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Smooth-stepping horses popular with owners

March 29, 1999

Fifala FarmBy DON AINES / Staff Writer, Chambersburg

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




FORT LOUDON, Pa. - The paso fino has been in the New World since the days of Columbus, but the rider-friendly breed was only introduced in this country about 25 years ago, Karen LeBlanc said.

"They come out of South America - Colombia, Puerto Rico and Peru," LeBlanc said Sunday during an open house at her Fifala Farm north of Fort Loudon.

Paso fino is Spanish for "fine walk," LeBlanc said before putting her farm stallion Laurel through his paces.

"They have what's called a four-beat lateral gait," said LeBlanc, who bought the 40-acre farm in 1987. That means the horse moves first the hind foot and front foot on one side, before repeating the movement on the other.

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The result is a very smooth gait, according to LeBlanc. She rode Laurel across a set of fino boards - sheets of plywood laid end-to-end in her indoor riding ring - to demonstrate the rhythm of the walk.

"What they do, they do from birth ... this is their natural gait," she said. Even someone with back problems can ride paso finos without difficulty, she said.

LeBlanc said the animals' natural disposition is "gentle in hand, but with a lot of brio" - spirit in the saddle.

Not a large horse, just over 14 hands, Laurel showed himself to be anxious for attention. He readily accepted strokes on his muzzle and pats along his muscular arched neck from the visitors.

Gentleness is part of their breeding, according to LeBlanc, who has 15 paso finos. In Latin America, "The paso is like a member of the family."

"We're not responsible for paso fever," LeBlanc said. "The symptoms start when you first get one one."

Bob Hirzel of Brunswick, Md., has it. He's retired from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in Washington, D.C., where LeBlanc still works.

"She invited me up to see the horses ... I fell in love with the breed," he said. Hirzel boards his horse here and comes up most weekends for trail riding, or to just help out around the stables.

"They're very much a people horse. They love being with people and pleasing people," he said.

Wendy and Saul Baker, of Baltimore, Md., own three.

"They're like potato chips ...You can't have just one," Wendy Baker said. The Bakers linked up with LeBlanc through another breeder, she said.

"They are wonderful cart horses," Wendy Baker said. She also praised them for trail riding and endurance rides.

The paso finos start at about $3,000, a reasonable price for a horse, according to LeBlanc. She has also bred a paso fino mare with a mammoth jack donkey, producing a gaited mule named Midnight.

LeBlanc, 47, who also raises Somali cats, said the mules will sell for less because they require less space and feed than a horse. Her passion dates back to her childhood.

"When I was a little kid, I'd do anything to get next to a horse ... My father thought I'd outgrow it," she said.

She recalled her grandfather, a farmer in Minnesota, who had horses he wouldn't work if they had night sweats. Thus the name of her farm.

"He'd say, 'The fifalas had been riding them all night.'" she said.

"They're a French version of leprechauns," according to LeBlanc.

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