The classy show stallion in the riding ring was moving its legs at a furious pace, but its steps were so small that the horse itself was hardly moving forward. This is the “fino” gait, performed by show horses of the gaited breed Paso Fino.
The scene was Ag Progress Days in Pennsylvania, and the expert rider and trainer in the saddle was Rick Shaffer, of R&S Paso Finos, Somerset, PA.
“This is strictly for show horses and breeding horses,” he said. “You wouldn’t want a show Paso Fino to take you over a mountain. You wouldn’t get anywhere. It’s the gait of a show horse. But a Paso Fino will give you the smoothest possible ride.”
This breed has a natural four-beat gait. “It is born gaiting — left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore — in perfect rhythm. Paso Finos do a perfectly square gait naturally.”
Shaffer and his oldest daughter Jena, a rider and trainer while still in college, demonstrated the smoothness of the ride, he on the show stallion (which, in addition to fino, can also walk, corto, and largo, [the exact same gait, except the steps are larger, so the horse covers ground more quickly,] as well as canter and gallop,) and she on a Paso Fino mare, a pleasure horse.
There was no up and down movement of either of their heads as they rode, no bouncing. “We’re sitting here as steady as you folks are in the bleachers,” commented Shaffer, “except that my saddle is padded.
“We train other gaited breeds too. I had a couple of Plantation Walking Horses that were very even, so there are other breeds that can do the four-beat gait, but the action can be very different. Other horses will take bigger steps in the back, and lift their knees higher, for example,” he continued. “Paso Finos are the smoothest riding breed in the world.”
“What I like about the show horses,” Rick Shaffer continued “is that they’re like a powerful race car, with the power under control. See how still the stallion is standing? But underneath, he is like a keg of dynamite ready to explode.”
Paso Finos can canter, but at R&S Paso Finos, usually the horses don’t start cantering until they are five. “We want to lock in the natural gait first.” Because these horses mature a little slower than some breeds, Rick Shaffer doesn’t like to show them until age four.
The stallion, a national champion as a 3-year-old, would scare many riders, because to have the energy to fino as quickly as he does, the stallion also has a lot of the inner quality valued in the best show and breeding horses, called brio. “Brio is a special term,” he continued. “It means high energy within the horse. The more brio a Paso Fino has, the more fino they’ll be.
“This stallion, on a 1 to 10 scale, is a 10 on brio. (Jenna’s mare is about a 6. She’s a pleasure horse that is almost a show horse.) I can trail ride this stallion, but I wouldn’t want the average rider to try. When I give lessons, I would start a rider on another horse, and gradually move up to this one when they were ready. Shaffer then demonstrated the brio characteristic in the stallion.
“I cluck a little, give him his head, and he explodes. It fires him up when I run him. He’s actually a little quicker in his gait. When sitting or moving on him, I have zero leg pressure. These horses are very sensitive. A little leg pressure makes them go faster. I never push a horse.”
Just as quickly, the stallion’s brio came under control, and he was calm and still again.
“The Paso Finos with less brio make better trail and pleasure horses. The fino makes them harder to control.” Also, the pleasure horses cover more ground. They stretch out. “I clocked one at 21 mph, although that is unusual.” A largo speed of 9 to 12 mph is more typical for pleasure horses.
Paso Finos, Spanish bred, came from a cross between Spanish Jennets, a breed with a natural four-beat gait, and Andalusian, from which they inherited their high head carriage. These horses were brought to South America on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage, according to Shaffer.
They thrived, particularly in Puerto Rico and Columbia, but were not imported into the U.S. until after World War II, when U.S. servicemen stationed in Puerto Rico noticed their fine qualities. They are now registered in the U.S., but the number in this country currently is relatively small.
“We’ve been breeding, training, and showing them for 30 years,” said Rick Shaffer, a certified judge for the Paso Fino Association, an equine clinician, a full-time professional trainer and a 4-H leader.
“If it were not for 4-H, I wouldn’t be on the back of this horse today,” he stated.