By Jan TenBruggencate
Hawai‘i’s proud equestrian traditions started in 1803, more than two centuries ago.
The story goes that the first horses in the islands were purchased in California by Richard Cleveland on the ship Lelia Byrd in California, and intended to be a gift to Kamehameha I.
Cleveland dropped a mare and her foal on the Big Island for Kamehameha’s advisor, John Young.
“This was the first horse that ever trod the soil of Owyhee and caused among the natives, incessant exclamations of astonishment,” Cleveland wrote.
He then brought a stallion and mare to Maui for Kamehameha.
It appears the king was famous for not expressing surprise. When he first heard cannon fire aboard one of Capt. James Cook’s ships, Kamehameha remained standing and calm when other Hawaiians fell to the decks.
Confronted for the first time by horses, Kamehameha was equally stone-faced. The king was “large, athletic but absent — he did not reciprocate our civilities,” Cleveland wrote.
In his book, “Paniolo,” Joseph Brennan writes that “the animals were allowed to run wild and, in time, their progeny and other imports increased and multiplied in an awesome way.”
The animals quickly populated O‘ahu, where by 1925 you could rent one for a dollar a day.
Hawaiians became adept riders years before cowboys were brought in to support active ranching. Missionary Hiram Bingham writes of traveling in 1830 with Kamehameha II, Liholiho.
“The youthful king on horseback, pursued, ran down, and caught a yearling wild bullock, for amusement and for a luncheon for his attendants,” Bingham wrote.
Cattle had preceded horses by 10 years, having arrived on Capt. George Vancouver’s ship in 1793. And horses began being used to actively ranch the cattle in 1832, when Spanish vaqueros from California were brought to the Islands to teach the cowboy trade.
By mid-century, horses were common throughout the Islands. One estimate had nearly 12,000 horses across the Islands, more than half of them on O‘ahu. Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau were listed as having 1,300 horses.
A report in the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society complained that they were reproducing fast, and that many were not being trained or ridden. Herds of wild horses were running free on several islands. The last of these feral herds were not captured until the 1940s.
The Hawaiian breed of horse was a small animal, according to Raymond Kramer’s book, “Hawaiian Land Mammals.”
It’s not clear how many new kinds of horses came into the Islands in the early years, but Aubrey Robinson, of Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau, is reported to have imported the first Arabians in 1884.
Kaua‘i rancher William Hyde Rice brought in bigger working horses, including Belgians, Clydesdales and Percherons. Often these bigger animals were bred with the Hawaiian ponies.
Horses pulled carriages and they were ridden by people of every class. They were ridden for polo games and they were raced on tracks on several islands. Both horses and canoes were used to cross the island’s rivers, according to missionary Bingham
- Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.