Hawaii’s Parker Ranch has a rich history, and some of it can be found in its old, wooden round pen.
Story and photos by Kelli Neubert
January 12, 2017
In our line of work, we’ve spent plenty of time inside of round corrals. We’ve found ourselves in pens all over the place, with many different histories (though often, the view is pretty much the same!) The sizes and style varies slightly from place to place, but the concept of having a small, round corral to start colts in is pretty much the same wherever we go.
I must admit that one of my very favorite round pens I’ve set foot in is the one that belongs to Parker Ranch, right here on the big island of Hawaii.
The Parker Ranch round pen is actually a group of 4 small round corrals, clustered together under an aged, green wooden barn with a red metal roof. It’s dry, efficient and each pen is linked to the other via gates. These round corrals have seen decades of cowboys and paniolos working with young horses that belong to the ranch. The barn is flanked by the town of Waimea on one side and a view of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano on the other. Under the roof, the pens are lit by single bulbs and sunbeams that weave their way through the sides of the barn. The dirt is deep, dark, soft and fine. If you look closely over the weathered, aged wooden boards that hold the pens together, you’ll see knife carvings of both old and new names, initials and dates of many of the different people who have worked there.
The oldest carved date that we could find is from 1921, but the ranch itself has been around much longer than that. The legacy started in 1809, when John Palmer Parker landed in Hawaii as a visitor. He left, but eventually returned with a musket and was given the job of harvesting the wild cattle on the island that had been gifted to the king by British settlers. Parker was key in establishing a thriving salt-beef export market and soon became wealthy. He married the king’s granddaughter, accumulated grazing land and leases from the king and the Parker Ranch was officially on its way.
Over the years, the cattle multiplied in numbers and the need for skilled cattlemen and horsemen arose. Mexican, Indian and Spanish vaqueros came from California and were titled the “Espanols” (which evolved into the word “paniolo,” the name still used today for the Hawaiian cowboy). The paniolos had many jobs, from breaking the half-wild horses to caring for the cattle and driving and even making their own gear. The ranch’s terrain was incredibly diverse and required animals to be tough, intelligent and sure-footed. The damp, humid climate also posed issues with traditional leather tack, so their saddles used very little leather and were made mostly of wood and rawhide.
The Parker Ranch remains an integral part of the Big Island’s legacy. The cattle program has transformed over the centuries from small, wild horned cattle to a ranch that raises mostly black cattle. The amount of property that is under the Parker Ranch name has fluctuated over time and now consists of about 130,000 acres. The equine breeding program has evolved as well, and now focuses on raising modern-day cowhorses with stamina, good looks, sensibility and strength.
Tradition is very important to the Hawaiian paniolos, and they celebrate their history and legacy every day with their methods and gear. To this day, many of the Hawaiian cowboys still use a traditional Hawaiian saddle (a pared-down version of the original vaquero saddles) with an exposed tree and rawhide rigging that is suited to the damp, salty Hawaiian climate. They combine modern day conveniences (pickups and 4-wheelers) with long-established methods (working horseback and using dogs) in order to perform their duties as ranch hands and cowboys.
In just a couple of weeks, our time here for the year will be over and the cowboys will take their freshly-tuned ranch colts and incorporate them into their daily tasks as Parker Ranch paniolos. I hope to spend more time in these neat, historic round corrals that have seen the evolution of both the ranch and the horses that it raises. To me, the Parker Ranch is a beautiful place that celebrates a deep-rooted pride in its history, families and traditions, and I feel lucky to have the chance to add my own initials to that weathered, green round corral wall.