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The Horsemen of Waimea

In the hills far above the sparkling beaches on the big island, a community of hawallan cowboys has real-life horse whisperer, wonders how long it can last.


Last night, the temperature reportedly dipped into the 30s at Nakoa’s horse ranch, which skirts the snowcapped Mauna Kea range. Today, in the ankle- deep, half-frozen mud, with the rich country smell of grass-laden horse manure thick in the air, I can scarcely believe I’m standing on Hawaiian soil at all. Having grown up nearby, in the sunny, sea-level metropolis of Honolulu, Oahu, I know for a fact Hawaii is a tropical place, with toucans and mop- haired surfer dudes. So why do I feel this morning as though I’m standing in the Black Hills of South Dakota?

Nakoa’s horse, a tall chestnut mare, shifts on her feet, and two jets of steam shoot out her nostrils. Harry lights the cigarette.

Welcome to Hawaii.

To an outsider, Nakoa’s people, the paniolo, are an anachronism, displaced in time as well as geography, blending the culture of Polynesia with a cattle- wrasslin’ tradition out of the pages of Larry McMurtry. They are a band of roughriders and outsiders around 200 strong, who speak in a Western drawl sprinkled with Hawaiian words and who favor oversized belt buckles, pearl-button shirts (sometimes with aloha prints) and 10-gallon hats that look like they might hold 20 on a hot day. They are expert horsemen in an age when ranching has mostly moved beyond such niceties, and they were riding these hills long before the first tourists arrived.

As a third-generation paniolo, Nakoa is the caretaker of the Dahana Ranch, which sits on 2,500 acres just outside the city limits of Waimea, a cozy burg in the highlands of the Big Island. Nakoa isn’t a tall man by any means — probably no more than five-foot-nine — but his influence over his fellow horsemen is enormous. In his black, wide-brimmed hat, orange shirt layered underneath a black Vortex vest and a very warm-looking red flannel coat, along with a pair of mud-flecked jeans, he looks every bit the cowboy. His words, which can be coarse, are carefully chosen and spoken in a slow cadence that embodies the “dusk- till-dawn” nature of life on the ranch.

At 5:30 in the morning, Nakoa finishes a breakfast of eggs and cowboy coffee as black as the night sky and walks out to the stables to saddle up his mare.

The sun is still well below the horizon, maybe somewhere over California. A winter frost carpets the ground. Most days, Nakoa and four other ranch hands will ride the perimeter of the property in search of breaks in the winding miles of split-rail fencing. Today they’re looking to drive half a dozen American quarter horses and nearly a dozen head of Brahman cattle to the south side of the island to graze on fresh grass. The weather, as bitter as it’s ever been in Hawaii, may end up delaying the run. Instead, Nakoa and his paniolo will have a light day. “Light” is a relative term, though, as I soon find out, accompanying Nakoa and his boys as they go about reposting a broken fence, fixing the engine of one of the pickup trucks and making a final, grueling ride around the mountaintop in search of errant or injured cattle.

“I was born right here in Waimea,” Nakoa says over his steaming cup of coffee. When he was 17, he took off to the Midwest and California to earn his spurs roping steer. Eventually, he returned to the Big Island to take the reins of the family ranch from his ailing father. As he’s gotten older, Nakoa has become renowned more for his skill as a therapeutic horseman than as a cowboy — a serious distinction among his cohorts, who believe he has a spiritual connection with horses. He even runs clinics in California, Louisiana and Texas throughout the year, in which he teaches a philosophy based on training horses rather than breaking them. The paniolo call him the “Hawaiian Horse Whisperer.” Adapting an indigenous Hawaiian practice known as Ha‘ola — a mystical understanding of space and energy — Nakoa’s technique for communicating with horses has worked wonders rearing young colts and “curing” troubled ones.

“Once a horse and I understand each other, I don’t have to say much,” he says, his voice quiet, his eyes hidden under the brim of the big black hat. “I’ll project my commands with a look, a slight gesture and often just an attitude, and they know what to do.”

That afternoon, Nakoa is standing in a large rundown shed full of mud-stained boots, raincoats, horse tackle and other implements of modern farming. On the wall, a framed local newspaper article recounts Nakoa’s exploits as an expert horseman and trainer. He crosses the shed to a broken ATV — what he calls a “Japanese quarter horse” — adjusts his Levi’s, plops down on the seat, and motions toward an old saddle nearby, with leather worn clear through to the wooden frame.

“That belonged to my grandfather,” Nakoa says, proudly. “It’s more than a hundred years old.”

The frigid rain is falling harder now, and a near-deafening drum roll plays on the tin roof. It makes conversation almost impossible. Behind us, ranch hands are cleaning out stables, organizing the tack room and shoveling horse dung while two cattle dogs roam the grounds.

The story of the paniolo begins way back in 1809 with an act of desperation. A 19-year-old sailor and marksman from Massachusetts named John Parker was on a ship leaving Hawaii westbound for China. As it passed within sight of the Big Island, Parker decided he’d rather stay in the paradise he’d visited just briefly than spend the next few months in steerage, so he jumped overboard and swam for land.

The Hawaiians greeted him with open arms. Soon enough, word of the waterlogged sailor’s marksmanship spread to Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I, who then asked Parker cull the maverick cattle herd roaming the hillsides of Waimea. In the following years, Parker became close to the king and would eventually marry into the royal family.

Over the next decades, his ranch would become one of the largest cattle operations in the United States, at one point in the 1920s boasting more than 500,000 acres and the biggest Hereford herd on the planet. To tend them, Parker imported vaqueros — highly skilled Mexican cowboys — who imparted their legendary roughriding techniques to Hawaiian ranch hands.

“When the Parkers brought in the vaqueros, man, they brought in some tough people,” Nakoa says. “But there’s one thing I don’t understand about the vaqueros in Hawaii. Were they just Mexican cowboys — like, just really tough hard workers — or were they Mexican horsemen? I think the vaqueros who came to Hawaii were horsemen first and cowboys second. You can see their old techniques carry through to the paniolo.”

Some anthropologists believe that the word “paniolo” comes from a Hawaiian mispronunciation of the word español, since it’s long been thought that Hawaiians had difficulty pronouncing the letter “s.” Nakoa disagrees.

“Remember when I asked you before, which came first, Christianity or the cowboy?” he asks, with a smile. “Well, Christianity did. And you know what the Hawaiian word for Jesus was? It was ‘Iesu.’ I-E-S-U! So you can’t tell me that they couldn’t pronounce the letter ‘s.’”

According to Nakoa, the Hawaiian word for sitting properly is niolo, and if you put a pa in front of niolo, you form a word meaning, roughly, “Every time I see you, you’re sitting.”

Nakoa offers a quick laugh. “Sounds like a cowboy to me.”

As long as there are ranches and herds in Hawaii, there will be a need for cowboys on the islands. But Nakoa sees little of the paniolo tradition in the modern cowboys now working in these hills. To his mind, he’s part of a dying breed.

“I’m not sure if there will be any true paniolo in the next 20 years,” he laments. “It would be great if there were a place where we could teach the old ways and revive some of the old style.”

Dusk falls at the Dahana Ranch, and a young woman, not much more than a teenager, is shoveling manure in the stables like a seasoned pro. She introduces herself as Ku‘ipo Nakoa, Harry’s daughter, and she seems to share her father’s hardiness, if not his pessimistic vision of the future.

“A lot of the old ways of the paniolo aren’t practiced as much anymore,” she says. “But they aren’t gone forever. I’m learning a lot, and so are my friends. Being a paniolo is something that I’ve always wanted to do. With my generation, you’re going to see a resurgence of the old ways. It won’t die with us.”

And with that, she turns back to her work. Dinner won’t be for a while yet.

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