Horse Attitudes

Angel Usategui used to judge paso fino competitions at the highest level. An ethics scandal put an end to that and left him fighting to regain his good name.

"The only people who like a judge are the blue ribbon winners," Usategui warns. "Keep that always in mind. The other guy who's not first place will blast you."

"To better understand the appeal of paso finos, compare them to cars," suggests Jose Luis Amador, the Fort Lauderdale-based owner of seventeen-year-old Capuchino, perhaps the greatest paso fino stallion of all time. "Any other horse is like driving a Volkswagen with no air-conditioning. Riding a paso fino is like getting into a Cadillac with power everything. You wouldn't want to get back into the Volkswagen."

Some 500 years ago, the Islamic rulers of Spain mixed the sturdy Andalusian and the Spanish Barb with the smooth-riding (and now extinct) Spanish Jennet. The combination yielded a regal animal with intelligence, athleticism, and a natural four-beat gait that carries a rider without a trace of the bounce found in other horses. Most important, the horse's unique characteristics could be passed from one generation to the next. The new breed came to be known as los caballos de paso fino: the horses with the fine step.

Christopher Columbus introduced pasos to the New World on his second trip to Santo Domingo; his horses provided the foundation stock for the arriving conquistadors. "They were bred to conquer the world," imparts Sherry de Peralta Faust, editor of Paso Beat, an online monthly magazine. "They wanted a horse with the stamina to go long distances and that was comfortable to ride. That's basically the same horse here today."

Pasos thrived in Latin America and the Caribbean. Cubans discovered the horses were vigorous enough to work a full day in the cane fields. Colombians came to worship the paso's proud carriage and brio -- a combination of energy and spirit. Wild paso finos run free among the scrub brush on Vieques, an island in Puerto Rico (where they are the national horse). It was from Puerto Rico, in fact, that paso finos finally made their way to the United States: American servicemen stationed in San Juan during World War II discovered the breed and began importing it back home.

Despite the late start, paso fino enthusiasm in the United States is growing, particularly in South Florida. Membership in the national Paso Fino Horse Association (based upstate, in Plant City) has doubled in the past four years, to approximately 6000. Of those, more than 600 live in the region that includes Miami and Fort Lauderdale, home to some of the very best horses in the world. The paso fino world championship is slated to be held in Miami in 1999.

"Florida is the trunk of the tree," Jose Luis Amador offers. "The paso fino breed branches out across the country into the Carolinas, California, Texas, and elsewhere, but it is strongest here. Especially here in South Florida."

Paso finos are as common as mailboxes in rural Broward; in Dade they prance the vast grassy fields west of the turnpike. The Usategui ranch sits in the somewhat less wide-open spaces of West Kendall: Years ago a thin strip of land south of Kendall Drive and east of the turnpike was zoned for agriculture. The Usateguis purchased property there in 1980, before the Town & Country Mall arose, and before the infestation of strip shopping centers. Nearly two decades later their neighborhood persists as a relatively hidden haven of horse farms and nurseries.

Fifteen stables, painted dark green and white and clustered around a dusty training ring, constitute Finca La Habanera De A-USA, the Usateguis' two-acre farm. Although Usategui worked for fifteen years as a finance manager for a Ford dealership, horse training and trading has been his sole occupation for the past decade. Day after day he marches his horses around the ring clockwise and counterclockwise, perfecting the animals' natural four-four gait. Most of his paso finos are worth $10,000 to $15,000, though the asking price for his best mares exceeds $200,000. He sells ten or twelve horses a year, always replacing them with cheaper, untrained horses.

A paso fino competition is held somewhere in Florida virtually every weekend. Horses vie for honors in a variety of classes, broken down according to the sex and age of the horse, the age of the rider, and the trainer's professional status. Most shows are administered by the Paso Fino Horse Association; the more important shows -- among them Spectrum and the National -- are also overseen by the American Horse Show Association, an umbrella group based in New York City that governs all breeds. The AHSA's mandate is to enforce a stringent code of rules, including random drug tests. (There's a precedent for this measure: Several breeders say that in Colombia, where paso breeding is a national pastime, show horses are commonly treated with steroids to pump up their physiques in the ring. Not so in the U.S.) Owing largely to AHSA involvement, the U.S. Grand National Championship Show is a true test of a horse's ability; many breeders consider it the most prestigious competition in the world.

There is a direct correlation between the value of a horse and the number of national championships it has won. Not only does the horse's asking price skyrocket with a national title, but the breeding fees also rise. A stallion's stud fee, for instance, can increase by 30 to 60 percent with a championship. To breed with the great Capuchino costs $3500. Thanks to artificial insemination, he can be -- and usually is -- "harvested" six days a week.

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