Story by Sarah Blanchard
Photo by Megan Spelman
Guided by the lightest touch on the reins, the horse swoops around a sandy arena. He steps down the center of a boardwalk, hoofbeats echoing. Savvy equestrians will recognize this horse as a splendid Paso Fino from South America, demonstrating its classic gait on the fino board, a platform that makes rhythm of the footfalls audible for breeders and livestock judges.
Except this isn’t South America; it’s North Kohala. The rider is Joe Vitorino, a San Francisco Bay-area transplant who with his wife, Kelly, ditched California for rural life on the Big Island. They bought thirty acres of ocean cliff ranch land and named it Rancho Vitorino, now home to Hawai‘i Paso Finos.
“We’d had a variety of horses on the Mainland, but then we discovered Paso Finos,” says Joe. “We fell in love with the breed and wanted to introduce them to Hawai‘i. In 2007 we bought two pregnant mares in California and flew them over. Our filly Marisol was the first Paso Fino born here, in 2008.”
Paso Finos were bred in Colombia and Puerto Rico more than five hundred years ago from a blend of Spanish and Arabian horses Christopher Columbus brought to the New World. The conquistadors called them “los caballos de paso fino,” or “the horses of the fine walk.” They’re prized for their strength, endurance and noble bearing, but mostly for their smooth gait. Paso riders don’t have to endure the bouncing motion of rougher-gaited horses—ideal for long rides. “They’re lovely to watch, fun to ride and easy to handle,” says Kelly. “The modern Paso Fino is a close cousin to the first horses brought to these Islands by the Mexican vaqueros in 1803, so Paso Finos resemble what the first paniolo [Hawaiian cowboy] horses must have looked like two hundred years ago.”
Residents and visitors may experience the Vitorinos’ Paso Finos through one-on-one instruction. “We don’t take out more than two riders at a time,” Kelly says. “It’s a departure from large group rides, giving you the opportunity to learn about these horses in a peaceful setting with a smooth ride along the coast. We’ll throw in a little whale-watching and some Kohala plantation history, too.”
“Paso Finos are just beautiful animals,” says Joe. “They are so kind and loving to people. They are great public relations ambassadors for the breed and for Hawai‘i.”