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DISCOVERING THE DREAMY SIDE OF MAUI
Maui’s Upcountry is cowboy country. On the slopes of the dormant volcano Haleakala, ranches abound. Compared to the rest of the island, the air is a little cooler and what the locals call “Maui Mist” makes for frequent rainbows. This is the authentic home to modern day ranchers and horsemen, as well as an influx of artists and locally owned restaurants. It is also the location of ranches like Piiholo, that welcome visitors to explore on horseback.
After driving through the cool little Western town of Makawao, I arrived at Piiholo Ranch, a longtime working ranch on the edge of a rainforest and 2,000 feet above the beautiful blue Pacific Ocean. Six generations of the Baldwin family have been ranching on Maui for over 100 years. Today, their historic Piiholo Ranch allow guests to experience this distinctive area of the island, and its way of life.
Visiting cowgirls can saddle up with one of the Baldwins, or one of their experienced guides to tour the ranch. I was greeted by Tamalyn Baldwin, head wrangler, who would serve as my guide for the day ride. A true cowgirl, Tamalyn sported a bright red button down, big straw cowboy hat and a warm smile. She was ready to not only ride, but be filmed for my TV show Equitrekking. Along with us, two other ranch cowgirls would come along for the ride.
ost visitors to Piiholo will ride Quarter Horses, a versatile American breed, and I was paired up with a Quarter Horse named Stick. Though young, Stick was amazingly patient and well trained. Tamalyn said that he would probably be the best horse that I rode on Maui, and he was.What’s nice about the horseback tours at Piiholo is that more experienced riders don’t have to suffer through a nose-to-tail experience. Groups are kept small, and one can choose a more advanced ride according to your ability, or even opt for a private riding adventure.
The Upcountry on Maui is truly cowboy country, with Piiholo Ranch resting on the slopes of Mount Haleakala, the largest dormant volcano in the world. There are a diverse number of plants and birds that make their home here. Out from the stables, we passed through a towering eucalyptus forest and the deep chasm called Maliko Gulch.
The air smelled of ginger and jasmine flowers, and all around was abundant vegetation. The colorful, lush scenery looked like a secret tropical garden. Not the typical Maui experience, Piiholo’s distinct flora and fauna, mixed with undulating grasslands and Pangola pastures, grant travelers a different view of island life—and of Western riding—far away from the beaches and even further from mainland American ranches.
My cowboy hat shielded my face from the misty rain, as I enjoyed an exhilarating canter across a pasture. Ascending over a ridge, we slowed down to take in a view that nearly took my breath away. Corriente cattle were nestled amid the tall grass on rolling hills, which cascaded to the azure Pacific Ocean. We stopped to give our horses a break and soak in the scenery.I was already jealous of Tamalyn’s life on the ranch, but now I was actually jealous of the cows, who may be spoiled with the best views of any ranch I’ve visited.
One of my favorite parts of riding in new places is chatting with the locals, who give great insight into their area and what life is really like in various travel hotspots. As we rested, I asked Tamalyn how life for horse people on Maui is different than on mainland ranches. She pointed to her saddle.Paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) learned their way of working cattle from Mexican vaqueros, but they adapted traditional vaquero saddles to fit the work and climate of Maui, calling the saddle noho lio. These Paniolo saddles kept the strong horn for dallying and capturing wild cattle—which were in abundance on the islands—but made the horn even wider, so they could secure larger bulls.
Paniolos used more rawhide than cured leather, and added the awe awe—therawhide rigging. The rawhide held up longer in the tropical conditions and made the saddle lighter.
The island saddles were traditionally made so that they could be deconstructed–stripped down to the tree! This helped the cowboys, as they often had to swim cattle out to boats to transport the animals off the island, and they needed to ensure their leather didn’t get ruined in the salt water.
Ranching on an island where you’d have to ship cattle offshore, I could understand why these tack changes made such a difference for the Paniolos, and how interesting it is that this traditional style of saddle is still used and celebrated today. I was also reminded of the unique skills that cowboys and horses of the past gained from working on Maui.
Like most people, when I thought about traveling to Maui, I conjured up visions of warm waves and palm trees. What I ended up seeing were not only the amazing tropical landscapes, that have delighted people for centuries, but also true island cowgirls, whose lucky daily rides include captivating ocean views.
If you’re traveling to ride at Piiholo Ranch, you may wish to pack rain gear, as the weather can change quickly in the Upcountry. You may ride along in soft rain one minute, and then the next you’ll be drying under bright tropical sun and blue skies. Variable weather only adds to the incredible textures of the landscape, enhancing the ever-changing drama of light, mist, shadows and–usually brilliant–blue skies.