LURIN, Peru (Reuters Life!) - In the shadow of the Pre-Incan ruin of Pachacamac, Peruvians in straw hats and white ponchos saunter around a lawn at a beauty contest for one of the most enduring symbols of Spanish colonialism — the horse.
On the elevated viewing gallery, owners in crisp white pants and shirts sip pisco, a potent liquor, as judges at one of Peru’s many equine competitions detail the attributes and temperament of each parading horse.
Despite the booze and pageantry, the gathering is no raucous Kentucky Derby and there is little money on the line.
The contests at Mamacona, a colonial hacienda that is home to Peru’s main association of horse breeders, are held to celebrate the breed’s elegance, which has long appealed to Peru’s old aristocracy and, increasingly, to wealthy professionals.
The horses are not bred for speed or rustling cattle, but for comfort — with a soft gait that keeps the rider from jostling up and down on long rides.
Though Spaniards and other Europeans brought horses to the Americas, Peruvians say their national horse, the Caballo de Paso Peruano, or Peruvian Walking Horse, is unique and developed over five centuries.
“The great virtues of this breed of horse are that it is smooth and comfortable,” said Juan Rizo, a director of the breeders’ association. “It has the smoothest ride in the world.”
Call it Peru’s Easy Rider. The horse has a four-beat gait and dramatically throws its front hooves out laterally while walking. Its hind legs often follow up with short, quick steps.
Wranglers clutch reins of intricately braided leather adorned with sterling silver. They sit on thick blankets of lambswool to further cushion the ride. The 19th-century paintings of Peru’s Pancho Fierro depict horses and riders in similar gear.
The horse was originally bred for foremen on haciendas to ride all day long, or for hacienda owners to travel between valleys along Peru’s desert coast.
Websites for horse enthusiasts say the Peruvian breed is largely descended from the old Spanish Jennet, and that early on outside blood from Arabian, Morgan, American Saddlebred or Friesian horses was sometimes added.
Though the horses were long associated with a tiny elite, they have grown in popularity over the last decade during an unprecedented economic boom.
Now middle-class professionals can raise horses and join clubs, a trend that has spawned an increasing number of competitions.
Economic chaos and left-wing insurgencies in the 1980s and 1990s dismayed Peruvians and tore apart the country. But in the last few years, stability and prosperity have inspired a renewed interest in Peruvian identity.
Residents now talk with glowing pride about their cuisine, which has won acclaim worldwide, their pisco, a type of grappa that they say their rivals in Chile have copied, and their horses.
“The Peruvian horse is known for its personality,” explained Marco Dapelo, a Peruvian who breeds horses at his Texas ranch.
Dapelo’s father was among many breeders of the horse who lost their farms in the 1970s, during land reform carried out by a left-wing military government.
That reduced the number of breeders to just a handful and some of the best horses were hurriedly exported to the United States.
Julio Peschiera, another third-generation rider, raises horses at his ranch in Chincha, 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Lima.
“It is about preserving the breed,” said Peschiera, who exhibited two handsome offspring of a champion horse called Pretentious.
Reporting by Terry Wade and Emily Schmall; Editing by Patricia Reaney