Peruvian Horse Origin and Characteristics

The Peruvian Paso has been protected by government decree since 1992. The breed has been declared a Cultural Heritage of the Nation as well. What has made the Peruvian a unique horse is its 400 years of relative isolation. It has created a breed that is very particular about the horse’s physical characteristics and gait. 

Peruvians are smooth-gaited horses that are prized in the northern areas of Peru where this breed gained a foothold. The ancestry of the horse allows it to be strong and have good endurance. Some individuals may also have an ambling gait because of their specific ancestry.

Because Peruvians are sometimes referred to with Paso in their name, an association with Paso Fino horses is often made. This is an incorrect correlation. Although the breeds do have a shared lineage from Colonial Spanish horses, they are two separate breeds. Paso Finos were developed in Colombia and Puerto Rico and did not interact with the Peruvian.

To avoid any confusion, a transition from Peruvian Paso to just “Peruvian” is being made outside of Peru to differentiate the breeds. 

What Is the Origin of the Peruvian Horse?

The Peruvian has its foundations in the Colonial Spanish horses that were brought over to the New World from Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. The first horses arrived in Peru during the Spanish conquest of the region that was initiated by Pizarro in 1531. After settlements were established, foundation horses were imported from Europe and Central America within a decade.

A variety of breeds were part of the imports, so the modern Peruvian has a very mixed lineage. Barb, Jennet, and Palfreys make up a majority of the ancestry, with Andalusian bloodlines helping to give the breed some of its conformation, action, and style. 

As homesteads established themselves, the horses were used for transportation, agricultural work, and additional breeding. In the north, where plantations where numerous and large, owners needed a horse that could withstand several days of riding to cover the entire land area of the plantation. Meanwhile, in the south where deserts were more prevalent, sturdy horses that could withstand the head were necessary.

These individual characteristics developed in region-specific areas, but would eventually crossbreed to become the beginning of the first true Peruvian breed. And, since the economy of Peru was based on plantation products and not livestock, there was never a need to create a breed that emphasized speed. This separates the Peruvian from the typical agricultural stock horse.

Over the 400 years of isolation, Peruvian breeders emphasized a need to keep the bloodlines pure for the breed. Although gait was the primary emphasis of breeding in most instances, there was also a strong preference for horses that met certain physical conformation characteristics and had a calm, willing temperament. Over time, the dedication to these characteristics has helped to create one of the best gaited breeds in the world.

Beginning in the early 20th century, transportation networks began to replace the need to own a horse for transportation. This caused many breeders to just give their horses away since they could no longer afford to keep them. In the South, this caused the breed to virtually disappear. In the North, however, a need to travel on the haciendas kept the breed alive. 

That survival was threatened in the 1960s when government reforms broke up stud farms. Most of the breeding stock was lost. The only thing that saved the breed was international interest in the horse. Many of the best horses were exported, essentially to save them, and Peru would go several decades with a minimal population of its namesake horse.

There are currently more than 25,000 horses worldwide, with a growing population returning to Peru. Champion horses can no longer be exported, which is helping to refine the breed locally as well.

What Are the Characteristics of the Peruvian Horse? 

Peruvians are average in size, with most standing between 14-15.2 hands high. They have a certain elegance to their initial first impression, but there is also a sense of power behind that delicate exterior. Peruvians should have a heavy neck, a deep chest, and have consistent proportions throughout the body. Stallions tend to be a bit heavier and deeper than a mare, but this is for general comparisons only.

Peruvians can have virtually any coat color, but some are more desirable than others. Solid coat colors are the most popular, with a gray coat and dark skin the most preferred. Black, brown, chestnut, roan, and dun are also common. Buckskins and Palominos are seen from time to time within this breed as well. White markings are permitted along the legs and face, but coat patterning is discouraged within the breed.

The tail on a Peruvian show be set low and should be quiet. The mane should be thick and “lustrous,” displayed with abundance. A flow effect should occur in each gait, especially if high leg action is involved.

Peruvians have an ambling 4-beat gait instead of a trot, which comes into play between the walk and canter. The gait is lateral, starting with the left hind leg and ending with the right foreleg. Two variations of this gait may be performed. The first, called the paso llano, is performed in a straight 1-4 rhythm. The second, which is called the soreandando, is faster and puts the lateral beats closer together. 

This gait allows the horse to cover a long distance with good speed without a high level of fatigue. The gait is natural, without much bounce, and doesn’t require much training for a rider or the horse to master.

One unique trait for the Peruvian is called the termino. This is a swinging leg action that moves outward from the shoulder. It causes the lower legs of the front to roll toward the outside as the horse strides forward. Think about how a human swimmer performs a freestyle stroke and the movement is similar for the Peruvian. Some horses can have a wide or a high termino that affects their overall gait.

Brio and the Peruvian Horse

The Peruvian Paso may be judged on several physical characteristics, but they are also evaluated for what is called “brio.” Brio is a description of the liveliness the horse offers. It includes the courage of the horse, its energy, vigor, and the overall exuberance that is on display. These qualities should be placed naturally at the disposal of the rider and be available on command.

A horse with good brio is going to stay focused and be a willing worker. They keep their attention on the rider, trainer, or the task at-hand. That makes it easy for Peruvians to learn new skills, react to a situation, or respond to a command. It also makes it possible for a horse with good brio to have an excellent stamina and handle a long ride with confidence.

Brio is often referred to as a description of the animal’s spirit, but that isn’t accurate. A horse with good brio can be calm and collected or hot and anxious. There is a certain arrogance that the horse must exude, but there must also be a certain willingness to please and follow a specific role through controlled energy at the same time. 

Genetic Concerns with the Peruvian Horse

Isolation for horses is generally a good thing as it prevents the development of genetic disorders, disease sensitivity, and other health conditions that afflict international breeds. For the most part, this rule remains true for the Peruvian. This breed does have a higher prevalence of degenerative suspensory ligament desmitis, or DSLD, then some other breeds.

DSLD is a condition that is similar to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, but was first noted within the Peruvian. It was initially thought to be a condition associated with the natural aging process and hard work for individual horses, but has been recognized as a hereditary condition today. It has even been discovered in Peruvian foals.

What Is the Future of the Peruvian Horse?

The Peruvian, like many other horse breeds, has been relegated to a relatively recreational role in modern society. The importance of its heritage should not be ignored, but it is equally important to note the willingness of the horse to form relationships, learn new skills, and have an enjoyable ride down a long trail.

Peruvians excel in show rings at the national level. Regional shows are held throughout the Americas and national-level shows in the United States, Peru, and Europe are recognized by breed associations. For those who are interested in working with a horse for the first time, this breed is an excellent choice to make. They may have some spirit, but they also make for an excellent family horse.

Peruvians have seen some challenges over the years, but their centuries of isolation have helped to create a strong, resilient horse that is ready to meet any adversity head-on. With regulation changes in Peru and continued international breeding programs already being successful, the future of this breed is quite bright indeed.