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During a recent horseback ride at Dahana Ranch on Hawaii Island, I got a taste of the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) lifestyle like never before. I have saddled up on several Hawaiian Islands in the past, but the Dahana tour has edged out the competition by a nose for many reasons.
For starters, it’s the only Hawaii Island ride on a working ranch. While Dahana has been offering horseback tours since 1982, that’s just one part of what it does. Not only do its people own the land, but they also breed, train and sell their horses on a national level.
That means their horses are much more responsive than your average trail horses, allowing riders of all ages — from 3-year-olds to grandparents — to join in on the fun.
From the moment I pulled up to ranch headquarters, it was obvious that this is a unique tour. Unlike more manicured tourist-oriented operations, the Dahana check-in process was downhome, and the facilities were basic. But the smiles on the staffers’ faces were genuine, as was their welcoming spirit.
Founded in 1951, Dahana is run by Harry Nakoa, a native Hawaiian. His sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters chip in with the daily chores, from checking in guests and saddling horses to teaching clients the basic commands and taking them out on a ride.
My guide was Harry’s son, Dustin. Throughout the ride, Dustin shared his knowledge about his ancestors, the paniolo lifestyle, the history of the ranch and what it all means to him, imbuing the experience with a sense of place.
Tours for All Levels I’m somewhere between a beginning and intermediate rider, so I went on the Ranch Ride, which caters to families.
As we traversed four miles of ranchlands, Dustin pointed out highlights of the landscape, with its rolling hills and views of Mauna Kea volcano. Farm dogs trotted beside us as we rode past cows, studs, mares, retired horses and yearlings in the pastures.
Happily, this wasn’t a nose-to-tail trek. Guests rode side-by-side across the open range, with trotting permitted and encouraged. Rather than following a set route, Dustin pointed us in a general direction, then urged us to explore here and there along the way.
Experienced riders can sign up for the advanced tour, which is more challenging because the terrain is a little rougher. Clients also can go on Dahana’s cattle drive, during which wranglers teach participants how to move a herd of Brahmans (a type of cattle).
Clients should know that Dahana is exposed to the elements at the 3,000-foot elevation. That means the weather can be sunny and beautiful one day, and rainy and breezy the next. Guests should wear long pants and bring a light jacket and cap.
Dahana gives visitors a rare opportunity in Hawaii. It lets them step into the paniolo world for a little while, spending time with island residents who cherish their land and their traditions.
A horseback ride at Dahana Ranch won’t appeal to all clients. But for anyone interested in the real paniolo lifestyle, it’s a horse of a different color.