Armando Ramirez, who is nearly 70, says his love affair with horses began a long time ago. When he was a boy in his native Bayamon, Puerto Rico, he says only the wealthy used cars, and everybody else used horses for transportation.
“In the early 50’s, when I was able to help out on the farm, usually it involved a horse,” says Ramirez in his still-youthful voice. “I would lead them out to the fields to deliver food to field workers.”
When he was 12, he says he moved with his parents to Brooklyn, NY — during the mass migration of Puerto Ricans to NYC in the 1950′s — in the middle of winter.
“I didn’t mind the cold, or the streets full of cars — what I missed the most were the horses,” says Ramirez who before moving to NY, never wore shoes or a shirt unless he was going to school.
When he finally saw his first horse in NYC, he says he followed it all day until he got to his stable.
“They allowed me to ride if I cleaned the stables,” says Ramirez, who did this from age 13 to 16. “In 1964, I graduated from high school and got a job as a mechanic for the subways.”
He retired from that job 20 years ago, but it was because of it that he was able to afford a ranch in rural Highland, NY — where he could finally have his own horses. Today, Ramirez owns six Puerto Rican Paso Fino horses and trains them to be champions. On July 28, he will be appearing at the Puerto Rican Day Festival of Bristol, in Pennsylvania, with his prize-winning stallion, Xplorado de Tejano.
“The Puerto Rican Paso Fino horse is a naturally gaited animal — they were bred that way,” explains Ramirez about what makes the Paso Fino horse special. “Usually a baby will gait right beside its mother. The cornerstone of the training is conditioning them to do that for long periods of time. You have to show them how to do it on command.”
According to the Pure Puerto Rican Paso Fino Federation, Inc., Spanish explorer Cristóbal Colón first introduced the ancestors of the Pure Puerto Rican Paso Finos to the New World during his second trip in 1493. Today, there are fewer than 500 of the rare breed registered with the Federation, and only a handful of breeders in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
“Paso Fino horses were not very valuable in Spain,” explains Ramirez. “Women and children mostly used them, because they have a lighter built. They thought they were more fragile, but it turns out they were sturdy.”
He says the Puerto Rican Paso Fino gait is called a “four-beat lateral.”
“They move their legs on the same side at the same time — the rear left hits the ground before the front left and the same thing on the other side,” says Ramirez. They always have two feet on the ground and never bounce — you could drink a cup of coffee while riding and not spill it.”
He says he’s been training with Xplorado de Tejano from sunrise until sundown now that the Puerto Rican Day Festival is coming up.
“I want him to make sure his weight is right, his gait is right, and his hair is right…” says Ramirez. “It’s not work, it’s more like a passion.”
He says he named his brown-haired stallion “Xplorado de Tejano,” because his father’s name was “Tejano” and he was born a natural explorer.
“Unlike any colt I ever saw, that little sucker would go wandering off and leave his mother — he has the mind of an explorer,” says Ramirez.
He says he used to go as a young kid to the horse shows in Puerto Rico, although it was mostly for people of higher economic status. He would go to daydream that one day it would be him competing.
“The horse that I have now is the one I used to dream about when I was a kid,” says Ramirez, who is now teaching his grandson how to ride horses. “He’s the horse of my dreams.”