I first 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 great-uncles 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 pine-apples. 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.
“Those who ride”
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 much-needed 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, temper-ament 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.
A Historical mystery
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, pub- lished 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 high- ranking 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.
The Cuban Paso Fino
Located in Bayamo, 450 miles east of Havana, La Loma farm has large, well-built 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.
Cuba’s other native breeds
•The Cuban Pinto resulted from crossing Cuban Criollo horses with Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds. The coat pattern may be tobiano or overo.
• The Cuban Trotter is a riding horse that came from crossing Cuban Criollo horses with Canadian horses imported during the Colonial era. They are predominately solid black or bay and are known for their smooth trot.
•The Patibarcino is a riding horse that came from crossing Cuban Criollos with Andalusians and Barbs. Their coloring is a distinctive gray, called gateado, that can appear in various tones, including blue dun, slate dun and silver dun.
Source: International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, by Bonnie L. Hendricks
This article was originally published the March 2016 issue, Volume #474 of EQUUS magazine