Horses arrived in South America during the Spanish Conquest, particularly after 1542, when the Spanish created the Viceroyalty of New Castilla. This later became the Viceroyalty of Peru, an important center of Spain's New World colonies in the eighteenth century. Once in Peru, they were used primarily for transportation and breeding stock. In the north of Peru, the vast size of sugar and cotton plantations meant that overseers needed to travel long distances, often taking days to cross the plantation. In the south of Peru, the arid deserts that separated settlements required sturdy, strong horses. In both cases, smooth-gaited horses with good endurance were required. On the other hand, Peru did not develop a livestock-based economy, and thus did not need to breed for the speed or agility characteristic of stock horses. Over time, Peruvian breeders kept the bloodlines clean and selectively bred primarily for gait, conformation, and temperament. They wanted strong, hardy animals that were comfortable to ride and easy to control. Over four centuries, their dedication to breeding only the best gaited bloodstock resulted in the modern Peruvian Paso.
A decline in the use of the Peruvian Paso horse was seen in the southern part of Peru in the early 1900s, following the building of major highways that allowed motor travel to replace the use of the horse. Many of the major breeders in the area gave their best horses away to peasants living in the nearby quebradas (valleys). It was in one of these quebradas that breeder Gustavo de la Borda found the horse that was to become the most important modern sire in the breed, Sol de Oro (Viejo).
The Peruvian Paso continued to flourish in the northern regions because it was still needed for transportation on the haciendas. This changed with the harsh Agrarian Reforms instituted by the government of Juan Velasco Alvarado in the late 1960s that had a devastating effect on the Peruvian Paso horse within Peru. Major breeding operations were broken up and breeding stock was lost. Because interest in the Peruvian Paso horse was growing in the United States and Central America at the same time, many of the finest Peruvian Paso horses were exported, leading to a period where it appeared the Peruvian Paso horse would fade in its homeland.
The past thirty years have seen a resurgence in the Peruvian Paso horse's fortune in Peru. The annual National Show in Lima is a major event in Peruvian cultural life. The Peruvian Paso has been declared a Patrimonio Cultural (Cultural Heritage) of Peru in an attempt to shore up the breed within the country. There are now laws in place that restrict the export of national champion horses.
Peruvian Paso horses are noted internationally for their good temperament and comfortable ride. As of 2003, there are approximately 25,000 horses worldwide, used for pleasure riding, trail, horse shows, parades, and endurance riding.
The Peruvian Paso performs two variations of the four-beat gait. The first, the paso llano (a contraction of Paso Castellano), is isochronous, meaning that there are four equal beats in a 1-2-3-4 rhythm. This is the preferred gait. The second gait, the sobreandando, is faster. Instead of four equal beats, the lateral beats are closer together in a 1-2, 3-4 rhythm, with the pause between the forefoot of one side to the rear of the other side is longer.
This characteristic gait was utilized for the purpose of covering long distances over a short period of time without tiring the horse or rider. The gait is natural and does not require extensive training. Purebred Peruvian Paso foals can be seen gaiting alongside their dams within a few hours of their birth.
The gait supplies essentially none of the vertical bounce that is characteristic of the trot, and hence posting (moving up and down with each of the horse's footfalls) is unnecessary. It is also very stable, as the execution of the gait means there are always two, and sometimes three, feet on the ground. Because the rider feels no strain or jolt, gaited horses such as the Peruvian Paso are often popular with riders who have back trouble.
Breeders and judges look for Brio, often translated as "spirit," but this does not capture the complexity of the term. Brio describes a somewhat contradictory temperament, which combines arrogance, spirit, and the sense of always being on parade, with a willingness to please the rider. Brio is an intangible quality of controlled energy that creates a metamorphosis in ordinary-looking horses and is an important trait of the Peruvian Paso.
The Peruvian Paso has been called the "national horse" of Peru. On the other hand, the Paso Fino was developed from horses throughout northern Latin America and the Caribbean, with major centers of development in Colombia and Puerto Rico. The Peruvian Paso is also increasingly referred to in North America as the "Peruvian Horse" in an attempt to differentiate its breed from that of the Paso Fino.