Ride Like a Paniolo

The Big Island’s mountains and valleys offer a backdrop for Hawaiian horseback riding

By: Elizabeth Kaye McCall

The Big Island of Hawaii has a heritage with horses as charismatic as America’s West. When King Kamehameha received a gift of cattle from British Captain George Vancouver in 1793, horses weren’t far behind. They arrived a decade later to deal with the cattle population explosion. Invited by the king, vaqueros from Spanish California taught Hawaiians how to ride and rope. By 1836, Hawaii’s own working cowboys, called paniolos, launched a vibrant ranching industry that continues today. A choice of eco-friendly equestrian adventures lets clients uniquely experience the Big Island’s myths, history and varied terrain on horseback.

Naalapa Stables
Riding in Waipio Valley was high on my interest list due to the wild Hawaiian horses that populate this mystical swatch of Eden, also known as the Valley of Kings. Naalapa Stables’ Waipio Valley Ride proved to be the ticket to encountering this sacred land and its wild horses, descendants of working stock abandoned after a 1946 tidal wave. After checking in at Waipio Valley Artworks, a short drive from Honokaa, we clamored into Naalapa’s four-wheel-drive van for our descent on a thrill ride of a road. Keoni Ah Puck, our wrangler and driver, carefully navigated the 25 percent road grade (sometimes one lane) to take us to our mounts in the valley 1,000 feet below. The horse ride seemed tame in comparison.

Climbing aboard a Western saddle, I learned that Hiilawe, my mount, was once wild and named for the waterfall where he was caught. Our group of 10 riders included roughly as many skill levels from a beginner in shorts (long pants and closed shoes are essential) to a former Tevis Cup 100-mile endurance rider. Quite the mix. Crossing several rivers, we passed taro patches, lotus ponds and homes of Waipio’s 50-some residents, occasionally glimpsing shimmering waterfalls in the distance. The slow-paced ride had many photo stops, and Puck’s running commentary gave us an experience of Waipio Valley that would be hard to match. As if on cue, some wild horses suddenly appeared. “The fences are to keep the wild horses out, not in, your property,” laughed Puck.

Paniolo Adventures
Paniolo Adventures owner Bob Henderson, who once ran Disney’s international video sales division, aims to be different at his North Kohala operation. Clients can borrow free of charge boots, chaps, Australian dusters (raincoats), sunscreen and even socks, to ride in. Protective helmets are available (which Naalapa also provides). Some of Paniolo’s rides offer added perks, like T-shirts and 8x10 headshots of your horse.

Located on Ponoholo Ranch on Kohala Mountain, an 11,000-acre cattle ranch covering three climate zones, Paniolo Adventures features open range riding meaning no head-to-tail lines. From fast-paced Wrangler Rides for experienced riders to leisurely romantic sunset rides, options exist for every level. The new day-long Discovery Program is oriented toward learning how a horse thinks and behaves, combining educational activities, lunch and riding.

I opted for the picnic ride, a three-hour jaunt through pastures, grazing cattle and rolling hills on a Belgian gelding. Paniolo’s string includes many Belgian and mixed draft horse breeds. Known for their easy-going temperaments, they can also easily handle 200-plus pound clients.

Amber Berg, the wrangler guiding our ride, made sure the more experienced riders in our group got to canter before we arrived at a hilltop location for lunch. Used by the Hawaiians for farming long before cattle grazing, the land hinted of generations past as we picnicked amid remnants of rock walls that once terraced the hillside.

As we fanned out along the ridge on the ride back, I knew my love for Hawaii’s horse culture was just beginning.


Naalapa Stables
Waipio Valley Horseback Adventure

Check-in Location:
Waipio Valley Artworks (near Waipio Lookout)
48-5416 Kukuihale Road
Kukuihale, HI 96727

Commisssion: 15 percent

Featuring sturdy Waipio-bred Hawaiian horses, this two-hour ride operates morning and afternoon from Mon.-Sat. Clients check in 30 minutes before the ride and are transported in Naalapa’s four-wheel-drive vans to the stables in the valley. Cost is $88.54 per person. A 24-hour cancellation policy applies. Children under 8 not permitted. Weight limit is 230 pounds. Not recommended for elderly, disabled or pregnant clients. Clients should brings bottled water and wear long pants, covered shoes and long-sleeved shirts. Helmets and small saddlebags are provided. Naalapa also operates rides at Kahua Ranch in North Kohala, where it extends a 25 percent commission.

Paniolo Adventures
Mile 13.2, Kohala Mountain Road (Hwy. 250)
North Kohala

Minimum Age: 8

Commission: 10 percent on groups of 10 or more

Guest-oriented Paniolo Adventures recommends wearing long pants and closed-toe shoes, but if you forget something, chances are they’ve got it in a ready supply of loaner gear including boots, chaps, coats, hats, helmets, water and sunscreen. Paniolo offers five different riding options, priced $89-$299 per person, from romantic evening sunset rides to three-hour picnic rides and four-hour fast-paced wrangler rides. A “Compare Rides” feature on Paniolo’s Web site offers a quick overview of prices, times and experience levels for each ride. Paniolo frequently creates custom rides for the many corporate groups and destination management companies it works with.