By Léo Azambuja
It’s Friday afternoon in Kilauea. In a marked circle by the edge of the largest mahogany farm in the country and near a pond half-covered with water lilies, Marti Kitch is longeing a handsome dark-brown lio, or horse, named Troubador.
Their focus is solely on each other. Kitch may be holding a longe line, but her true connection with the 16.1-hand Friesian-and-Dutch Warmblood horse is in the air, literally. Each time she changes her breathing, Troubador changes his gait. He goes from walking to trotting to cantering and back to walking.
They’re sharing hā, the breath of life.
“They respond to your breath, they respond to your intention,” Kitch said. “If you have a really strong intention, the horses will respond to that. They’ll go where you look.”
Inspired by Hawaiian values and by what she learned in her younger years at the highest level of equestrian competition, Kitch developed the Equine Enrichment and Empowerment Education, a free children’s program in Kilauea, Kaua‘i’s North Shore.
“I combine classical horsemanship and blend it with Hawaiian principles and the art of hula,” she said.
The discipline taught by Kitch and the bond the children have developed with those large animals allow them to perform hula while riding, to ride them in different ways and to even stand up on the animals’ backs.
There is a set of Hawaiian principles emphasizing practical living and harmony that horses really embody and can teach to humans, according to Kitch. Aloha for example, is often translated as love, hello or goodbye. But it also means something else. ‘Alo means to share, and hā means breath.
“Aloha is to share a breath and to be present in the moment, horses can teach you that,” said Kitch, who developed a method she calls “Sharing Breath Horsemanship.”
Her program guides the children to connect on a deeper level by manifesting aloha with the horses and also with themselves. One of the children, she said, was too shy and wouldn’t speak when she first came to the program. After a few sessions, it all changed and she started to speak.
“It’s something horses do, they open up this different world for people,” said Kitch, adding people start to examine things without being told; they’re doing it for the horse because they’re not being judged. “They’re changing because the horses are showing them there’s a better way to be.”
The children love the horses. And each child has a favorite animal, whether it’s Mozart, a Haflinger pony, Matisse, a blue-eyed Molokai horse, Duchess, a 17-hand carriage horse, D’Artagnan, a massive 18-hand white Percheron (the tallest horse on Kaua‘i) or any of the many horses from Kitch’s program.
“Horses empower people’s lives and enrich people’s lives,” she said.
The first horses to arrive in Hawai‘i were brought by Richard J. Cleveland in 1803 to be gifted to King Kamehameha I. Despite an apparent indifference from the king (Kamehameha was known to rarely show emotion), horses would eventually become an important part of Hawaiian royalty. Many kings and queens would fancy horses and carriages, and became fine riders. Later, horse races and polo matches became part of Hawaiian entertainment.
But there was also the other side of the story. In 1854, a Report Committee on Horses by the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society calls attention to the “lamentable increase of the miserable creatures to be seen everyday in the streets of Honolulu and in all the horse breeding districts on the islands.” The report states horses were fast becoming “a curse and a nuisance” to the country and to horse owners, “especially the lower classes of natives.” About half the horses in Hawai‘i at that time served no purpose but multiplication; they lived and died without any advantage to anyone, according to the report.
However, as the number and size of sugar plantations and cattle ranches kept increasing throughout the islands, horses played key roles in the economy and in the local life and culture.
“The horses changed the culture,” said Kitch, adding they were favored by royalty, were incorporated into hula and contributed to the sustainable aspect of each plantation community. Also, it was the paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboys, who in collaboration with Portuguese and Spanish cowboys developed the ukulele and the ki ho‘alu, or slack-key guitar.
A 1929 survey by the University of Hawai‘i identified several Kaua‘i sugar plantations also raising cattle and horses, including Kilauea Ranch, a part of the Kilauea Sugar Plantation Company.
“Horses are raised for plantation use. The ranch now has a large Percheron stallion for producing heavy draft animals and a part Arabian stallion is used for the saddle animals,” the UH survey reported regarding Kilauea Ranch.
Kilauea Ranch used about 1,000 acres plus “a considerable area of fallow cane lands” to raise roughly 800 Hereford and 200 Holstein cattle that supplied beef, milk, cream and butter to plantation workers. The beef surplus was sold on island, and about 200 cattle head were marketed annually, according to the survey.
Kitch said she believes looking back at how each Kaua‘i community used horses in their daily lives decades ago is key to achieve sustainability today.
“To me, being sustainable is going back,” said Kitch, adding sustainability is not just about innovation, it’s also about learning from the past, when people used horses to get around. One of her plans is to bring children back in time by organizing weekend camps where the children experience life in Hawai‘i a long time ago, when people respected the land and used animals to work.
Besides the Equine Enrichment and Empowerment Education, Kitch also runs a woman’s empowerment program, an internship program for older children, teaches equestrian arts, including hunter/jumper/dressage, and has a horse and carriage business for weddings and tours.
Contact Kitch at 639-7433 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.carriagegrovekauai.com for more information.