Beyond Out West. Hawaiian Cowboys Ranching in Paradise

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by Julie Yaste

Driving through Gunstock Ranch on Oahu’s North Shore requires four-wheel drive and steady hand.  It’s clear that traversing the hilly terrain is actually easier on horseback, something the ranch is known for, than in modern car.

As we drive through the ranch, owner Greg Smith stops the pickup, slowly backs up a short slope and peers across me into the brush. He’s looking straight at a massive cow with long horns. A look of mild disconcertion crosses his face.

“This cow had a little calf with her the other day,” he says. “Now I don’t see it.”

The ranch has around 130 cows, and Smith knows every one of them. I can tell that, after he drops me off at my car, he’ll probably come back to investigate, or at least keep an eye out for the calf over the coming days.

Smith is a fourth-generation rancher, born in Kailua, on Oahu’s windward side. His late father, Max Smith, was a veterinarian in Arizona who saw a job opening in Hawaii and thought it might be fun to move to the Islands for a year. Instead, he stayed for the rest of his life, eventually becoming the Hawaii state veterinarian for 30 years. He opened Gunstock Ranch in 1973, and it’s been family run ever since.

Max Smith left a line of Western ranchers on the Mainland, but he joined an island chain with a rich history of ranching that largely predates that of the Wild West.

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Cows and horses graze in designated pastures throughout the ranch.

It started in 1793, when Capt. George Vancouver gifted King Kamehameha the Great with a few cattle on the Island of Hawaii, or the Big Island, as it’s known locally. At that point, Hawaii had no large land mammals. The following year, Vancouver returned with more cattle, enough to grow a herd.

Kamehameha the Great made killing these cows kapu, or forbidden, and the herd prospered, but at a price. They soon became a nuisance and, in 1830, Kamehameha III lifted the kapu, allowing people to hunt the cattle.

Within a few years, Kamehameha III sent a group of high chiefs to California to hire vaqueros, or Mexican horse and cattle handlers. These vaqueros helped teach people on Hawaii Island how to break horses and herd cattle.

Soon a Hawaiian breed of cowboys emerged: the paniolo.

It’s unclear exactly where the name paniolo came from, but most attribute it to a corruption or mistranslation of the word Española. Some argue that it comes from Hawaiian words meaning, “sit up straight,” (noho I pololei) for the way cowboys sit upright while riding. Either way, a quick survey of rodeos in the Islands shows that, whatever the origin, paniolo pride is strong in Hawaii.

Max Smith fit in with that tradition after his arrival on Oahu. He may have started as a cowboy, but, in 1999, he was inducted into the Paniolo Hall of Fame.

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Visitors enjoy a guided trail ride through the property; little girl makes new friends in the petting zoo; spectacular view from one of the vantages seen on most trail rides; friendly goat waits for treats at the petting zoo; female steer watches over several young calves; couple takes a ride through the ranch.

Today, Greg Smith, Max’s son, runs the ranch. Although Greg was born and raised in Hawaii, and comes from a long line of ranchers, he is somewhat reluctant to say too much about paniolo culture.

“There’s a lot more rich tradition on the Big Island,” Greg says.

That’s true. Most of the great paniolo ranches today are on the Big Island. That is where cattle were first introduced to Hawaii and it has the most acreage for ranch-land. Many restaurants around Waikiki that offer Hawaii-grown beef have selections from Hawaii Island.

But there are still some ranches on Oahu, aside from Gunstock Ranch, that herd cattle and offer tours, such as the famous Kualoa Ranch (not pictured), where multiple movies and TV shows have been filmed over the years.

Gunstock Ranch is smaller than Kualoa, both in size and operation. It’s a leased property and the land it sits on was once part of the massive infrastructure of sugar plantations that stretched across Hawaii. When sugar started to decline, it opened up tracts of land around the Islands for other things, such as ranching, though that pursuit has its drawbacks in paradise.

“Ranching is hard, because there’s not a lot of money in it,” says Greg. In fact, Greg works a regular 40-hour-a-week job at Fish and Wildlife on top of running Gunstock Ranch.

The low profit margin for ranching on Oahu is largely due to the staggering value of property. It’s hard to make money with any agricultural venture in the state, even though Hawaii’s climate and rich soil are known to produce quality fruits and vegetables, such as the famous Hawaiian pineapple or Kona coffee.

One of the things Gunstock Ranch does to turn a profit, and for the sheer pleasure of it, is offer horseback riding. The rides at Gunstock are unique on Oahu, because the typical tour group is small, with only about 12 people. There are also specialty rides, such as a guided picnic ride, after which the group can relax at the top of a cliff and enjoy both a stunning view and a good meal.

The ranch itself owns about 50 horses in addition to its 130 cattle. The ranch also boards about 50 horses, so that locals without the land or means to keep horses at home can still have their own equine friends.

Greg is glad to provide this and other services to Oahu. “That’s kind of how we feel we help preserve the paniolo lifestyle,” he says, “by letting people own horses.”