By Matt Villano, on May 22, 2013

Horseback riding on Maui

Most visitors explore the Hawaiian Island of Maui by car or bike. After a recent visit, however, I prefer to explore it a different way: on horseback. Yes, believe it or not, there are horses on this island in the middle of the Pacific. And it turns out that cowboy culture here – Hawaiians call them paniolos – has flourished since the 1800s, when wranglers were brought in to control an out-of-control wild cattle population.


Today, there are a number of small horse ranches located all over the island, but the largest and most tourist-oriented of the bunch is Piiholo Ranch in Makawao. Here, a twice-daily two-hour guided trail ride meanders over a stream, down a valley, through a meadow, and up a (now-forested) volcanic butte with mind-bending views of the azure Pacific and the slopes of the Haleakala volcano. The day I went, my group of 10 was lucky enough to go out with Tamalyn Baldwin, head wrangler and wife of Chris Baldwin, one of owner Peter Baldwin’s sons.

Wranglers ready the horses at Piiholo Ranch


In addition to being an accomplished roper, Tamalyn has trained herself to be a knowledgeable naturalist, as well. Along the way, she expertly identified flora (stands of strawberry guava trees), fauna (the endangered nene bird, a herd of axis deer), and geologic features (she’s the one who told me the hill we climbed was a butte). She also regaled us with tales of life on an 8,000-acre ranch; though Tamalyn and Chris don’t live at the barn, they live nearby, and have called the place home for nearly 20 years.


Our ride began at the main barn, outside of which wranglers poured us coffee, introduced us to the horses and dished brief instructions about how to stop, go, and turn. From there, the horses walked in a single-file line for most of the ride – flanked by Wings, the resident Borzoi. On one occasion, Baldwin allowed me to get my horse, Chief, into a canter. I’m no pro, so this experience was tropical-air-in-your-face exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Naturally, it’s also my most vivid memory of the entire excursion.


I’d be remiss in discussing horseback riding on Maui without focusing at least briefly on Makawao itself. This town – the de facto capital of the “Upcountry” region – is the island’s equivalent of the Old West, sporting a wide main street, age-old shops with porches, and even a few hitching posts (no, seriously).


It’s also home to what arguably has become Hawaii’s biggest rodeo. Held annually on July 4, this rodeo has been going strong for more than 50 years. Weekend events include a parade and traditional events, like calf roping, bareback bronco riding, and barrel racing. The Makawao Rodeo also incorporates a show of pa’u, an elaborate ceremonial display of women dressed in garlands who demonstrate horsemanship maneuvers – to traditional Hawaiian music, of course.

Viewfinder Tip: Allow 75 minutes to get to Makawao if you’re staying in Kaanapali or Lahaina.

Personally, my favorite activity in Makawao is to swing by the circa-1916 T. Komoda Store & Bakery and pick up a dozen homemade malasadas, sugary balls of fried dough. No, there’s nothing quintessentially paniolo about this Portuguese-inspired goodies. However, after a few hours bouncing across the slopes of Haleakala on horseback, there’s nothing like celebrating by satisfying a Sweet Tooth.

What are some of the activities you like to try when exploring a new place?