Over the years I’ve horsed about in most of the countries in South America and no-where is the horse culture so all-pervasive; even in the cities everyone seems to ride, or used to ride, or has an uncle with horses. The two dominant breeds are the Colombian Criollo and the Paso Fino.
What has happened here? The Argentine Criollo and the Chilean Criollo are robust working horses 15hh to 16hh. The Colombian variant is a poor cousin; same heart and soul, but narrow in the withers, shorter and with less bone all round – more pony than horse. I am generalising, and I did see some lovely criollos, but the majority are disappointing compared to their relatives further south on the continent. The thinking locally is that breeding has gone astray and no blood from Europe or North America has been added to the soup that is the Colombian Criollo.
Now here’s a thing! The clue’s in the name and the Colombian Paso Fino is very fino. Delicate things with small feet and ballerina’s legs. But can they ever go! You ride them long, with a very shot rein and ease your weight back in the saddle, and they go nineteen-to-the-dozen, practically running on the spot! It’s an amazing feeling. They wind themselves into a muck sweat and prance along like sewing machines. In fact they have four paces, all similar, all frenetic and all examples of the triumph of style over practicality; burnt out within an hour. They turn on a sixpence, listen to your slightest weight change and carry you along like you’re king of the world. But why do you want a horse to do this? It’s all about the show, and that isn’t my cup of coffee at all. I wouldn’t have missed riding one for the world, a generous opportunity from a gallant and generous host, but box ticked and I won’t be bringing one home.
Maybe there’s a clue in the stud book name of the two 2016 breed champions, “Tormento de la Virginia” and “Seductor de la Virginia”. There’s no doubt dogs get like their owners; I wonder if horses are really reflections of frustrated aspirations?
Interestingly the Pasos in Peru are much heavier and I see there’s even a Hotel in Cusco that offers mountain riding on Paso Fino, which was never what they were intended for. They were for the owners of plantations (sea level, not high in the mountains) to ride around their estates looking ‘the part’ glass of claret in hand, and never spilling a drop.
Now that Colombia is returned to the international fold, Colombian Paso Finos are wiping the board in international competitions held in the Americas, which is a huge source of national pride.
What to ride then?
Having dissed the two main national breeds …. meet the AngloArabs. That’s a bit of a catch-all name for a breed, and seldom is it a straight forward TB/Arab cross. The ones I found in Colombia are Shagya / Arab / Criollo (primarily) but there’s TB and Quarter hose in there as well. The result is pretty damn good! Decent size (15.2 to 16 hh) and just lovely to ride. Easy on the aids, responsive and really fit. The story of this herd and its trials and tribulations through the Colombian troubles, is a tale in itself, and too long to tell here. What you have now is a horse superbly adapted to its environment, which is precisely what you need. Colombia has massive valleys, ferocious ascents, rain, wet ground and stunning views. It also has long, long trails of a sandy-clay mix, perfect for making progress, and a network of secret mule trails, brilliant for exploring with a horse. These Colombian Anglo Arabs don’t blink at anything, be it steep, or soggy ground, or a rocky section of mule track, they just get on and do it. To illustrate their no-nonsense attitude, we inadvertently rode through a pasture with a mature Criollo stallion in residence. There were 3 of us on 5 horses (we needed a spare and some supplies) so we had our hands full. It could have got quite nasty with a prancing stallion bucking and farting, hooves everywhere and determined to mount something. Anything. We came through without a scratch and everyone stayed cool. But I can name a lot of horses at home where that little tale wouldn’t have had such a Disney ending!
So where to ride?
I have about ten trails in mind! Only 3 have made it to paper so far, and will be on the website imminently. The others still need feasibility work carrying out. For example, the Orinoco plain has real potential: miles and miles of grassland, amazing wildlife such as anteaters, armadillos and pink dolphins in the rivers. But they also have an endemic bat that nocturnally sucks horses’ blood and causes viral anaemia; a disease that is also carried by local mosquitos. Yes, the gauchos have horses, but an estimated 80% are anaemic and couldn’t handle a multi-day trail (they change horses daily and are, shall we say, ‘forthright’ with their aids). A solution can be found, but not sure what just yet. There’s another juicy trail opportunity that goes from lowland river to coffee farm heights, but it hasn’t been ridden …. yet. And yet another that goes into a national park, explores the “Paramo” (high altitude wetland that is strictly protected) and is currently a trek on foot – Shanks’s Pony! All have amazing potential but that’s the thing about Colombia at the moment, after decades in the naughty corner, the country’s emerging, it’s all here, but the dots aren’t joined up. And that’s the attraction; Colombia is raw, eager to welcome visitors and decidedly unsophisticated (excluding the very cosmopolitan Bogotá). Brilliant! Now’s the time to come and explore, either mounted, or by self-drive, or fly from destination to destination (as I did) using the remarkably cheap and efficient internal network.
Summing it all up
I never felt threatened, anywhere in the country, even for a second. Colombians possess a natural warmth and welcoming spirit of hospitality. Colombian fruit has to be tasted to be believed! I tried a dozen, literally, that I can’t name and didn’t recognise. I haven’t actually left the country yet, but can’t wait to come back! Besides, I learnt two new knots from the gauchos, and that says it all!