On Peruvian Pasos in Argentina

by Hidden Trails 09/24/2009

Automatic Horses by Jasper Winn
It’s rare to come across something totally new in the world of horses. Because horses are four legged and conservative creatures it’s inevitable that most riding experiences are going to be variations on the usual walk-trot-canter-gallop theme, with, maybe, a bit of jumping thrown in.

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But I’d just mounted a Peruano Paso horse, and ridden off down a sand track. And at the point where there should have been a transition from walk to trot something unexpected happened. Or rather didn’t happen. With a touch from my heels, the horse’s speed doubled and then close to trebled but almost nothing changed under the saddle. There was no trot action, no jerking around, no two-stroke beat. Just an increase in speed and the very faintest feeling of the animal undulating across the ground.

The Peruano Paso is famous for its ‘pace,’ and this smooth gait, I realized, made it the equivalent of a luxury saloon car with independent suspension, cruise control, automatic gearbox and, for all I knew, quadraphonic CD-changer and air conditioning.

There are, of course, a number of variations on the ‘extra pace’ theme. Icelandic horses have the tolt. Some Asian horses are born with a natural extended walk that can glide them along at the speed of a trotting horse. Occasionally, too, Barbs in Morocco have an equally smooth extra pace. Whilst the Americas have the Tennessee Walking Horse, the Missouri Foxtrotter and the American Saddle Horse.

According to some authorities the natural ability to pace, tolt, rack, lateral trot, speed walk or whatever the extra gear is packaged as is passed on genetically. In the case of the Peruano Paso the lateral pace – with the legs on either side moving together in a smooth and speedy forward momentum – are the result of three hundred years of selective breeding based on the Barb, Andaluse and Asturian horses brought from Spain by the conquistadores and the early Iberian colonists. Peruanos were prized for their ability to cover long distances at speeds averaging 18 kph and – still in the paso pace – up to 21 kph, and with almost no effort required from the rider.

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The Estancia Sierra Chicas in Argentina’s province of Cordoba is part of a history going back to the region’s first settlers in 1573, the farms of the Jesuit missions, and the silver mines of the Andes. The area was famous for breeding the large, pack mules used to carry the silver across the Andes to the coast. The 6,000 acres of the estancia are used for raising cattle and four generations of the Begg family have used Peruano Pasos for overseeing their stock and directing the work of the estancia’s gauchos. They also run riding holidays from the colonial estancia’s main house with its flagged floors, hunting prints on the walls and bedrooms furnished with antiques.

We were a mixed group, all of us come to ride with brothers Robin and Kevin Begg for a weekend. Piotr was an experienced horseman from Poland, Florencia from Buenos Aires was a friend of the family, whilst Jenny from England was checking out luxury estancias across Argentina for a travel company. Kate and Aine from Cork had never ridden before, but were assured that Argentina was the best place to start.

We had arrived at an opportune moment, just in time for the annual yerra, the branding of the year’s crop of steers. Even as we breakfasted our horses, most Criollo but with a trio of Peruano Paso amongst them, were driven in and lined up along the yard wall. The horses were saddled with English-style cavalry saddles each overlaid with a thick sheepskin in the Argentine way.

“The most important thing to remember is these horses have very soft mouths, so they neck rein, and you need almost no contact,” Robin stressed to Kate and Aine. As we rode out to branding, a few miles away across the hills, I rode beside Robin who explained how they kept the horses for the guests well schooled. “We rotate them through the gauchos, so they spend as much time working cattle and being ridden by our riders as they do with guests and that keeps them right.”

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We tied the horses up in the shade of the trees beside the corral. Many of the gauchos were neighbors who had ridden over for a day of helping in the lassoing in exchange for the pleasure of a barbeque, with plenty of wine and singing. Working on foot each man had swung a braided rawhide lasso. As a black steer was driven out into the stone walled corral one gaucho or another would step forward and as it ran past flick out a loop and – as often as not – neatly rope the animal’s two front legs, rolling the bullock neatly over and allowing other men to run in and hold it down whilst it was branded with the sizzling sound and acrid smell of burning hair.

The men worked through the cattle at a spanking rate, despite the hot sun. Robin and Kevin’s father had arrived to oversee the branding. Having welcomed his visiting neighbors, and seeing that things were going well he suggested that we ride a tour of the outlying country of the estancia. A group of us rode off across the Sierra, through the scrubby paja brava grass. The land rolled and tumbled like the Wicklow hills as we paced along with Mr Begg pointing out landmarks and recounting the history of the region or pausing to identify a far-off bird. “We’ve got condors here, and humming birds, too and there are deer and boar and puma, and fox of course.”

Our return to the yerra was well timed. The gauchos had marked the last bullock, and there were great plates of meat – steaks, sausages, ribs, black puddings – being carried from the fire to the white clothed tables set up under the trees. Bottles of Los Potreros’ own label wine were uncorked.

The air of fiesta continued after we had ridden back to the farm and swum and taken a siesta. Aine and Kate were ecstatic at having become riders. Ambling along beside them at various times during the day I’d sympathized with their agonized demands as to why holding the reins correctly had to be so complicated. And I’d encouraged them on through the agonies of learning to trot, (the Peruanos were too valuable to be demoted to schoolmasters and so both girls were mounted on patient and well schooled Criollos).

Kevin and Robin put in time to give them subtle tuition on a need to know basis, so that as complete beginners they were able to ride along with the group at the groups pace, even if at some cost to dignity and comfort when trotting. Kate and Aine’s joy at having seen the countryside from on top of a horse, and the group’s general happiness spilled over into an evening of singing and then tango dancing across the rugs and wooden floor of the elegant sitting room in the main house. The hunting prints on the walls shook and trembled in time to stamping feet. And there were Polish hunting songs and Irish ballads and Argentine folk poems.

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Despite the late night there was an early start next morning when Kevin, Piotr and I saddled up just past dawn to go on an extended ride across wilder neighboring lands, and deep into the Sierra Chicas. The girls contemplated a day by the swimming pool and a shorter ride out with one of the gauchos. This ability to provide activities for groups of very different abilities was a strong point, I suggested to Kevin as we rode over the hills to meet with a gaucho from the neighboring estancia who was going to guide us through a maze of valleys, woods and steep hills. Between them the Begg family had worked out that riding holidays run in a distant part of the world needed to offer variety and unique attractions. So once a year they ran a two week riding holiday aimed at beginners. For experienced riders they had come up with idea of polo treks. “Rather than sitting around in a polo school waiting to get a brief period on a horse, we ride around neighboring estancias where they play polo and have a game– even beginner ball and stickers, can play – and then we ride on,” explained Kevin, “so that you get much more time in the saddle.”

At other times of the year they run camping and estancia stay trips for those keen to do long distance. And in the middle of summer – January in the southern hemisphere - at the time of the full moon horses are saddled after dark and riders head out into the moonlight. Whilst another ride each May takes guests across the mountains by horse to find vantage points above the route used by the annual world rally primes to give a grandstand view of the cars hurtling along the precipitous dirt tracks.

We’d ridden throughout the morning, with a good gallop across broken country when our gaucho guide’s pack of dogs set off in pursuit of something unseen - puma, boar or deer - in the thick scrub and copses of a deep valley. We’d ridden along a ridge between two remote estancias as the same gaucho described a late night gun fight between cattle rustlers and stockmen. In the middle of the day we rode down from the hills to a remote bar, and tied up the horses under a tree and ordered up ice cold beers. We still had a long ride to get back to the estancia, but with the estancia’s horses the difference was between setting off to drive across Ireland in a rattle trap car on the edge of breakdown and with non existent suspension, or setting off on the same journey in a touring coupe with all you could ask in the way of modern comfort. Except, in the case of the Peruano Paso horse, it’s everything you could ask in the way of the ancient comfort produced by generations of breeding and a life time of good schooling.

This trip can be booked with Hidden Trails, a specialist in equestrian vacations all over the world. 
You can call toll free at  1-888-9-TRAILS or contact them on Skype at  skype:hiddentrails .
You can also see details on this trip including rates and trip date on their website at: http://www.hiddentrails.com/tour/argentina_sierra_chicas_estancia.aspx

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