Horse Sense

Education professor finds connection to homeland at his ranch
- by Dottie Barnes

In his black flared Colombian chaps, boots and hat, atop one of his champion horses, you might not recognize him. The quiet, yet highly competitive show ring is a different environment from Antonio Herrera's classroom.

The longtime professor of education is retiring in August after 33 years of teaching, and is looking forward to spending more time with his family and with his champion show horses.

His passion

Herrera loves to steal away to his Jenison ranch where he currently has 12 horses. He has owned and cared for as many as 30 at one time. After 15 years of working with standard bred horses, Herrera sold them and developed a breeding program to buy, raise, show and sell only his favorite - a spirited and majestic breed known as Paso Fino or "fine step." Paso Finos originated in Spain and came to America with Christopher Columbus during his 1493 voyage.

Antonio Herrera is shown with Carbonera, winner of several championships. On page 41, Herrera is pictured with Monarca.

"This breed comes from Andalucian, Barber and Jennete bloodlines," Herrera said. "They are beautiful with their strong neck and fine limbs. They are full of personality and are ready to please the rider at any time. They are also very intelligent and quick, making them the most sought-after horses for show ring, cutting sport, endurance and trail riding."

Herrera's passion for these horses goes back to his childhood in Colombia, in the Andes Mountains of South America. His family comes from a long line of peasants and Herrera had to work in the fields from sunup to sundown in order to survive.

His father was a horse breeder who raised Paso Finos for labor and for pleasure. They are sturdy animals and considered "beasts of burden" because they carry heavy loads up and down the mountains. Herrera left his home and family at age 12 to make a better life for himself. And today, his horses are a reminder of and a strong connection to his homeland.

"My family had no money. My love for horses is
my only inheritance from my family." - Antonio Herrera

His mission

"As the only boy, I was expected to take over for my father," he said. "But, I wanted to learn and have a better life for myself. I broke my father's heart when I left, but I'm still an Andes Mountain boy. My family had no money. My love for horses is my only inheritance from my family."


Herrera's mission is to promote the breed he loves so much. He speaks with pride and excitement as he shows off Monarca, his Reserved Grand National champion show horse, and other favorites like Capuchinera, Nevadonera and Martillero.

"This is a unique breed," he said. "They have brains, they have beauty and they have the smoothest, natural ride of any horse alive."

Herrera said the Paso Fino is unique in that the horse has a natural gait - a four-beat lateral gait - which means the horse places each hoof on the ground independently of the other three hooves, creating a four-beat sound.

"The movement is too quick for show judges to observe," he said. "The judges not only look, but they listen to the staccato rhythm demonstrated on the sounding board." This unusual gait is an adaptation to the horse's original bloodlines and surroundings in the Colombian mountains. The animals learned to raise their feet to keep from slipping and falling on the steep, rocky terrain.

Herrera said the Paso Fino is very trainable and while the animal aims to please, it has a lot of "brios" or spirit and a ride that is unmatched. "They can anticipate my moves and commands," he said. "I only need to slightly gesture and they respond. When I ride, there is no bounce. You cannot find a ride like this. It is a ride of finesse and enjoyment."

That smooth ride and professional showmanship has garnered Herrera dozens of awards. The walls of the barn he built at his Jenison ranch are adorned with colorful ribbons, plaques and trophies from regional and national competitions. Herrera competes against top-rated riders and has traveled throughout the United States. He will compete in Atlanta in September against "the cream of the crop" from the United States, Central and South America.

Herrera is selective about the horses he acquires. He does his research and looks for the best bloodlines. Many of his horses come from a long line of winners. And, before he sells any of his horses, he educates the buyer and offers lessons on training, handling and caring for the horse.

Antonio Herrera wears Colombian attire during competition. He is riding Monarca, Reserved Grand National Champion Conformation.

His therapy

Antonio Herrera has won dozens of plaques and ribbons, including regional and national awards, for showing his Paso Fino horses.

Herrera sees his horses as a form of respite from the fast pace he keeps at the university. Since arriving at Grand Valley in 1972, he was instrumental in establishing the English as a Second Language program and developing the Reading Graduate Program and the graduate level curriculum. Herrera also helped design a curriculum in the master's program that allowed students to put an emphasis on music, math, history, biology or physics.

He is responsible for creating and coordinating the student/ faculty exchange programs between Grand Valley and the University of Granada in Spain and with the University of Sarajevo in Yugoslavia. As a result, Herrera co-authored a book with a professor from the University of Sarajevo in 1989. He also established and coached the men's soccer program at Grand Valley for 14 years.

Herrera has a bachelor's degree from Universidad Pedagogica y Tecnologica de Colombia and master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Oregon.

"I am fulfilled and can retire with no regrets," he said.

He said he looks forward to spending more time with his first love, his family - wife Vonnie, who works for the Seidman College of Business, and son David, who is a freshman at Grand Valley. And, of course, with his second love - his Paso Fino horses.

Page last modified July 22, 2011