A DIFFERENT BREED, A DIFFERENT RIDE
Both ancient and new, Peruvian Pasos are a special breed of horse. Although not well known in the American West, they are the National Horse of Peru and have been called the country's best-kept secret.
On 460 acres near Summerville, there are five of them living peacefully among several other breeds at the Rafter Z Equestrian Center, owned and operated by Ray, Juanita and Lynn Omohundro.
The heritage of the Peruvian Paso goes back more than 400 years when Spanish conquistadors came to the New World bringing Old World equine genetics with them. Years of careful breeding by Peruvian horsemen have produced a "something-for-everyone" horse with the even temperament and smooth amble of the Spanish Jennet, the power and stamina of the African Barb, and the conformation and carriage of the Andalusian. Hacienda owners loved them for their ability to tirelessly cover hundreds of miles in a short period of time giving a smooth, comfortable ride.
Easygoing and patient with horses, trainer Lynn Omohundro was raised around them, growing up in La Grande and spending time on his grandparent's ranch in Summerville, which the Omohundro family has called home for 18 years.
But it wasn't until Juanita Omohundro bought their first Paso, an 18-month-old filly registered as CBP Marisa, four years ago that Lynn had spent time around the breed.
"Riding them, training them Â— it's just different," Omohundro says.
So he found a Peruvian Paso breeder and trainer in Washington and learned all he could about riding, training and showing the breed.
Ray Omohundro believes it was then his son found his true calling. With an engineering degree, Lynn Omohundro worked for Nike for a while. He also traveled Â— to China, France and back again, but says he is more at home here.
"Oh, I've done a lot of things," Omohundro admits with a slow, slightly crooked smile. He is also quietly proud of what has been accomplished in just a few short months after only a few years of training.
In May, more out of curiosity than anything, the Omohundros took Marisa to her first competition at a horse show in Bend. Lynn Omohundro rode her in the trail class for all gaited breeds and they won first place. For a young horse with a first-time trainer, the victory was heady. They decided to raise the bar.
In July, they drove to Monroe, Wash., and competed in the Northwest Regional Championships. In her division, Marisa won a third in the Performance class and two firsts in the Performance Trail and Reining classes.
"We were pretty excited," Omohundro admits while he sorts through dozens of Marisa's mostly blue and red ribbons covering the family sofa. When he looks up, the crooked grin reveals more than his laid back demeanor.
Then, during the Canadian National Championships in August held in Calgary, Omohundro entered Marisa in several classes. They won the trail class and placed well enough in the other seven or eight to win High Point Versatility Horse. That honor guaranteed Marisa a spot in the Barrida Â— a ride reserved for champions only.
"People were asking, Â‘Where did they come from?'" Omohundro says evenly, but there's that revealing smile again.
He loves the story of two men Â— both well-known within the Peruvian Paso horse community Â— who heard of Omohundro's and Marisa's ride in the Barrida at the Canadian Nationals. They were astounded.
"Â‘We have each spent more than $100,000 and we have yet to ride in the Barrida,' they said." Omohundro is not cocky over his almost instant success, but appears easily confident in accomplishing something worthwhile.
Last month, he and Marisa competed in the U.S. National Peruvian Paso Show in Fort Worth, Texas. How well did they do there?
"We smoked 'em," Omohundro grins again.
With first place wins in the
La Prueba, a 10-mile trail ride, and in the Natural Outdoor Trail Ride class, Marisa became a champion in the U.S. when she was named High Point Trail Horse. With both Canadian and the U.S. honors, Marisa is now, Omohundro points out, truly a North American champion.
In the indoor arena built just last year, this North American champion stands patiently while Omohundro saddles her with all her show finery. Small, dark and quiet, her head is up and her eyes alert, but soft. Though powerfully built, these horses are small Â— usually somewhere between 14.1 and 15.2 hands.
"She's really mom's horse, but I trained her," Omohundro says as Juanita Omohundro softly croons to her "baby."
"She loves attention. She's very affectionate," she says.
Indeed, it may be Marisa's disposition Â— a seemingly odd mix of pride and warmth that attracts a horse lover. But it is the amazing smoothness of her quick gait that hooks a rider. That Peruvian Paso gait, a natural, four-beat footfall, is amazing to watch and obvious to the ear. The evenly timed tap-tap-tap-tap repeats in the sand in a swift, continuous rhythm as Omohundro rides Marisa around the arena.
He dismounts and Juanita climbs aboard for a ride.
Next, Omohundro saddles up a stallion he has been training for another owner for about two months. CBP Esplendor Espanol, Marisa's half brother, is everything his name Â— Spanish Splendor Â— suggests. But before he came to Rafter Z Peruvians and Lynn Omohundro, the stallion had a reputation as a bad boy and a horse nobody could ride. Splendor had been kicked out of every competition his owner entered.
In September, Omohundro took this bad boy to the Oregon State Fair where Splendor not only behaved, but won four firsts and two seconds.
"I know it's not a big show, but it was a big step for him," Omohundro says. Both man and horse, it seems, in finding each other have each found his calling.
Asked if he could eventually be known as the horse whisperer of Union County, Omohundro's lazy grin appears and he simply says, "You never know." But when he stands before the former bad boy, something special passes place between them and they begin to work together.
Dancing back and forth at his trainer's request, Splendor is the magnificent embodiment of "brio" Â— the quality of fire and spirit the breed is known for. They are also known for their desire to please, Omohundro says, saddling him for a ride.
Side by side, Marisa and Splendor move around the arena in perfect harmony. In less than a single breath, the fluid motion of two right front legs lift up in almost a prance, reaching up and out much like the arm of a swimmer in a crawl. The lateral motion Â—first the left side, then the right Â— is a beautiful thing to watch. But it is thrilling to experience in the saddle.
The ride has been described by many as velvet Â— smooth Â— the cadillac of horses. But trying to describe in words the difference between the swift gait of this Peruvian Paso to the trot of a quarter horse is challenging Â— especially for non-riders with no point of reference. For one thing, the rider sinks comfortably into the saddle rather than pushing up and away in the stirrups as you would in a trot, Omohundro explains.
Climb into the saddle and Marisa moves out in a walk Â— nothing unusual. But with a slight lift on the reins and light press of the knees, Marisa breaks into a fluid gait for which there are no words. And, suddenly, you are effortlessly sailing over smooth, glassy water.
Perhaps breeder Eduard van Brunschot Vega of Perol Chico in Peru, says it best as he has wrote this Â— "This Peruvian velvet gaited horse is like a comfortable limousine with a powerful motor, and if well-trained, it has an overdrive and ultra sensitive power steering. Once you get used to this horse you are already spoiled."