The Paso Fino is a gaited horse breed from the Caribbean and South America. The breed’s name translates to ‘fine step,’ which refers to the Paso Fino’s famously smooth four-beat lateral ambling gait.

Renowned for their comfortable ride and beautiful looks, Paso Finos excel as trail riding and as show horses. These gaited horses are also popular mounts for riders with back problems who can’t ride traditional gaits.

However, the breed is susceptible to degenerative conditions that can cut their riding careers short. With appropriate management and nutrition, Paso Fino horses can live long, healthy lives as beloved equine partners.

This article will review the origin, history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Paso Fino breed. Keep reading to learn more about caring for and feeding these horses.

Paso Fino History

These small horses descend from Iberian breeds brought to the Americas by Spanish conquistadors.

While distinct breeding programs emerged in Puerto Rico and Colombia, most American Paso Finos can trace their ancestry to both countries.

Origin

Paso Finos, American Mustangs, and Peruvian Pasos can trace their lineages to Colonial Spanish horses that first accompanied Spanish explorers across the Atlantic over 500 years ago.

Andalusians, Spanish Barbs, and now-extinct Spanish Jennets composed most of this foundation stock of breeding horses in the Americas. Spanish landowners bred combinations of these breeds on colonial plantations in Puerto Rico and Columbia to produce the Paso Fino.

Research suggests Puerto Rican Paso Finos originated from Criollo horses produced by generations of cross-breeding between Iberian breeds brought to the island by settlers. [1]

Genetic studies show Criollo horses carried the allele responsible for Paso Fino’s gait. These horses were selectively bred for smooth gaits long before the Paso Fino breed was established, suggesting the mutation was already present in imported Iberian horses. [2]

Historic Use

Ancestors of Paso Finos worked on plantations in Colonial Puerto Rico and Colombia. Farmers selectively bred horses for endurance and comfortable gaits suited to extended work days spent in the saddle. [2]

These regions had challenging geography that required hardy, sure-footed horses, and a new breed standard emerged from the non-purebred Criollo horses. The resulting Paso Fino breed would play a significant role in transportation and agriculture on the island for centuries.

Historical records of visitors to Puerto Rico from the late 18th century mention gaited horses participating in horse races that showcased the speed of their unique pace. Organized Paso Fino shows began as early as 1849 to promote the improvement of the breed. [3]

Paso Finos first gained popularity in the United States after World War II, when the breed impressed American service members stationed in Puerto Rico. Americans soon began importing Paso Finos from Puerto Rico, interbreeding lines to produce the modern American Paso Fino.

Breed Registry

The Paso Fino Horse Association is the official breed registry for Paso Fino horses in North America. Formed in 1972 in response to the breed’s growing popularity, the PFHA now maintains a registry of over 60,000 horses.

The Association registers horses originating from any country, including Colombia, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba. Only Paso Fino horses with bloodlines verified by DNA testing are eligible for registration.

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Breed Characteristics

Paso Finos have similar characteristics to other horses with Spanish ancestry. However, the breed is primarily distinguished by the unique gait that makes the Paso Fino a comfortable pleasure and competition mount.

Conformation

Paso Finos have a more diminutive stature than their Iberian ancestors. While these horses can range in size from 13 to 15.2 hands, most Paso Finos fall between 13.3 and 14.2 hands tall.

Their heads are refined and well-proportioned to their body, with defined jaws and large, expressive eyes. In addition, they have a relatively high head carriage and gracefully arched necks that add to their elegant appearance.

The ideal Paso Fino has sloping shoulders, a strong back, rounded loins, and broad hips. Legs should be straight, strong, and refined with longer forearms and shorter cannons. Their tails are naturally full and gracefully carried in motion.

Colours

Paso Finos can have any coat colour, with or without white markings.

Some Paso Finos have bright yellow, amber, or orange irises. Known as tiger eye, this trait is only found in the Paso Fino breed. Genetic studies have linked the phenotype to two mutations in a gene associated with eye pigment. [4]

Temperament

Paso Finos are energetic, willing horses with friendly personalities. The breed is beloved for its “Brio,” a natural spiritedness mixed with trainability that makes these horses enjoyable equine partners.

Despite their small stature, these horses often have a presence and fire that helps them stand out in the show ring. But unlike some spirited breeds, the Paso Fino is also amiable and strongly desires to please the rider.

Gaits

Paso Finos can perform a traditional walk and canter, but this breed typically cannot trot. Instead, they have an even, four-beat lateral gait that they perform at different speeds.

These different speeds include:

  • Classic Paso Fino: Fully collected gait with slow forward motion and short steps.
  • Paso Corto: Moderately forward speed with more ground covered by unhurried steps.
  • Paso Largo: The fastest speed with longer extension and strides.

Each foot contacts the ground independently at precise intervals in a rapid, unbroken rhythm. The cadence and regularity of the gait produce a completely smooth and comfortable feeling for the rider. The Paso Fino gait is natural for the breed and not trained.

Colombian Paso Finos have a unique gait from other breed members, known as the trocha. This gait has a lateral step sequence similar to a broken foxtrot. But research suggests that the trocha is genetically distinct from lateral paces seen in other breeds. [5]

Disciplines

Paso Finos are most commonly used in breed shows with multiple divisions, including classic fino, performance, pleasure, specialty, and bella formas. Depending on the division, horses are judged on conformation, gait, obedience, and versatility.

Paso Finos are popular trail and pleasure mounts outside the breed show ring. Since these horses have excellent endurance and are comfortable to ride for a long time, they are also commonly used in competitive long-distance events.

Paso Fino Health

Most of the health problems found in Paso Finos are common in all show horses. However, the breed also has an increased incidence of certain degenerative diseases that can hinder their performance.

Genetic Diseases

While Paso Fino lines carry a unique mutation that influences eye colour, research is still ongoing on the potential effects of genes associated with tiger eyes. However, studies did not reveal unusual vision issues in tiger-eye Paso Finos. [4]

Paso Finos have an above-average incidence of degenerative suspensory ligament disease. Researchers have yet to link specific genes to the condition, but inheritance patterns suggest DSLD has a genetic component in horses.

DSLD causes the progressive deterioration of the suspensory ligament in horses, characterized by a slow dropping of the fetlock and lameness. The condition is painful, debilitating, and incurable. Eventually, some horses struggle to stand comfortably and have to be euthanized.

The onset of the disease is subtle and often occurs in horses with no history of injury. Although once thought only to affect geriatric horses, DSLD can occur at any age. The disorder is most common in the Peruvian Paso, but Paso Finos also have an increased DSLD risk. [6]

DSLD involves abnormal proteoglycan deposition in connective tissues and abnormal collagen in ligaments. These abnormalities are also found in other parts of the body, putting Paso Finos at higher risk of other conditions such as aortocardiac fistulation. [19][20]

Health Problems

Equine Metabolic Syndrome

Like all Iberian horses, Paso Finos have a high prevalence of metabolic syndrome. This results in easy weight gain, abnormal fat deposits such as cresty neck and an increased risk of laminitis.

Gastric Ulcers

All performance horses, including Paso Fino show horses, experience higher levels of stress that puts them at risk for developing gastric ulcers. [7]

Studies have found that participating in just one competition can significantly increase the risk of gastric ulceration. 58% of all performance horses are affected by the condition. [8]

Several factors contribute to the increase risk of ulcers, including:

  • Trailering
  • Changes in routine
  • Social isolation
  • Intermittent access to feed and water
  • Low forage, high-grain diets

Changes in management that encourage natural feeding and social behaviours can help mitigate gastric ulcers in performance horses. [17]

Lameness

In addition to a genetic risk for DSLD, the movement kinetics of gaited horses can increase the risk of certain types of lameness in Paso Finos. Stifle lameness and hock lameness are the most commonly treated lameness issues in gaited breeds. [9]

Lameness can be challenging to diagnose in gaited breeds. Without early identification, hind-end problems can contribute to compensatory forelimb lameness. [10]

Care and Management

Like all horses, Paso Finos need quality basic care to maintain their overall well-being. This includes:

  • Preventative veterinary care: Maintain an appropriate schedule for vaccinations, deworming, and dental care.
  • Lameness exams: Because this breed is susceptible to DSLD and hindlimb problems, frequent lameness exams can help with early detection.
  • Daily turnout: Movement supports tendon, ligament, and bone strength in Paso Finos [11].
  • Enrichment: Paso finos are energetic horses that thrive with regular training and mental stimulation, particularly if housed in a stall.
  • Farrier care: Routine farrier care that maintains hoof balance prevents excess loading forces on the lower limb structures in gaited horses. Paso Finos with DSLD may need therapeutic shoeing to manage the condition. [12]

Paso Fino Nutrition

Nutrition is a vital aspect of supporting the health and performance of all horses. Appropriate feeding practices are also important for managing many common health problems in Paso Finos.

These horses are also susceptible to metabolic disorders and need a balanced diet to maintain a healthy weight.

Weight Maintenance

Paso Finos are easy keepers, meaning that they maintain good body condition even when fed a less energy dense diet. These horses inherited their slow metabolism from their Iberian ancestors.

While their hardiness allowed them to survive in harsh island conditions, the breed can quickly become obese when overfed.

Obese horses have a higher prevalence of equine metabolic syndrome, which increases the risk of laminitis. However, horses may also be of normal body condition but will display abnormal fat deposits, especially a fatty crest on the neck. Those horses are also at risk of laminitis.

To address this, owners should prioritize maintaining a healthy body condition. Based on Henneke’s 9-point body condition scale, horses should be maintained at a score between 4.5 to 5.5. Horses that are a 6 or over are considered overweight or obese. [21]

Forage

Forage is the foundation of every equine diet. Horses should consume at least 2% of their body weight in forage daily. This means that an average 900 lb / 408 kg Paso Fino should be fed 18 pounds of hay daily.

Free-choice forage intake is best for supporting optimal digestive function and preventing gastric ulcers. [13] However, some horses can experience weight gain on free-choice forage if they consume more calories than they burn. Therefore, it is important to choose the right hay for your horse.

Like other easy keeper breeds, most Paso Finos do well on average or mature grass hay with low sugar (ESC) and starch content. Horses that are exercising may need higher calorie forage, such as a less mature grass hay.

Horses known or suspected to have metabolic syndrome should have hay tested to be less than 10% ESC + starch.

Alfalfa hay is an excellent high-protein forage for Paso Fino show horses that need more dietary protein to support performance. The high calcium content of alfalfa also buffers stomach acid and helps prevent gastric ulceration. However, too much alfalfa may create mineral imbalances in the diet. [14] Alfalfa may also cause foot soreness in horses with metabolic syndrome.

Sample Diet

The following is a sample diet for a mature Paso Fino with normal body condition in moderate work.

 

Feed Maintenance Diet
(Amount / Day)
Mid-Quality hay (10% crude protein) free-choice
Salt 30 g (2 tbsps)
Omneity Pellets 150 g (1.5 scoops)
w-3 oil 120 ml (4 oz)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 100%
Protein (% of Req) 144%
NSC (ESC + starch) (% Diet) 8.7%

 

This diet analysis is based on NRC requirements for a 900 lb Paso Fino in moderate work. [18]

In this diet, Mad Barn’s Omneity is fed as a concentrated vitamin and mineral supplement to help meet micronutrient requirements. [18] Omneity is ideal for Paso Finos and other easy keepers because it does not contain fillers or added sugars or starch.

Omneity – Premix

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  • 100% organic trace minerals
  • Complete B-vitamin fortification
  • Optimal nutrition balance
  • Our best-selling equine vitamin

Adding 1 – 2 ounces of loose salt to the daily ration can help meet sodium requirements and support hydration.

Feeding Management and Supplements

Overweight Paso Finos benefit from forage provided in a slow feeder, such as a small hole hay net. This will slow consumption and limit calories while still providing the horse with free choice forage.

Overweight horses may also need a grazing muzzle and limited time on fresh pasture to manage their risk of laminitis from the overconsumption of grass. [15] Horses prone to laminitis may not tolerate pasture access, especially when grass is actively growing.

For Paso Finos with DSLD, adding an omega-3 fatty acid supplement containing DHA or EPA can help to support soft tissues, including joints, ligaments and tendons. [16]

Mad Barn’s w-3 oil is a fat supplement enriched with DHA and natural Vitamin E. Feeding a small amount of w-3 oil will support joint health without contributing to weight gain.

w-3 Oil

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  • Promotes joint comfort
  • Helps to fight inflammation
  • Skin & coat condition
  • Palatable source of Omega-3's

Nitric oxide also plays a critical role in tendon and ligament health. [22][23] Jiaogulan effectively enhances nitric oxide levels. [24] Enhanced nitric oxide also improves blood supply to the feet. [25]

Jiaogulan

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  • Supports circulation
  • Promotes hoof health
  • Supports muscle performance
  • Used in laminitic horses

An equine nutritionist can help identify gaps in your Paso Fino’s diet and recommended changes to better meet their needs. Submit your horse’s diet for a free analysis to find out more.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

Identify gaps in your horse's nutrition program to optimize their well-being.

References

  1. Luis, C. et al. Iberian Origins of New World Horse Breeds. J Heredity. 2006. View Summary
  2. Wolfsberger, W. et al. Genetic diversity and selection in Puerto Rican horses. Nature. 2022. View Summary
  3. Denhardt, R. The Horse in New Spain and the Borderlands. Ag Hist. 1951.
  4. Mack, M. et al. Two Variants in SLC24A5 Are Associated with “Tiger-Eye” Iris Pigmentation in Puerto Rican Paso Fino Horses. G3 Genes Genome Genet. 2017.View Summary
  5. Novoa-Bravo, M. et al. Selection on the Colombian paso horse’s gaits has produced kinematic differences partly explained by the DMRT3 gene. PLoS One. 2018.
  6. Luo, W. et al. Degenerative Suspensory Ligament Desmitis (DSLD) in Peruvian Paso Horses Is Characterized by Altered Expression of TGF? Signaling Components in Adipose-Derived Stromal Fibroblasts. PLoS One. 2016.View Summary
  7. Mamkvist, J. et al. Behaviour and stress responses in horses with gastric ulceration. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2012.
  8. Hartmann, A. et al. A preliminary investigation into the association between competition and gastric ulcer formation in non-racing performance horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2003.
  9. Nicodemus, M. et al. Temporal variables of four-beat, stepping gaits of gaited horses. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2003.
  10. Rhodin, M. et al. Timing of Vertical Head, Withers and Pelvis Movements Relative to the Footfalls in Different Equine Gaits and Breeds. Animals. 2022.View Summary
  11. Reilly, A. et al. Incidence of soft tissue injury and hours of daily paddock turnout in non-elite performance horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2021.
  12. Bonilla-Gutierrez, A. et al. Regenerative Therapies for the Treatment of Tenodesmic Injuries in Horses. J Equine Vet Sci.
  13. Andrews, F. et al. Nutritional management of gastric ulceration. Equine Vet Ed. 2015.
  14. Cipriano-Salazer, M. et al. The Dietary Components and Feeding Management as Options to Offset Digestive Disturbances in Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2019.
  15. Watts, K. Forage and pasture management for laminitic horses. Clin Techniq Equine Pract. 2004.
  16. Caron, J. Omega-3 fatty acids and docosahexaenoic acid oxymetabolites modulate the inflammatory response of equine recombinant interleukin1B-stimulated equine synoviocytes. Prostaglandin & Other Lipid Mediat. 2019.View Summary
  17. Buchanan B.R. & Andrews F.M. Treatment and prevention of equine gastric ulcer syndrome. Vet Clin. 2003. View Summary
  18. National Research Council Nutrient Requirements of Horses. NRC. 2007.
  19. Deacon, L.J. et al. Closure of an Aortocardiac Fistula in a Horse. CASE: Cardiovascular Imaging Case Reports. 2022. View Summary
  20. Halper, J. et al. Degenerative Suspensory Ligament Desmitis – A New Reality . Pak Vet J. 2011.
  21. Henneke, D.R. et al. Relationship between condition score, physical measurements and body fat percentage in mares. Equine Vet J. 1983. View Summary
  22. Bokhari, A.R. and Murrell, G.A.C The role of nitric oxide in tendon healing. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2012.
  23. Murrell, G.A.C. et al. Modulation of tendon healing by nitric oxide. Inflamm Res. 1997.
  24. Tanner, M.A. et al. The direct release of nitric oxide by gypenosides derived from the herb Gynostemma pentaphyllum. Nitric Oxide. 1999.
  25. Hinckley, K.A. et al. Glyceryl trinitrate enhances nitric oxide mediated perfusion within the equine hoof. J Endocrinol. 1996. View Summary