HOME ON THE RANGE
THREE MAUI PANIOLO AND THE HORSES THEY RIDE
In Upcountry Maui, there is a contemporary paniolo community with traits influenced by Hawai‘i’s cowboy history. Appropriately, it also has its fair share of horses. Managing editor Anna Harmon wrangles up three paniolo and the working companions they ride.
The paniolo of the Valley Isle can roam exactly 727.2 square miles. That is if you include Maui’s off-limits neighborhood developments and glittering resorts, the busy highways, and the island’s last sugar plantation still cranking out molasses and smoke. Theirs is a culture that doesn’t fall in step with the busy streets of Lāhainā or the pet-pampering populations of Kīhei. It was nurtured on the slopes of Haleakalā, where wild cattle took to grazing at the turn of the 19th century, and vaquero-trained paniolo became adept at wrangling the bovines three decades later. Around the time the paniolo were learning this trade, the volcanic crater’s land was stripped of its remaining sandalwood trees, and Western businessmen and plantation owners leaped at the chance to set up cattle ranches, both remote and expansive, on the naked land. Local homesteaders soon joined in, claiming small plots for their own agricultural endeavors.
Concentrated in Upcountry Maui, there is a contemporary paniolo community with traits that can be traced back to this Hawai‘i history, and other characteristics that mirror those found in cowboy culture on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. In Kula, annual rodeos seem more like family gatherings than prize competitions. At these events, country music blares from speakers, and concession stands sell plate lunches and shave ice. Competitors wear belt buckles that shine in the sun and trade trucker hats for Stetsons when the time comes to race around barrels or team-rope a steer.
On the handful of ranches on Maui, such as Ulupalakua Ranch and Haleakala Ranch, a small number of lucky paniolo get to live and breathe the working country lifestyle. Their horses are not only rodeo partners and pets, they are working companions. When it’s time to move cattle, or to round them up for weaning or branding, the abilities of these horses can mean failure or success, injury or safety.
Meeting up with a paniolo ain’t easy. Locations change, horses escape, phones are lost. Look for the green gate on the left a mile and a half down the road. Look for the man out back clearing weeds and piling them onto the back of an ATV, his new puppy tumbling alongside him. Look for the cowboy hat, for the quiet place, for the dusty arena. And of course, look for the horses they ride to wrangle cattle, lead tours, and race time.
Caysie Madeiros is seated on the tailgate of a pickup truck parked in the family pasture, where buffalo grass grows tall. The family’s spotted white cattle dog Milo sits next to her, and her iphone rests in her lap. The 15-year-old doesn’t wear a cowboy hat—her long, brown hair hangs loose down her back, and her bootcut jeans are tucked into worn, elaborately tooled cowboy boots. Nearby, her dad and a couple of family friends are shoeing her horse, which is named Bucky because he is a buckskin. But she calls him Bullet, because he is so fast.
In July 2014, at the age of 13, Caysie became the youngest to win the All-around Cowgirl title at the 4th of July Makawao Rodeo—maui’s largest—competing against experienced women wranglers four times her age. She did so by earning the most points in the women’s events, which included steer undecorating (chasing a steer across the arena to pull a flag off its hindquarters); pole bending (weaving through a line of six poles as quickly as possible); barrel racing (sprinting your horse in a particular pattern around three barrels that are set up in an equilateral triangle); and breakaway roping (chasing a steer until you rope it around its neck). It was no coincidence that Bullet was the horse she rode. “That was all because of him too,” Caysie says. “At rodeos, he’s super competitive. I can’t even get him to walk because he just wants to go.”
Bullet is a competitive but solitary gelding who took months for Caysie to sync up with after she got him in August 2013. He doesn’t care to nuzzle visitors, and is eager to wander off to a lonely corner of the pasture. But the other two horses owned by the Madeiros family make up for Bullet’s reclusiveness. “[Johnny is] the personality horse, come over here and bother everybody,” says her dad, Chucky Madeiros, about their black gelding, who Caysie rides for team roping events since Bullet can’t help but run too fast. “He’s going to latch on to you in a few hours . ... Sweet Pea is the same thing.” This sorrel mare is the default horse for Caysie’s 9-year-old brother, CJ, who has recently graduated from mutton busting (an event in which children attempt to ride and race sheep) to roping. All three horses came from Ralph Fukushima, the owner of Ralph’s Tack and Transportation on O‘ahu, who helps support the Madeiros children by providing steeds and tackle. He goes way back with Chucky, a longtime rodeo cowboy whose land came from grandparents who homesteaded in Kula—their residence sits on land from his grandfather Joseph Madeiros, and the pasture where they keep the horses is from his grandmother, Rose Rodriguez. It is Chucky who opened the door to roping and rodeo for Caysie. She team ropes with him, and calls him her best friend.
“[Caysie] was on the horse before she could even walk, just sitting on the saddle with one of us,” says her mother, Janice Palad, who picked up barrel racing when she was married Chucky. At events, the couple’s daughter would be passed from saddle to saddle. Palad remembers Caysie’s first competition riding solo when she was around 2 years old, in an event with parents leading their children around barrels. “Pretty soon, she would not want anybody to lead her,” Palad says. “She’s just like, I don’t care if I don’t have a fast time, I just want to go by myself.”
Nowadays, while attending King Kekaulike High School, Caysie hangs with a likeminded crew. “Sometimes one of my friends brings the roping dummy and we rope at school,” she says. Twice a week, she practices with them and other community members at Piiholo Ranch Arena. Afterwards, she likes to ride with a friend through the forest to take the cattle back to the family’s pasture. But her dad makes sure that rodeo doesn’t distract from school. “We just got her report card, and she’s got a 4.0 GPA,” he says. “We’re really proud of her.” Upon graduating, Caysie hopes to study marine biology on the mainland while competing in junior college rodeo. She hopes Bullet can come along, too.
In 2015, as a freshman, Caysie was one of 21 Hawai‘i high school students who competed at the National High School Finals Rodeo. For the qualifying state high school rodeo competition on Big Island, she had to send Bullet ahead on a freight ship one week in advance, with an overnight stop on O‘ahu—an expense covered by a family friend at Young Brothers. At
nationals in Gillette, Wyoming, where she competed in breakaway roping, she used the horse of a cowboy family from Utah, since transporting Bullet would have been too expensive, and too stressful on him. For paniolo, the cost of roaming and rodeoing outside of home islands brings a high toll.
Back on Maui, Caysie and Bullet have begun competing in double mugging at high school rodeos, which, her dad explains, is usually a men’s event, and involves a team of two riders roping a steer, wrestling it to the ground, and tying three of its legs together. “It just looked fun,” Caysie explains. “Plus, like how my dad said, it’s like a guys’ event, and I’m a girl. I wanted to prove that I could do it, too.”
Garrett Montalvo goes by the name Potagee Paniolo, which he uses in his voicemail and as a signature on every text message he sends. He got this nickname when he was a teenager. “All my friends Upcountry call me Pocho, Potagee,” says Montalvo, who is Portuguese and Filipino. At Baldwin, he was the lone student in a cowboy hat and boots, hence the nickname paniolo. “I just put the two together and that’s what everybody started calling me,” he says.
If you can’t reach the 31-year-old on the phone, you will hear, “I am either on the job, driving, or being with the animals.” To make a living, Montalvo builds and fixes fences, raises animals, leads trail rides for Triple L Ranch, and pitches in on cattle roundups. If he could choose, he would be a full-time ranch hand.
“I’m the last of my family to be a cowboy,” he explains at a coffee shop in Honolulu, where he is visiting from his home in Makawao in order to obtain legal services for divorce—woman troubles, a trope of many a country song. Amid students studying for finals and baristas steaming milk, Montalvo isn’t quite at home, insisting he doesn’t need a drink. He wears a black cowboy hat and new Wranglers. His belt buckle is from his 2004 bareback bronc-riding win at the 4th of July Makawao Rodeo. “My great grandpa was a paniolo at Haleakala Ranch,” says Montalvo, who picked up the skills from his dad, a man he says he didn’t get along with outside of wrangling cattle. For most of his childhood, Montalvo lived with his grandparents, who weren’t involved in rodeo or ranching (his grandfather was a Maui chief of police), but for Montalvo, “It was just what I was born to do.”
Today, the paniolo has five horses, the youngest of which he has set aside for his 6-year-old nephew. He likes to get them green-broke, which means that the horses come with basic knowledge of how to be ridden, so he only has to “give them a job and show them how to do it,” such as rounding up cattle or tourists. There is Blackie, who Montalvo has had since he was 5. (The average life span of a horse is 25 to 33 years.) “Blackie is my most faithful horse,” he says. Unlike a difficult horse that may be hard to catch or that may refuse to enter a trailer, Blackie comes right up to Montalvo when the paniolo arrives at his pasture, taking a halter and walking into the trailer without a fuss. Then there is Pepe, who he got in high school. “She’s got her good days and her bad days. Some days she feels like she’s ready to work, other days she’ll pull a quick one on you and act like she’s hurt.” Next is Paliku, a sorrel gelding that he got from his uncle who just
Some horses take care of you; others, with their speed and competitive nature, can be trusted to get you to the winner’s circle.
passed away. The final two are a 7-year-old buckskin and a 5-year-old chestnut colt he has yet to name.
Of them, Montalvo insists he doesn’t have favorites. He rode Pepe all the way from Kula to Baldwin High School when he was a student, has ridden Blackie on wild cattle roundups, has taken the buckskin to lead tours from Bully’s Burgers on the slopes of Kanaio in Kula to Kanaio Beach in Wailea and back. On long excursions, he needs all his trained horses to rotate through, to ensure that one doesn’t get overworked.
Montalvo recalls his scariest horseback experience, which took place with his dad in Mā‘alaea, where towering windmills now stand. “A bunch of wild cattle chased us through the fog, you couldn’t see five feet in front of you,” he says. “They were charging for us. We ran, made a big circle, a loop around them, and the dogs chased them.” In the end, the father and son escaped unscathed. Typically, the tactic is to rope these wild animals, tie them to a tree, and then leave them there for a couple days to wear themselves out, making it easier and safer for the paniolo when he returns to bring them down the mountain for slaughter. Nowadays, to combat the erosion caused by the cattle, the animals are mostly being shot from helicopters, considered a safer, more financially effective approach. Montalvo thinks differently. “I’m trying to get it so we can go in and extract them before they go shoot them again,” he says.
This paniolo’s preferred way of life is often at odds with contemporary Maui. Helicopters are used to kill the wild cattle that Montalvo would rather wrangle up. He has been reported to the Maui Humane Society for a handful of things, like not feeding his horses while keeping them in pastures with over-knee-high grass (though sustenance of this type is plenty sufficient), or not providing the horses with enough shade, which he rectified by moving his fence to allow for more coverage. Trails he once rode are now closed to him, since horseback riding can be considered another form of erosion. Developments continue to expand, while ranches contract. But he is still excited that his young nephew has taken an interest in what he does, even though sometimes all he feels that he gets out of Maui’s Upcountry community is a lot of headache. Living on an island, “You become sort of a topic after a while,” he says.
But it’s a community Montalvo knows he needs. The rodeo events he competes in, besides bull riding, involve techniques that lend themselves to ranch work, such as rounding up calves for branding. From roping to hogtying cattle, the skills demonstrated in competitions are also those necessary in managing the grass-fed or -finished cattle on Maui’s ranches— which Montalvo is eager to help with when he gets the chance. One cowboy can’t do it alone. “Upcountry,” he says, “we all kukui each other on the ranch, so we all go on a cattle drive.” Emerson Makekau likes to get up early— very early, at 3:30 a.m. At this dark hour, even before birds have begun chirping, the soft-spoken paniolo turns on the news, drinks his coffee, and fills out any work reports he may have as a ranch hand at Ulupalakua Ranch. “My favorite moment is going to work, being around the livestock,” he says.
As Makekau explains this, he sits at a picnic table behind Ulupalakua Ranch Store as his 2-month-old Kelpie puppy, Jake, chews on his finger. The 51-year-old’s home is just within view. He wears a brown cowboy hat with a braided horsehair band, and a belt buckle memento from when he was honored at Molokai Ranch’s centennial celebration. In his spare time, he likes to pitch in around the remote community.
Every day, Makekau moves the ranch’s grass-finished cattle to graze in a new area. Other days, he and the five other ranch hands will bring the herd down for branding or weaning, work on irrigation (for this task he uses an ATV, not a horse), whatever needs to be done. His work horses, Princess, Lily, Beau, Badger, and Mahina, which he may rotate throughout the day depending on how demanding the task is, are kept at the ranch.
Most of them are quarter horses, though a couple are part-thoroughbred. “Thoroughbreds, you’ve got the speed, the quarter horse, you’ve got the brains,” he explains. Makekau breeds and trains his own horses, and has earned a reputation for his skills and patience with the animals. “People like to call it ‘break them in,’ but we put them through training,” he says. “It’s day by day, you know? You cannot start from kindergarten and expect to graduate the day after. Some horses is fast learners, and some takes a little while.” In the ones he chooses to keep, he looks for good composition, attitude, speed, and heart.
Makekau got a taste of this lifestyle at an early age, on Moloka‘i, where he was born and raised. His uncle, a paniolo at Molokai Ranch, took him under his wing. “I loved horses, animals,” he says. “It kept me out of trouble.” He began working
summers, helping with the branding at Molokai Ranch, and competing in rodeos. “Growing up, when I was a young boy with my uncle … it was like the rough tough cowboy deal,” he recalls. “I guess I enjoyed it, and loved the horses so much that I wouldn’t go to bed. The next morning, you know, I’m always wide awake.” He would ride horses until 11 o‘clock at night, offroading through ranch pastures and up in the mountains.
Makekau followed in his uncle’s footsteps, working at Molokai Ranch for 15 years. Watch old promotional ranch videos, and even a documentary about Hawaiian paniolo, and you will spot Makekau riding a handsome bay stallion. This is the quarter horse that he has favored the most in his career. “He had the power in him, but he was really, really tame and mellow,” Makekau says. “A lot of stallions, you go into an arena and they’ll make big noise and problems.” Makekau was 28 when he got him as a 6-month-old colt, and while it was one of his main work horses, he would also walk his young son around on him. “My wife and I raised him until he died. He was 26,” Makekau remembers.
Eleven years ago, Makekau moved to Maui, bringing with him his wife and five children, because he “got into family life,” as he puts it. He worked as assistant manager and ranch hand at Kaupo Ranch for several years before joining Ulupalakua Ranch. “This ranch, it’s unbelievable,” he says. “Everybody bonds together here. We call it the Hawaiian style—if one’s down, you pick them up, you know. We cheer them on and move forward. If they have a problem we’ll talk story, try to solve it, and move forward.”
Some of the most exciting moments Makekau remembers involve wrangling wild cattle. “A lot of them is being shot. … The theory is, ‘Why you guys wanna go rope a wild bull with a horse that cost you $2,000, $2,500, $5,000, and the bull is only worth ten cents?” But that misses the point, he says. “The risk, the liability, the dangerous part—the high in the paniolo cowboy is to show off your skill, what you have and what your horse have.”
The first horse ever to step hoof in Hawai‘i arrived on Maui on June 23, 1803 in much the same way that wild cattle were introduced to the islands in 1793: It came from California aboard a Western explorer’s ship and was intended as a gift to win King Kamehameha’s favor. (He apparently showed little interest.) The horses that were introduced served no immediate purpose on the islands, since ranching and cowboys were yet to be. Instead, these wild mustangs roamed free.
As Haleakalā’s slopes became home to wild herds and expansive ranches, more horses were imported, this time to serve as the trusty steeds of paniolo wrangling in feral cattle for the beef trade and managing domesticated herds on ranches. The techniques remain surprisingly similar today, as do the tools: the lasso, the saddle, the boots and hat—and the trusty steed.
Like Caysie says, some horses take care of you; others, with their speed and competitive nature, can be trusted to get you to the winner’s circle. For Montalvo, a horse deserves your respect because he carries you far and wide. And for Makekau, a stallion with spirit and speed, with the right attitude, will hold a place in your heart for as long as you live. Your grandchildren will ride them, will fall in love with roaming the remaining open spaces on the islands. A good horse, he says, “It becomes a part of you.”
Caysie Madeiros rides her bucksin horse, Bucky, who she calls Bullet, at her family’s pasture in Kula. In their first 4th of July Makawao Rodeo together, in 2014, Caysie became the youngest in the contest’s history to win the All-around Cowgirl title.
Garrett Montalvo uses all of his trained horses, including this 7-year-old buckskin that he has yet to name, for everything ranging from horseback tours to wild cattle roundups. “A horse, you
gotta give a little more respect because he has to carry you all over the place,” he says.
Emerson Makekau breeds and trains his own horses, looking for composition, stamina, speed, and heart. When it comes to training a colt, “From day one, just keep treating them like your kids,” he says.
Makekau is one of six ranch hands at Ulupalakua Ranch, where he keeps his work horses Princess, Lily, Beau, Badger, and Mahina.
Caysie and her 9-year-old brother, CJ, are happy to follow in the footsteps of their father, Chucky, a longtime
rodeo paniolo. Pictured with them are their three horses, Bucky aka Bullet, Sweet Pea, and Johnny.