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The first horses arrived in Hawaii in 1803 as a present for King Kamehameha. Over the next 200 years, that simple gift evolved into the beloved ranching lifestyle of today’s Hawaii and paved the way for cherished local traditions.
Now, a show called Na Lio (“the horses”) Maui tells the fascinating story of horses in Hawaii using hula, Hawaiian music and elegant equestrians. Launched in August 2015, it’s the brainchild of Marla Braun-Miller, who has ridden horses since she was a young girl.
“Na Lio Maui started with a deep love and respect for horses and ‘pau’ riding, a style unique to the Hawaiian islands,” Braun-Miller said. “My goal is to share the true history of the horse and the Hawaiian people in an authentic cultural experience, while showing horses and riders in harmony with each other.”
After checking in at the Na Lio Maui gift shop in the Lahaina Gateway shopping center, our group boarded a bus that took us upcountry to the show’s setting, the 10-acre Kahalawai Farms & Stables. The site provided us with fabulous views of Maui and the ocean, making it a great vantage point for watching the sunset. With just 72 seats, the cozy venue creates an intimate mood.
During the build-up to the main show, Hawaiian musicians played upbeat tunes and sang local favorites. Guests, especially children, took turns petting a pair of miniature horses and posing for photos with them. A man dressed in “paniolo” (Hawaiian cowboy) garb hopped up on stage and danced a rousing hula. Another paniolo demonstrated roping techniques, then brought up a volunteer who tried lassoing a cow statue while the crowd cheered him on.
As the sun set and the stars started twinkling, a narrator named Uncle took a seat by a campfire at the side of the stage. Using engaging talk-story mannerisms, he began spinning tales about the horse in Hawaii and how it became part of island lifestyle.
Uncle’s narrative took the audience on a ride through time. Along the way, guests learned about the first paniolos, who came to Hawaii from North, Central and South America, eventually influencing the multicultural population of today’s islands. The audience also got a rare look at how pau riders prepare for parades by wrapping themselves in colorful fabric and donning fresh leis.
Throughout the show, Uncle’s anecdotes were enacted both onstage and in the beautifully lit arena behind it. It was particularly effective when riders and horses in the background mirrored the movements of hula dancers in the foreground.
After the show, all of the riders, horses, dancers and singers gathered by the stage, where clients could meet them. On the night I attended, guests were clearly excited to get acquainted with the talented troupe firsthand.
Na Lio Maui takes a refreshing and poetic approach to storytelling. Not only is it a must for horse aficionados, but its appeal extends to anyone interested in Hawaiian history, culture, music and dance.
Na Lio Maui recently expanded to include a dinner prepared on location. Shows take place on Thursday nights. Admission including tax is $103 per adult and $52 per child, with a 25 percent commission paid to travel agents.