In search of the Cuban Paso Fino

Af­ter 20 years of chas­ing scant ev­i­dence, a de­ter­mined woman fi­nally gains ac­cess to one of Cuba’s best-kept se­crets.

EQUUS - - Equus - Ar­ti­cle and pho­to­graphs by María del Car­men Martínez, PhD

Af­ter 20 years of chas­ing scant ev­i­dence, a de­ter­mined woman fi­nally gains ac­cess to one of Cuba’s best-kept se­crets.

Ifirst trav­eled to Cuba in the sum­mer of 1995 to find my grand­par­ents’ rel­a­tives. The two sides of the fam­ily---those who em­i­grated to Florida af­ter the 1959 rev­o­lu­tion and those who stayed be­hind---had had no con­tact for 36 years.

Still, I had grown up hear­ing sto­ries of my fam­ily: My grand­fa­ther came from mariners who fished the wa­ters around Bara­coa, a small town near the east­ern tip of the is­land. My grand­mother’s peo­ple were flinty, plain­spo­ken farm­ers who lived in the in­te­rior, many miles from Bara­coa. Here, I was told, my grea­tun­cles farmed a home­stead with lit­tle more than the sweat of their brows and the strength of their horses, an­i­mals cen­tral to their way of life and sense of self. I longed to meet them, to see the place of my grand­mother’s child­hood and to learn about their horses.

I had no ad­dress, but I did have the name of the fam­ily farm, La Merced, and a work­ing knowl­edge of the fam­ily tree. So I made my way into the coun­try­side--by bus, then car, horse-drawn car­riage and on foot. I was re­warded at ev­ery turn with jaw-drop­ping vis­tas: ver­dant fields presided over by hun­dred-foot royal palms. Ev­ery so often I en­coun­tered a campesino with a lit­tle horse

car­ry­ing a load of fire­wood or pineap­ples. In­vari­ably, the lo­cals tipped their hats to me, sur­prised to meet a sweaty, flushed for­eigner.

Fi­nally, near the re­gion called Ve­guita del Sur, I knocked on the door of a farm­house, my heart in my stom­ach. These peo­ple had no way to know I was com­ing. A wiz­ened man and woman with kind eyes ap­peared in the door­way. Be­fore I could say a word, my aunt reached out and hugged me. Ap­par­ently, the fam­ily re­sem­blance was strong enough to be met with cel­e­bra­tion.


As we be­gan our visit with a stroll around the yard, two mares---a buck­skin and a grullo---in neat bam­boo pens be­hind the house nosed into the con­ver­sa­tion. They stood 13 hands and weighed about 800 pounds at most, and their con­for­ma­tion was not what I was used to see­ing: Nei­ther mare’s head showed any trace of Ara­bian an­ces­try, nor was there a crest in the neck. Their manes and low-set tails were sparse. I found them well-bal­anced and at­trac­tive. “What breed are those?” I asked.

My un­cles looked at one an­other, as if the ques­tion had never oc­curred to them. “They are like us, criol­los!”

“Cri­ollo” refers to peo­ple and horses of Span­ish an­ces­try but born in the New World. “Is that a breed?” I asked.

My un­cle thought for a mo­ment and replied: “They cer­tainly don’t have any pa­pers. Be­sides, a breed is a breed when im­por­tant peo­ple say so. And we are not im­por­tant peo­ple. There is work to do, so come in­side. You can take the gray mare, Paloma, down to the river for a swim af­ter lunch.”

I spent the next sev­eral weeks rid­ing bare­back and dou­ble with my cousins across fields and beaches and through clear, cool streams. I have never been so sore or sun­burned, and I have never felt so free. My un­cles’ horses were a plea­sure to ride---steady, will­ing and fear­less with a fluid metro­nomic trot that cov­ered a lot of ground. In ad­di­tion, these lovely horses pro­vided the fam­ily with es­sen­tial power for tillage, for haul­ing by cart and for trans­porta­tion by car­riage---all ba­sics of sur­vival. My un­cles also used them to work their herds of sheep and goats, which pro­vide much­needed milk and meat. As one of my un­cles said, “There are those who walk, and there are those who ride. Thanks be to God, we ride.”


The foun­da­tional stock, gov­ern­ing bodies, pub­lished stan­dards and a reg­istry have yet to be es­tab­lished for the Cuban Cri­ollo. These horses do, how­ever, pos­sess qual­i­ties that typ­i­cally de­fine a breed: con­sis­tent, clearly iden­ti­fi­able char­ac­ter­is­tics, as well as uni­for­mity in con­for­ma­tion, tem­per­a­ment and ac­tion that re­mains true over gen­er­a­tions. It is this stan­dard, trans­mit­ted orally, that lo­cal horse­men and -women use to de­ter­mine the value of a horse, par­tic­u­larly for breed­ing pur­poses.

I haven’t spent my ca­reer study­ing equine breed ge­net­ics, but it seemed clear to me that these Cuban Criol­los most likely be­long to a group called “Colo­nial Span­ish horses”---breeds de­scended from the horses the Span­ish brought to the New World. This group in­cludes North Amer­i­can Span­ish mus­tangs; the Florida Cracker Horse (also known as the Semi­nole Pony); the Paso Fi­nos of Puerto Rico, Colom­bia and Peru; the Brazil­ian Man­galarga Mar­chador; and the Criol­los of Ar­gentina, Uruguay, Venezuela and other South Amer­i­can coun­tries.

Span­ish Colo­nial horses were cre­ated in the caul­dron of the New World, where iso­la­tion and harsh con­di­tions pro­duced a dis­tinc­tive type: small, re­sis­tant to fa­tigue and dis­ease, able to thrive de­spite for­ag­ing in bleak scrub and highly in­tel­li­gent. In 1520, the Span­ish Crown placed an em­bargo on the ex­port of horses from Spain, so the New World breeds---es­pe­cially those iso­lated on is­lands---con­tin­ued to prop­a­gate from rel­a­tively small num­bers.


As I got to know my un­cles’ horses, it oc­curred to me that surely an is­land set­tled by the Span­ish in 1511 must have de­vel­oped its own na­tive breeds. Puerto Rico, a nearby Span­ish Colony, de­vel­oped its own ver­sion of the Paso Fino, a small, gaited breed val­ued as a rid­ing horse. Did Cuba?

I sus­pected it did, given what I know of Cuba’s his­tory. The is­land has no min­eral wealth, but it was a com­mon stopover for Span­ish excursions into the New World. His­to­ri­ans record that on these stops the con­quis­ta­dors often acquired is­land-bred horses, be­cause they were hardy and bet­ter adapted to ex­treme cli­mates than those brought from Europe. Had de­scen­dants of those horses sur­vived through the cen­turies?

When I asked my un­cles about Cuban Paso Fi­nos, one re­marked, “Well, I have heard we have our own ca­bal­los de raza [or “breed-horses”] in the cen­tral re­gions of the is­land. But I have never seen one way out here.”

I con­tin­ued to press: “Yes, but what breeds are they?” With much pa­tience he replied that these were “step­ping horses,” but there was lit­tle else he or any­one else could tell me. I soon stopped pes­ter­ing ev­ery­one and sim­ply be­gan to learn ev­ery­thing I could about the horses at hand.

Af­ter I re­turned to the United States, I be­gan re­search­ing Cuban horses, fix­ated on the pos­si­ble ex­is­tence of a Cuban Paso Fino. Through uni­ver­sity ex­changes, I gained ac­cess to a few Span­ish-lan­guage ar­ti­cles about horses in gen­eral on the is­land. But I found no book specif­i­cally about Cuban breeds in any global li­brary data­base. Pre­cious lit­tle had been pub­lished in Cuba, ei­ther. The Cuban As­so­ci­a­tion for An­i­mal Pro­duc­tion had pro­duced a small man­ual, Man­ual Equino, which deals pri­mar­ily with the care of horses and pro­vides only a few brief notes on Cuban horse breeds.

I found some his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences. Trav­el­ogues writ­ten in the 19th cen­tury de­scribe horses with the con­for­ma­tion, move­ment and tem­per­a­ment of a Cuban Paso Fino. In War in Cuba: The Great Strug­gle for Free­dom, pub­lished in 1896, au­thors Henry Daven­port Northrop and Señor Gon­zalo de Que­sada de­scribe a horse with a com­fort­able gait “pe­cu­liar, it would seem, to them­selves” and re­fer to a “fast walk” and a “rapid gait” that cor­re­spond to those we see to­day in Pa­sos. In­deed, they wrote, re­flect­ing the clas­sic test for this breed, “Some of the horses have a move­ment so gen­tle that a rider can carry a full glass of water with­out spilling.” If these horses still ex­isted, where were they?

Then, in 2008 I came across the In­ter­na­tional En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Horse Breeds, by Bon­nie L. Hen­dricks, pub­lished just one year be­fore. In it, I found en­tries for four na­tive breeds--the Cuban Trot­ter, the Cuban Pinto, the Pat­i­barcina [sic] and, yes, the Cuban Paso. I packed up my pass­port, maps, tape recorder, cam­era and horse height-and-weight mea­sure­ment tape and boarded a plane.


I re­turned to Cuba many times over the last two decades, and I learned more about the lo­cal horses on each visit. It has not been easy. At times it was like a strange game of hop­scotch, in which one farmer or rancher would guide me to the next in a chain stretch­ing through small towns with names like Ca­ma­juani and Caibar­ién. Not ev­ery­one was friendly or help­ful, of course, but many drew me maps, of­fered me goat meat and co­conut cakes, and shared their knowl­edge of the is­land’s his­tory, ge­og­ra­phy and fam­ily ge­nealo­gies. These “liv­ing li­braries” made my search pos­si­ble.

I also cul­ti­vated re­la­tion­ships with ve­teri­nar­i­ans, his­to­ri­ans and ge­neti­cists around the is­land. Ar­mando Cuesta Guil­lén, DVM, of the Uni­ver­sity of Granma in Bayamo, shared his vast knowl­edge of Cuban equine ge­net­ics

and colo­nial his­tory, and even­tu­ally, I met John Parke Wright IV, a Florida cat­tle­man whose fam­ily owned one of the largest cat­tle ranches in Cuba prior to 1959. Now, Wright is in­volved in hu­man­i­tar­ian projects, and his pri­mary in­ter­est is re­vi­tal­iz­ing the Cuban cat­tle in­dus­try. In Jan­uary 2010, he asked me to join a del­e­ga­tion to Ha­vana and helped me se­cure the per­mis­sions I needed.

In the end, though, com­plet­ing my quest re­quired an au­di­ence with a high­rank­ing Cuban of­fi­cial, Co­man­dante Guillermo Gar­cía Frías, who granted me ac­cess to state-run breed­ing fa­cil­i­ties.

To­day, Cuba’s four na­tive na­tional breeds are raised on al­most 100 state farms. Ac­cord­ing to Gen. Lino Car­reras, the Chief of the Ge­net­ics Com­mis­sion at the Of­fice for the Pro­tec­tion of Flora and Fauna, the breeds are of­fi­cially rec­og­nized as “na­tive na­tional trea­sures”; that is, they are con­sid­ered part of the “peo­ple’s pat­ri­mony.” Car­reras says these horses re­ceive the best nu­tri­tion, vet­eri­nary care and train­ing avail­able.

I learned all this when I met Gen. Car­reras on a trip to Cuba in the sum­mer of 2010. He told me that in Cuba, the task of estab­lish­ing, rec­og­niz­ing and for­mal­iz­ing breeds is gov­erned by the state. Stan­dards of per­fec­tion, stud­books and reg­istries are man­aged at a na­tional level. He ex­plained that for a horse to be “ac­cepted as a breed” in Cuba, it must be ap­proved by a state ap­praiser who ex­am­ines doc­u­men­ta­tion on the horse and con­sid­ers the “ex­pres­sion” of the an­i­mal’s char­ac­ter­is­tics as judged against the breed stan­dard. Blood­lines alone are not enough. Con­trolled cross­breed­ing is per­mit­ted, but the state is keen to pre­serve the traits of its is­land’s na­tive breeds.

In a 1958 jeep, Car­reras drove us to Pi­nar del Rio to visit a farm where reg­is­tered Cuban Pin­tos were bred. And so be­gan an of­fi­cial tour that would span the length of the is­land. Next I would travel to Hol­guin, to visit farms that bred the Cuban Trot­ter and the Pat­i­bar­cino. And, fi­nally, my trip would lead to Bayamo, where I would at last be in­tro­duced to the Cuban Paso Fino.


Lo­cated in Bayamo, 450 miles east of Ha­vana, La Loma farm has large, well­built sta­bles, an of­fice, a roofed seat­ing area, at least four large pad­docks that I could see, and many acres of pas­tures. When we ar­rived, I was in­tro­duced to the ranch hands---about 20 in all--served cof­fee and given a chair in the shade by the barn.

And then I met my first reg­is­tered Cuban Paso Fino. Or­gullo was a bay stal­lion with an el­e­gant bear­ing. At first he stood per­fectly still in the sun­shine, his eyes fo­cused into the dis­tance. Then he erupted with a fierce, ear-pierc­ing

re­linche---a cross be­tween a neigh and call to war---sat back on his haunches and sprang for­ward, mo­men­tar­ily sus­pended in mid-air. I dropped my cam­era. His han­dlers were hardly sur­prised. When his high-spir­ited bad be­hav­ior was over, he was brought un­der con­trol and pre­sented for my ben­e­fit---once again the pic­ture of grace and charm.

Over the course of my day at La Loma, a good many other horses were brought out for my in­spec­tion. Based on my ob­ser­va­tions of the horses I was shown, the Cuban Paso stands be­tween 13 and 15 hands high and has a fine head with a large, kind eye. The pro­file is straight or oc­ca­sion­ally slightly con­vex. The fore­head is broad; the ears are medium to short and slightly curved.

The neck is strong, of medium length and mus­cu­lar, with a re­spectable though not ex­ag­ger­ated arch. The with­ers are slightly high, the chest is fairly broad and the hindquar­ters are rounded and well-mus­cled. The tail is set mod­er­ately low com­pared to other Paso Fino breeds. The legs are strong and solid with sub­stan­tial can­nons and well-de­vel­oped

joints and ten­dons. The mane and tail are wavy although not as abun­dant as in other Paso breeds. They are spir­ited horses with lively, pow­er­ful ac­tion but even-tem­pered on the whole.

And, of course, Cuban Pa­sos are a gaited breed. They have the clas­sic three gaits: the paso fino (fine step), the paso corto (short step) and the paso largo (long step). Their ac­tion is more sub­dued than that of the Paso Fi­nos of Puerto Rico, Columbia and Peru. Theirs is a qui­eter kind of mu­sic.

I was told that 15 reg­is­tered stal­lions and 40 mares lived on this farm but oth­ers were kept “else­where.” When I asked how many pure­bred Cuban Paso Fi­nos ex­isted, I was often given vague an­swers or the sub­ject was changed. Judg­ing from the num­bers I was able to extract, I would es­ti­mate that there are some­where be­tween 350 and 800 Cuban Paso Fi­nos---a fig­ure that qual­i­fies them as “threat­ened” un­der the stan­dards of the Amer­i­can Live­stock Breeds Con­ser­vancy.

When I asked about the of­fi­cial breed reg­istry, I was told that a horse named Monte Rey is con­sid­ered the “fa­ther” of all reg­is­tered Cuban Pa­sos. The stud­book, how­ever, was for­mal­ized so long ago that no one re­mem­bered the year or even the decade. “Prob­a­bly around 1961.”

The Cuban Paso Fino is a fine breed with a dis­tinct his­tory---the liv­ing equiv­a­lent of a cathe­dral or a fine paint­ing. As a her­itage breed, the Cuban Paso also plays an im­por­tant role in the larger world. “Na­tive” live­stock breeds are dis­ap­pear­ing at alarm­ing rates, and many ge­neti­cists, con­ser­va­tion­ists, his­to­ri­ans and ev­ery­day own­ers are work­ing to pre­vent the ex­tinc­tion of these old lines to help en­sure ge­netic di­ver­sity in the world. The loss of her­itage breeds im­pov­er­ishes us all. These trea­sures must be pro­tected and their pop­u­la­tion care­fully en­larged. Their loss would be a crime against not only na­tions but na­ture it­self.

MAJESTY: Or­gullo, a stal­lion kept at a state-run farm, ex­em­pli­fies the con­for­ma­tion of the Cuban Paso Fino.

IS­LAND TREA­SURES: In ad­di­tion to the Paso ( left), Cuba’s na­tive breeds in­clude the Cuban Pinto ( cen­ter) and the Cuban Trot­ter ( above).

SPLEN­DOR: On a trip through the Cuban coun­try­side, a visi­tor is likely to en­counter many horses.

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