By Meriwether Hardie
My horse pants beneath me like a dog as I pull on the reins and lean back to ask him to slow down. He shakes his head in annoyance, wanting to continue onward but I know we’ve lost the cow we were chasing into a thick patch of guava and thorny Senna Pendula (known locally here on Maui as “Scrambled Egg” due to its messy yellow flowers) and we both need a break.
Kapena, a third-generation rancher at Hana Ranch, is somewhere in the field below. I yell his name, but hear nothing in response. I swing my leg over my horse’s back and jump to the ground. He lets out a big sigh, and we walk towards the shade of a large Banyan tree to catch our breath. I squat down on the ground and stare out at the lush green vegetation around me.
The first time I rode with the cowboys at Hana Ranch, I gained a new respect for ranching in a tropical environment where trees and shrubs (many of which are invasive species) seem to grow faster than grass.
The second time I worked cattle with the cowboys, we spent three hours cashing a cull cow out of the mountains and into a small paddock. The moment we shut the gate, the cow ran up to the 5-foot fence, stopped to sniff it, and then gracefully jumped the fence from a standstill and galloped back up into the mountains.
Ranching in this climate takes endurance, determination, skill, and a strong knowledge of both the working landscape and working animals. Each time I ride out with the Hana Ranch team I’m amazed by the relationship between human and horse, and how our horses eagerly carry us up into pastures that are not reachable by motor or even by foot.
Building Bridges Across Cultures and Landscapes
I grew up on a farm in Vermont with my best friend Simmy. Simmy’s mother was a Shetland pony and his father was a Norwegian Fjord horse. Simmy, as a result, was a mix of the two and had short stumpy legs, a long body, a shaggy mane, and a big head. He was mischievous. Simmy would often knock me off his back by walking under a tree branch and then gallop home to the barn, leaving me to walk home on my own. At a young age, he taught me valuable life skills – like how to pick myself off the ground after falling down, how to communicate, and how to build trust with others.
As I’ve grown older, horses have continued to play a large role in my life. Whether it has been through my work with coffee farmers in Guatemala, cattle ranchers in Brazil, or tea farmers in India, horses travel where vehicles cannot.
In 2009 I was awarded an environmental journalism fellowship from Bill McKibben through Middlebury College. During my fellowship I traveled to Argentina to report on the swiftly changing landscape of Patagonia, specifically the consequences of the competition between traditional agricultural practices and modern land conservation techniques.
For the first part of the journey, I traveled by bus, car, a dedo (using my thumb for hitchhiking), and boat. Although I covered ground quickly, my interactions with people lacked something substantial. I knew that as a stranger I could not expect to be fully accepted into these rural and close-knit communities, but still my experience felt shallow and brief. My route also felt constrictive as it depended on rare roads to lead me through the wilds of Patagonia. After talking at length with a gaucho, I decided to buy a horse. At the time I thought that traveling by horseback would be a more efficient form of transportation. Only later did I realize that my horse would become an invaluable and essential part of my reporting.
I bought my horse for $200 and my wooden-framed saddle, sheepskin saddle pad, and homemade cowhide bridle for an additional $100. I name him Colorado, the Spanish word for bay, the dark brown color of his coat. Colorado was a Criollo, a breed of horse native to Argentina, known for its strength, agility, and hardiness. At somewhere around 14.5 hands, he was small but nimble on his feet, and alert to the sounds and scenes around him.
As I moved forward with my reporting, instead of traveling on straight and unyielding paved roads, Colorado and I moved across the landscape as a mind would wander – gently, slowly, stopping to examine a rock, weaving around obstacles, and backtracking our footsteps while looking for the best river crossing. I soon realized that people trusted me because of Colorado, that his presence comforted and reassured people who did not know me. People recognized that I spoke the language of the horse and this became a bridge between cultures, a way to communicate.
Doors opened that before had been closed. When I passed through a town, people would walk up to me and begin a conversation by asking about Colorado. Where did I get him? Did he need water? Did I need water? Eventually many of these conversations turned into an invitation for a meal. And a meal turned into strangers asking about my story. In return, they shared stories with me about their history and the hardships of everyday life in a rural community.
During that year together, Colorado was my transportation, my bridge into another culture, and my companion. On his back I felt every rock and stumble, the energy put into the uphills and the downhills, and the liberating freedom of a canter over through an open plain.
According to Hawaiian legend, the god Maui discovered the region of Hana, and he was so enchanted with its beauty that he named his beloved daughter Noenoe Ua Kea O Hana, meaning “the misty, light rain of Hana.” It is believed that early Polynesians first arrived in Hawaiʻi sometime between 500-800 AD and established a thriving agrarian society based on the ahupuaʻa system of land management. Under this system, private property did not exist and instead, aliʻi (chiefs) managed wedge-shaped watersheds, each containing enough resources to support its community. This system continued until the 18th century when European and American immigrants arrived in Hawaiʻi and began to introduce their own systems of land ownership. In 1849 land in Hana was cleared for sugar cane, and in 1926 the Hana Highway was completed, creating a direct connection between Hana and Kahului. Prior to 1926, Hana was only accessible by sea.
The first Longhorn cattle arrived in Hawai‘i in 1793 as a present for King Kamehameha. In 1803, King Kamehameha was gifted a set of horses. Over the next 200 years, that gift evolved into a rich tradition of Hawaiian ranching lifestyle.
In 1944, Paul Fagan acquired 14,000 acres of land in Hana and brought cattle from Molokaʻi to start Hana Ranch. Today, Hana Ranch is a working cattle ranch and diversified organic farm. Although some of our pastures are located on green rolling hillsides, other pastures run up the mountains cut with sharp lava rock, and other pastures slide into lush, coastal rainforests. Many of these landscapes are impassable by motorized vehicle and impractical to walk on foot. Here, the horse is a necessary tool and a trusted companion.
Something large crashes in the bushes. My horse’s ears prick forward towards the noise. The Breadfruit tree below us shakes and several ʻulu thud to the ground. I assume that the noise is another couple of cows heading uphill. I am about to stand up when Kapena bursts through the trees on his horse. He looks at me sitting on the ground and his face breaks into a grin, “What happened, you give up?” I sheepishly smile back at him. “Nope, just catching my breath,” I respond. He laughs, turns his horse’s head uphill and looks back to see if I’m coming. I jump up, pat my horse’s neck, and swing my leg up and over his back. With that, we trot forward into the brush.