Although vast Parker Ranch, the historic center of Hawaiian ranching, no longer offers horseback tours, several other ranches in upcountry Waimea provide opportunities for riding with sweeping views of land and sea. Picturesque Waipio Valley is also another focus of equestrian excursions. Note: Most stables require riders to be at least 8 years old and weigh no more than 230 pounds; confirm before booking.
The 11,000-acre Ponoholo Ranch, whose herd of cattle (varying between 6,000 and 8,000) is second only to Parker Ranch’s, is the scenic home base for Paniolo Adventures (www.panioloadventures.com; 808/889-5354). Most of its five rides are open-range style and include brief stretches of trotting and cantering, although the gorgeous scenery outweighs the equine excitement—all but the 4-hour Wrangler Ride ($175) are suitable for beginners. The tamest option is the 1-hour City Slicker ride ($69), but the 1 1/2-hour Sunset Ride ($89) appears to be the most popular. Boots, light jackets, Australian dusters, chaps, helmets, hats, drinks, and even sunscreen are provided. Look for Paniolo Adventures’ red barn on Kohala Mountain Road (Hwy. 250), just north of mile marker 13.
Naalapa Stables (www.naalapastables.com; 808/889-0022) operates rides at Kahua Ranch, which also has an entrance on Kohala Mountain Road, north of mile marker 11. Riding open-range style, you’ll pass ancient Hawaiian ruins, through lush pastures with grazing sheep and cows, and along mountaintops with panoramic coastal views. The horses and various riding areas are suited to everyone from first-timers to experienced equestrians. There are several trips a day: a 2 1⁄2-hour tour at 9am and 1pm for $94, and a 1 1⁄2-hour tour at 10am and 1:30pm for $73; check-in is a half-hour earlier.
Naalapa has another stable in Waipio Valley (808/775-0419), which offers the more rugged Waipio Valley Horseback Adventure, a 2 1⁄2-hour ride that starts with a four-wheel-drive (4WD) van ride down to this little-inhabited but widely revered valley. The horses are sure-footed in the rocky streams and muddy trails, while the guides, who are well versed in Hawaiian history, provide running commentary. The cost is $94 for adults, with tours at 9:30am and 1pm Monday to Saturday. Don’t forget your camera or bug spray; check in a half-hour earlier at Waipio Valley Artworks, 48-5415 Kukuihaele Rd., off Highway 240, about 8 miles northwest of Honokaa.
Waipio Valley Artworks (see above) is also the check-in point for Waipio Ridge Stables (www.waipioridgestables.com; 877/757-1414), which leads riders on a 2 1/2-hour Valley Rim Ride ($90), including views of the beach below and Hiilawe waterfall at the rear of the deep valley. The 5-hour Hidden Waterfalls Ride ($175) includes the sights along the rim ride and then follows the stream that feeds Hiilawe through the rainforest to a picnic and swim in a bracingly cool waterfall pool, but it’s rather long if you’re not into riding. Note: Fog sometimes obscures views of Waipio Valley from the rim.
Home on the Range: Paniolo & pā‘ū riders
The Big Island is home to Hawaii’s original paniolo, Mexican cowboys brought over by King Kamehameha III in the 1830s to round up herds of wild cattle. The unruly livestock were the descendants of cattle that British Capt. George Vancouver had given to King Kamehameha I in the early 1790s; with no predators, the cattle’s numbers burgeoned wildly after the king placed a kapu (ban) on their being hunted or eaten, a restriction that lasted till 1830. Fortunately, an American named Richard Cleveland had also given Kamehameha a mare and a stallion in 1803, so horses were a known quantity when the Mexican vaqueros arrived on the scene. (The Hawaiian word for cowboy, paniolo, is said to derive from their word for the language the cowboys spoke, español.)
Although they didn’t stay long—apparently, just a year—the Mexican cowboys taught their Hawaiian students well. In 1908, three paniolo from the Big Island competed at Frontiers Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming, then the country’s premiere rodeo contest, wearing cowboy hats adorned with lei. Ikua Purdy won the steer-roping contest, while his island companions came in second and sixth. Purdy was inducted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1999, and in 2003 the Paniolo Preservation Society erected a statue in Waimea of him roping a steer.
Hawaiian women also quickly adapted to riding horses, but rather than do so sidesaddle, as expected of proper ladies then, they straddled their steeds and covered their hiked-up skirts and petticoats with long, billowing over-skirts called pā‘ū or pau(“pah-oo”). Pau riders on horses covered with lei are now a staple of parades celebrating King Kamehameha Day (June 11) and other Hawaiian cultural celebrations, particularly on the Big Island.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.