United States, Hawaii, Big Island, Waimea
This is not an industrial-scale cattle operation that grass-feeds beef for your local grocery store or a fancy dude ranch shined up for tourists. It is so much better than that. If you are wanting to find an authentic Hawaiian experience, this is where your journey begins.
Dahana Ranch carries on a near-two-hundred-year-old tradition that embraces a unique, proud, and rare heritage, that of the Hawaiian cowboy or paniolos. Here the family raise, breed, train, and show exceptional registered American Quarter horses as well as working cow ponies, competitive rodeo roping and cutting horses, and polo ponies.
And yes, my friend, for a reasonable fee, you can cowboy up and confidently ride these majestic athletes, even if this is literally your first time at the rodeo.
In 1951, this lightly-forested land transferred through a Native Hawaiian award to William Pa’akaula Kalawaia’nui who broke the ground using a single-horse plow and hand-planted New Zealand grasses.
He turned the sun-drenched fields into a very successful cattle, horse, and hog operation known as Nakoa Ranch. The youngest of his six children, Harry Nakoa, took over the ranch in 1988 and runs it today.
Dramatic black lava boulders punctuate the scenic vistas from the 3,000-foot elevation of Dahana’s 2,000-acre open range, four miles of green rolling hills filled with big-bellied broodmares nursing gangly-legged foals, and the eye-pleasing patchwork of a-hundred-or-so bridled, speckled, and spotted Corriente cows followed by their sweet-faced calves.
Used as sport cattle in rodeo events like team roping, bull dogging, and reining, this flashy breed of Criollo cattle descended from Spanish animals brought to the Americas as early as 1493.
I was pleased to discover Dahana Ranch offered a two-hour advanced ride tailored specifically for equestrians. I found owner Ku’uipo Nakoa a charming, intelligent, gracious guide, and a fabulous competitive horsewoman in her own right.
I say gracious because I do not prefer to ride western, which Ku’uipo immediately discerned by noticing my hands and seat. I’ve ridden western before, mind you, many times over many decades, and I am a good western rider, but good just isn’t good enough on this ranch.
By far the best riding instructor I have ever had, Ku’uipo’s causal, thoughtful, well-timed comments on how to ride her reining horse properly was inspiring and fun, with detailed explanations as to why what she was recommending was important.
Ku’uipo carefully matched horse to rider and gave specific instructions so there was an awareness of what bit was being used, how it worked as an aid, correct neck reining for a reining horse, how the horse had been trained to respond to different pressures, the personality quirks, name, sex, age, accolades and pedigree of the mount. Ku’uipo teaches through hands-on learning and humor, and is a very funny lady as only an exceptionally clever woman can be.
Very different from most horse rental concerns, Dahana Ranch Quarter Horses stand patiently without being tied or held when they are tacked up, and when riders mount and dismount. They didn’t move a muscle when Ku’uipo double-checked girth and stirrups after we went through the first pasture. Staying mounted, Ku’uipo opened and closed large heavy gates with ease.
The horses choose their steps as carefully as Grand Canyon mules up and down the hills, be it a bunny slope or a Black Double Diamond. They smoothly ease into a trot or a lope with little encouragement, and slow to a stop with a gentle whoa.
There was no “the herd is moving so I must follow,” “there is grass so I must eat,” or “barn sour” activity. Refreshingly, both horse and wrangler treat you as a rider not a passenger, a friend and not a customer. Remembering my name was important to Ku’uipo, and she used it frequently throughout our ride.
The horses fan out over a several acres the entire ride. Following head-to-tail is strongly discouraged as is riding closely side-by-side or following any cow paths that may be on the open range. At each gate, Ku’uipo points in the distant horizon to the opening of the next pasture, how to get there is left up to you.
When the super friendly pack of cattle dogs, who are a delight in themselves, decided to round up a dozen head and drive the cattle up a hill to give Ku’uipo a bit of a surprise when she came out of a bend, there was no drama. The running cows were back to grazing before John Wayne movie stampede flashbacks could become a concern, and Ku’uipo’s gentle chiding of the dogs was over run with laughter.
It is a unique experience to be able rent a trail horse of this quality in America. It is rare to have the privilege of riding any horse this gentle, responsive, and well trained. Remember this praise is coming from Dorene Lorenz, the woman who doesn’t particularly fancy Quarter Horses, and, in fact, normally actively avoids riding them.
Nakoa’s training methods have been described as the intersection of traditional Spanish horsemanship techniques and the spiritual respect for all life indigenous to Hawaiian Natives. That value shows, and it is easy to understand why when Nakoa Ranch offers a horse for sale it is placed very quickly.
If you were to start your rented trail riding experience at this ranch, with a Nakoa family member as a guide - you would be ruined. You would have a difficult time finding another experience that met up to this level of quality.
I can give Dahana Ranch only my highest possible praise. It is not fancy, not glamorous, much better, it is a memorable authentic Hawaiian experience.
Now that I am more familiar with the lay of the land, and feel comfortable riding the exceptionally well-broken Dahana Quarter Horses, I look forward to my next adventure there - there is an offering where you learn to cowboy-up Hawaiian paniolos-style.
HAWAIIAN COWBOYS - THE PANIOLOS
In 1793, George Vancouver presented five cows and a bull to King Kamehameha I. The King allowed the stock to run wild for four decades, until they numbered in the thousands.
The first horse arrived in Hawaii ten years after the cows, when an American trader named Richard Cleveland presented one as a give to King Kamehameha I. Decades before American cowboys showed up in Texas, the King brought California-Mexican vaqueros over in 1833 to share their knowledge of saddle-making, riding, roping, and cattle breeding.
Hawaii’s cowboys didn’t receive a respectful tip-of-the-hat from their western American counterparts until 1908. Riding borrowed horses, Parker Ranch paniolo Ikua Purdy set a record time while winning the World Rodeo Steer-Roping Championship in Wyoming, and cousins Archie Kaaua took third, Jack Low sixth. Purdy was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1999.
It didn’t matter if the paniolo was a native Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, Korean, or Puerto Rican they all became culture-bearers by speaking the Hawaiian language while on the range, one of the few occupations allowed to do so.
Paniolo used to have to swim cattle out to ships to be loaded for market stateside, and the suggestion that the current Hawaiian meat market is still experiencing difficulty because of lack of access to slaughterhouses is a bit of an understatement. Food security is an issue here.
The 11,000-acre Paniolo Adventures is a ticket to a post-Walt, Disney-esque experience. This is a direct reference of the corporate culture, as the second largest cattle ranch in Hawaii is owned by a former Disney executive. Not Walt, not Abigail.
The black and red Angus cattle ranch covers three-climate zones as it stretches from a rain forest at 4,800 feet to the ocean. Paniolo has an enviable collection of cowboy boots and Australian rain slickers that allow customers to dress the part before standing on a mounting block, having the next horse in line brought up to them, and riding off without even knowing the horse’s name.
My experience was riding an average grade ranch horse that was “recently” shipped in from the Mainland, and was an adequate mount but nothing special. The wrangler kept an eye on their watch and were more focused on getting back in time for the next group than the quality of the experience for their customers.
When it became painfully obvious early into the experience that they had dramatically mismatched an insecure rider on a spirited horse and a competitive rider on a horse that was happy bringing up the rear, instead of swapping mounts they let two riders have a less-than-optimal ride. Time concerns were cited as the reason the request was refused.
Both of our wrangler’s expressed their pleasure that my riding partner was training their soured horse because no one had ever put any effort toward that cause. Respectfully, training someone else’s horse was not what my riding partner paid money to do on her vacation. Pissed me off.
The senior wrangler told an inexperienced rider to hold on tight to the horn and pull back hard on the reins when her gelding bolted through every designated “okay to run here” section of trail before crashing into the group at the other end,
rider expressed her desire to get off the horse and walk it home, but was not allowed to do so. Looking at the fear on her face, I think it would be very difficult to talk this frightened woman into riding ever again. Unnecessary drama and trauma.
The wrangler also failed to stop and adjust another rider’s obviously unequal stirrups after the poor girl started complaining that she was in considerable pain with an hour left on the ride. It wasn’t okay.
Speaking of not okay, having to wait for everyone in our group of 12 who wanted to canter for a quarter mile in a designated “okay to run” stretch, one at a time, then wait at the end-point for those who didn’t want to canter to catch up at a walk was boring the first time and flat out annoying by the third.
The only thing Hawaiian about this trail ride was that it was physically located in Hawaii, and the view sheds were fabulous. As for the ride itself, not impressed by the quality of the experience. Not meaningfully differentiated from any other Mid-America trail ride experience. Not really interested in going there ever again, and would not recommend it.
A Big Island Hawaiian riding adventure I am looking forward to is one that was recommended to me by Ku’uipo as she pointed out the most spectacular waterfalls in Hawaii, the 2,000-foot double falls Hi'ilawe and Nanewe, which are easily seen from the Dahana Ranch.
Three bands totaling around sixty wild Hawaiian horses are in the remote area of Waipi'o or Valley of the Kings, an important 12 century kingdom. They are descendants of Spanish Barb horses brought there in 1803 by Chinese farmers to pack taro and rice up the steep gravel road to market. A furious 1946 tidal wave left the horses abandoned, and they have run feral since then.
Apparently, you can ride the tough surefooted Hawaiian horse to view the wild herds at Naalapa Stables at Kahua Ranch. The horses are all from local Waipi'o stock and their experienced guides are reportedly well-versed in Waipi'o's legends and lore. Sounds Promising.
BEST TRADITIONAL HAWAIIAN BBQ PLATE DINNERS
I took Ku’uipo’s advise on where to eat lunch, Ippy’s Hawaiian BBQ, where a half-portion plate of perfectly seasoned, ridiculously tender Kona pulled pork and white rice was so heavenly that at dinner I pushed away the over-cooked, overpriced, pistachio-crusted Ono at Huggo’s after just a couple bites so I could run home to reheat the Ippy’s leftovers.
I wasn’t surprised that the owner, Ippy Aoina, made his hometown proud on with his appearance on the Next Food Network Star.