driven by Eduard, the founder and owner of Perol Chico, pulled up to collect me. Dressed in light colored linen clothing and sporting a wide rimmed cowboy hat, Eduard had a soft smile and calm demeanor. After exchanging pleasantries our conversation quickly turned to horses. Right away I could tell he was passionate about his horses and the Peruvian Paso in general.
Eduard explained that all his horses are pure bred Paso’s, which is more difficult to come by than you’d expect. With only about 9000 pure Peruvian Paso’s in the world, this horse is often cross bred with other breeds in an attempt to gain favorable traits.
Arriving at the beautiful hacienda, I took in the gorgeous farm yard set against the high mountainous walls of the Sacred Valley. Within the farmyard, the loud noises from the highway were muffled providing a quiet country retreat. Horses nickered as they stuck their heads out of their large, roomy box stalls to watch the activities going on around the farm. The Spanish style house, set along one side of the farm yard, was draped in beautiful vines and flowers. For horse lovers like me, this place was heaven!
Eduard began by explaining the basics of the Peruvian Paso’s conformation and how best to ride this particular horse. Unlike the English style riding I’m used to, much of the riders commands come from the seat and the riders legs stay still. The stirrups are set very long, similar to a western saddle. In English riding the leg is one of the most important aids (along with the seat and hands) and is often used to direct the horse. Stirrups are kept a bit shorter for English riding to allow for posting trot (rise and sit with the motion of the horse), and so the rider can lift their weight off the horses back while jumping.
While Eduard and I were chatting, one of his trainers was busy tacking up our mounts for the days ride. I was introduced to my dark bay stallion Albero, who was standing handsomely in the yard in his authentic Paso tack. The saddle and bridle were authentic Paso tack and looked quite different from what I was used to.
Trail Ride To The Top Of The Sacred Valley
Once Eduard, myself and his trainer mounted our horses, we headed for the back gate. Right away I could tell why you would need to be an experienced rider to ride these particular horses! They are very forward and full of energy, all 3 of us taking off at a canter.
Eduard explained that if we let them, these horses would race up the entire mountain in one go! During our ride, we had to make frequent stops and force the horses to take a breather in the hot weather.
We settled the horses down into a walk and made our way along a dirt road to the base of the high mountain walls of the Sacred Valley. We would be riding up to the top of a ridge and then down the other side into a beautiful valley at the base of the Andes mountains. The plan was to stop at a trout farm for lunch before heading back to the farm.
Taking our time, stopping often to let the horses rest, we slowing climbed up the mountain walls. The sides of the mountain were steep with a single trail of switchbacks leading us higher and higher though thick, prickly underbrush.
Just shy of the ridge summit, the mountain side opened up into a flat grassy plateau. We dismounted, giving our sweaty horses a 20 min break while enjoying the incredible views of the Sacred Valley. Pulling out a few sandwiches and bottles of water, Eduard and I took up a seat on a rocky outcrop and embraced the cool breeze sweeping up the mountain from the valley floor.
Ridge Top Views
Once back on our horses it was a short trip to the top of the ridge. Looking back the way we had come was the Sacred Valley. Glancing to the other side of the ridge I could see the gorgeous, snow-capped Andes and a steep valley below. The view was breathtaking and I said as much to Eduard. He replied, “This is my gift to you.”
Following a single lane, grass trail (wide enough for a car) we rode down into the valley passing a few cows along the way. Eduard explained that we were now on cattle land that belonged to his friend. As long as Eduard agreed to bring his riding clients to this friends trout farm at the bottom of the valley for lunch, he could use this trail for his rides. I thought what a wonderful arrangement that supported 2 local business in one activity.
The trail was fairly flat and smooth with a slight downward trajectory. This terrain was perfect for trying the Paso Llano! Recalling Eduards instructions earlier on, I asked Albero to move forward into a trot and then collected him up into the Paso Llano. I was pleasantly surprised as Albero showed off his incredibly smooth gait. It was easy to sit still in the saddle as we glided down the mountain. I could see Eduard’s horse ahead of me moving his front legs high in the air and out to the side in the Termino fashion. This was truly an authentic Peruvian experience!
Soon we were at the bottom of the valley riding on a cute country lane. Trees over head sheltered us from the sun as we crossed a small glacier fed stream.
Lunch At A Trout Farm
Arriving at the trout farm, Eduard’s right-hand-man, a wonderful women named Maria, was there waiting for us. She helped us to settle the horses in for a nice long break, giving them some grain for their lunch.
Maria asked how the ride was going as she led me to a covered picnic area, surrounded by beautiful gardens right next to the trout ponds. Within minutes fresh plates of fried trout, rice and salad arrived and my tummy gave grumble of appreciation.
For the next hour, Maria, Eduard and I sat in the garden, enjoying our lunch and talking about everything from Peruvian politics to horses to our childhoods. One of the things I like most about travel is connecting with people from other cultures and this lunch was no exception.
Standing up to stretch my legs I couldn’t believe how sore I was for the mornings ride! While I do ride at home, its usually not for more than 90 min at a time. Today I’d already logged 3 hours in the saddle and still had another 1.5 hrs to go.
Finding my horse Albero where I left him, relaxed and well fed, I mounted him and followed Eduard back out to the road. We rode through a small village getting shy waves from the local kids and angry barks from the dogs. The horses took it in stride and didn’t seem to be bothered by the noise as motor bikes whizzing by.
The sun was starting to get low as we rode through the back streets of Urubamba. Passing by hidden 5 star resorts sitting next to run down local family homes along the Urubamba River was quite the contrast. Many of the locals benefit from tourism industry that is so prevalent in the Sacred Valley while others try to make a living the traditional way (mostly farming as the Sacred Valley is extremely fertile). Over lunch Eduard had explained that although he is half Peruvian (other half Dutch) he received mixed fed-back from his neighbors when he broke into the tourism industry. Many of his neighbors felt betrayed by his actions but tourism is the most lucrative industry for locals.
A Pisco Sour Ending
Arriving back at the farm, I dismounted and gave Albero a big hug of thanks for such a wonderful day. He had been on his best behavior, listening attentively to my instructions and taking care of me as expertly navigated the mountainous terrain.
As the horses were being tended to, Maria appeared from the house asking if I would like a Pisco Sour before she gave me a ride back to Ollantaytambo. I love Peru’s national drink so of course I said yes. Unbeknownst to me, the power at the hacienda had gone out thus making it difficult to make the blended beverage. But Maria was determined to give me the full Peruvian experience and was outside hammering away at a bag of ice. Soon I presented with a delicious Pisco Sour which I savored in the shade by the house.
As I walked into my hostel after Maria dropped me off, I was smiling ear to ear. All I could think was what an incredible day it had been. I had enjoyed one of my favorite past times in a new country, on a unique breed of horse and had learned so much about the history of the breed and the nation of Peru. The views of the Sacred Valley and the stunning Andes Mountains were nothing short of spectacular. I wondered how my Peruvian adventure could possibly get any better.
Have you ever gone horseback riding while traveling? Did you enjoy it?
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