August 2005
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It’s Peruvians All The Way

 
  Bill and Linda Virgin hold one of many trophies they’ve won during Peruvian Horse competition.

They were called conquistadores — brutal explorers of the New World. The most vicious of them all — Francisco Pizarro — has been gone for hundreds of years, but he and his men did leave behind a rare, gentle reminder of their violent South American conquests. It was the Peruvian Horse — a four-legged transportation system that has been attracting attention in Alabama in recent years. “I’ve grown up around horses all my life, but these are pretty special,” said Linda Virgin who, with her husband, Bill, has been settling in at a ranch in southwest Dallas County where they raise Peruvians. “They are wonderful.” At the moment, Alabama is home for fewer than 200 Peruvian Horses. They are most popular in Texas and California, but have been catching on in other parts of the country, especially the Southeast. Those who raise Peruvians bristle at times when the uninitiated suggest their horses are Paso Finos— another steed with a Spanish heritage. The breeds are about the same size. One of the main differences between the two is in the gait. Bill Virgin leaves no question about his allegiance. It’s Peruvians all the way. Paso Finos are the national horse of Puerto Rico while, as the name implies, Peruvians are from Peru.

 
Trainer Julio Sifuentes puts El Morroco through his paces at the Virgin Ranch in rural Dallas County.  

“You can hear their four-beat gait,” said Virgin, a non-practicing physician, as he watched trainer Julio Sifuentes take one of their stallions — El Morroco — around the couple’s exercise ring. “It goes ‘paka-paka-paka.’ Their front legs look like a swimmer’s stroke when they are in motion.” Since becoming infatuated with the breed, the Virgins have made quite a name for themselves in Peruvian Horse circles around the country. They attend regional and national events and Linda Virgin is seeking a position on the board of a national Peruvian Horse association. The couple began looking for just the right horse in 1991. Bill Virgin had a bad back and wanted a horse that didn’t cause a rider to bounce very much. He didn’t want a jarring experience for his back and found it atop Peruvians. They read about a variety of breeds, including the Paso Finos, Rocky Mountain Horse and, of course, Peruvians. What Linda Virgin wanted was “the smoothest horse in the world.” “We talked to breeders all over the country, we rode horses all over and I read everything we could find about Peruvians,” she said, in a background statement prepared for officials of the national group. “We found that we enjoyed the people and that we absolutely loved the horse.” After 18 months of research and rides, the Virgins bought a Peruvian gelding. Two months later, they sold the gelding and bought a mare for Linda, who said “the rest is history.”

 
  Linda Virgin rides LBV Don Antonio at a Peruvian Horse event.

“Although we owned the perfect breed of horse, the world was seemingly unaware of this South American treasure and it still is,” she said. “The other breeds we considered have outdistanced us in numbers, but not in enthusiasm.”

She pointed out in her background statement that there has been a “phenomenal growth” in Paso Fino and Rocky Mountain Horse popularity in the Southeast, not to mention the Tennessee Walkers.

“I want to say ‘move over—here we come!” she said. “I hope to be a part of this movement into the future, to promote this noble breed.”

The couple helped create the Deep South Peruvian Horse Club that sponsored the Peruvian Horse Classic Show. Linda Virgin served as president of that organization for several years.

The Virgins have continued to do their part to promote the Peruvian Horse since arriving in Dallas County, where they moved an antebellum house to family property and have been expanding it.

When they lived along the Gulf Coast, they named their ranch Bay View Farms. When they moved into Alabama’s Black Belt region, they kept the same name, even though they are a long way from the beach. Why not? Their ranch is known throughout the Southeast.

The Central Alabama Farmers Cooperative in nearby Selma has been an integral part of that expansion. Bill Virgin credits the business directed by Tim Wood with helping to prepare their property as a Peruvian Horse training site.

“They’ve been very helpful,” said Virgin. “We’ve planted very expensive grass seed and it came up very well. They did it all for us and that was before we had any machines up here. We also get our fertilizer from them. They are very prompt and have done a great job for us.”

So has Sifuentes, who has moved his wife and three children from Louisiana, where he once worked with Peruvians, to Alabama.

 
Bill Virgin takes RDS Don Diego out for a ride.  

“They are very easy to train, very smooth,” said Sifuentes, 31, who has been working with Peruvians for the past 13 years.

One of the couple’s prized Peruvians is Patricia, who was born on St. Patrick’s Day and has been winning her share of ribbons in competition around the country.

“She’s become a star and has already produced one Peruvian for us,” said Bill Virgin. “We raise our Peruvians slowly and wait until they are three before we put a saddle on them. We let them be babies to grow up to be docile horses and then slowly train them. We don’t put shoes on them. They don’t go very fast and kids love to ride them.”

It can take six months or more to train a Peruvian, Bill Virgin said, “but, if you want a well-trained horse, you never stop. That’s been our philosophy.”

In addition to recreational riding, Peruvian Horse owners also use them to work cattle. Mostly, however, they are pleasure horses and are the star attractions at trail rides. The Virgins are looking forward to them as soon as they complete their move to Dallas County. At the moment, they are building rooms for friends so they’ll have a place to stay during trail ride weekends.

The Virgins have about 40 horses at their ranch and own about 25 of them. Some of the others are brought to their ranch for breeding purposes.

Stud fees by Peruvian Horse owners can be in the thousands, $2,500, but the big money comes in sales and the couple will never forget an experience they had once when a magnificent Peruvian caught Linda’s eyes.

“I rode it around the ring and then asked the owner ‘how much?’” she said, as she began to smile. “He said ‘$80,000’ and I got off real fast.”

Donna Bearer, editor of the Peruvian Digest magazine, leaves no doubts about her view of the horse and its popularity in small, select circles.

“The four-beat, lateral gait of the Peruvian horse is without question the most comfortable ride in the world,” she wrote recently.

Bearer said one of the reasons the Peruvian Horse is so popular is its “selective breeding.” She said it is inbred and “is the only gaited horse on earth that can guarantee its natural gait will be passed on to its offspring.”

Not many people can afford a Rolls Royce and, while Peruvian Horses don’t cost nearly as much as that storied car, they carry a price tag that can make a potential buyer stop and think. Some can cost as much as $100,000.

Given that there are millions of horses from a variety of breeds around the world, the Peruvians are in a class of their own. She said there are about 16,000 of them worldwide with most of them currently living in the United States.

The Virgins, who met on a blind date at the University of Alabama in 1965 and were married the same day they had their finals, are proud of their Peruvians and wouldn’t think of owning any other breed.

“They do whatever you want them to do,” said Linda, who provides plenty of tender, loving care for her horses. “I’m the one who brushes out their tails. I just enjoy being around them.”

In a way, the Peruvians are their children. They don’t have any of their own and they treat them as a proud parent would their children.

As far as they’re concerned, when you say Peruvian Horse, you’ve said it all.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.