Issue 10.4: August / September 2007

Wahine Paniolo

story by Catharine Lo
photos by Ann Cecil

 

The gate opens, and out charges a steer with a pink ribbon stuck to its ‘okole. Alongside the steer gallops the “hazer,” whose job is to drive the steer toward the center of the arena. Astride another horse, a little girl with a blond ponytail tears across the dirt in pursuit. In six seconds (about the time it might take to read this sentence), she catches up with it, reaches down, and yanks the ribbon off its behind. The rider is 10-year-old Lorrie Ann Smith, one of the most promising up-and-comers in women’s rodeo.

What Lorrie Ann is doing is called, aptly, “steer undecorating,” a popular rodeo event for cowgirls that pits the rider against the clock. Racing the clock intensifies the action at Hawai‘i Women’s Rodeo Association-sanctioned rodeos, where many young paniolo first take the reins. But don’t imagine that youth equals inexperience: Teenagers can jump off their horses and tie a goat’s legs in seven seconds. Seven-year-olds can dash across the arena, slalom through six poles, and hustle back to the gate in twenty-five seconds.

The Hawai‘i Women’s Rodeo Association was established in 1992 to preserve the heritage of the Hawaiian paniolo and provide wahine paniolo with a forum for competition. Despite its name, however, the organization is comprised of both women and men—vice president John Teixeira was the first male elected to the board—and the group is really more a family affair than a women’s-only club.

HWRA sponsors six jackpot rodeos on O‘ahu each year, leading up to the annual All-Girls Rodeo; the next one is scheduled for Sept. 8 at Kualoa Ranch on O‘ahu. These rodeos feature the female-friendly events of barrel racing and pole bending, along with various exhibitions like team sorting (in which a pair of riders pull numbered cows out of a herd in numeric sequence) and steer undecorating—which Lorrie Ann has just ably demonstrated.

Lorrie Ann is the oldest of the five children who comprise the Smith cattle-tending family’s fifth generation. Their grandfather, paniolo hall of famer Max Bigler Smith, founded Gunstock Ranch on O‘ahu’s North Shore thirty-five years ago. Their father Greg, who was born and raised on the 300-acre working ranch, now manages the sixty-horse, 300-head cattle operation. Greg and his family are regulars at HWRA rodeos, including today’s event at Diamond J. Ranch in Wai‘anae.

“Rodeo is the fun part of having horses. You get to compete and show off your skills. Otherwise, it would all be work,” says Greg as he watches Lorrie Ann get ready for another run. The events at a rodeo aren’t just artificial games, he points out. They all demonstrate the skills paniolo need to perform their everyday work on a ranch. “Except bull riding—that’s just a bunch of guys getting drunk! Women are usually smarter than that.”


 

When rodeo started in the early 20th-century wild west, women competed against the men in rough stock events like bull riding and bareback bronc-riding. But when bronc-riding champion Bonnie McCarroll was killed after being thrown in 1929, professional rodeo organizations closed the door to women’s participation. Cowgirls then formed the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association to get women back into the arena, and the new (and safer) sport of barrel racing quickly became the most popular women’s event.

Barrel racing is a centerpiece at Hawai‘i rodeos. Kicking off the day at Diamond J. Ranch, HWRA president Lu Faborito interrupts the tinny strains of Tim McGraw blaring over the loudspeakers to announce the keiki competitors. The riders’ goal is to complete a clover-leaf pattern around three fifty-gallon drums. There’s a five-second penalty for toppling a barrel, and the fastest time wins.

Now, spectators might wonder about little kids on charging, half-ton horses, but these keiki paniolo are as comfortable astride their horses as the North Shore’s surf groms are dropping into big waves. Greg’s kids, for example, got accustomed to horses as toddlers. “Little kids that grow up around horses know what to do and what not to do,” he says. “So much is communication between the rider and the horse. The kids learn to communicate with the horses.”

Winning the keiki division is 11-year-old Sydney Porter and her horse, Summer. She must speak fluent horse, because together they round the barrels in 19.437 seconds. Her younger sister Monica, seven, placed second, about half-a-second behind. As the next division gets underway, Sydney, who started riding at three, introduces me to Summer.

“She has a Roxy heart on her forehead,” Sydney points out. (It just so happens that Sydney’s wearing a blue T-shirt with the heart-shaped Roxy logo). She walks Summer over to her sister’s horse, Country, and helps her adjust the harness. They stroke their horses’ manes tenderly, and suddenly it strikes me that the reason there are so many stories about little girls who love their ponies is because they really do.


 

Looking over to the arena, Sydney watches 15-year-old Shelby Rita kick up some dust as her horse turns the third barrel. Shelby, a hot contestant in local high school rodeos, won the mixed barrels event with her father at a 2006 national competition in Illinois. She was also crowned the all-around champion cowgirl at last year’s Hawai‘i All-Girls rodeo.

“Go Shelby!” Sydney yells. Shelby’s horse gallops toward the gate so fast, Shelby’s pink cap flies off.

After a trip to the water trough with her horse, Shelby joins 27-year-old Brandy Joseph, who calls Diamond J. Ranch home, in the shade of a giant tree. They tell me about high school rodeo—Brandy was state champion in 1996 and 1997, which earned her a free ride to college in Dodge City, cowboy capital of the Old West. Brandy started to rodeo when she was four years old. At ten, she was roping calves. In 2006, she clocked the fastest time in all-girls roping at the Oklahoma City Nationals. Brandy and Shelby agree that most high school kids don’t think horsemanship’s all that cool, but these two girls can’t live without it.

“We don’t know anything else. Well, maybe except shopping,” Brandy giggles. Smiling behind large Versace sunglasses, she exudes her own kind of contemporary Western cool. Her glittery earrings match the glittery logo on her brown baby-doll Tee tucked into worn blue jeans. Passing riders compliment the striking studded belt she bought on eBay. From her woven straw hat down to her weathered leather boots, she’s a deb of a cowgirl who could lasso any paniolo’s heart.

The paniolo she did catch, incidentally, is champion roper Stanley “Stony” Joseph III, the son of all-around cowboy champion Stanley Joseph Jr. Brandy’s and Stony’s son, 5-year-old Stony-boy—who jumped straight out of the high chair and into the saddle—represents the youngest generation of Joseph ranchers.

Daughter Brittany, 18, also perpetuates the family legacy. Brittany severed her thumb a year ago when it got caught in her rope. For calf ropers, it’s an inherent risk—her father and grandfather both lost thumbs, too. Exemplifying the true grit of paniolo wahine, Brittany shrugged off the accident and was roping again six months later. The girls tell her to show me her thumb.

“I probably would have cried for a day,” Sydney says.

Over the loudspeaker, Lu announces Sydney’s mom, Debbie. Sydney turns to the arena and hollers, “Go mom!”

 


 

Not all the wahine competing are youngsters. At 61, Bettie Cox is the oldest member of the HWRA. After joining three years ago, she claims she feels 15 again.

“You really get to whoop it up,” Bettie says with a grin. “The kids are not inhibited. I come here and absorb their energy. I don’t think you can have any more fun than going to the rodeo.”

Hawai‘i rodeo participants, she points out, enjoy a camaraderie that isn’t readily seen on the Mainland. “Our horses see each other all the time. Like us, they’ve become such friends. We all stand around under the tree and talk story, stuck together like we’re pecans in a pie,” she says, nodding at her fellow riders. “On the Mainland, you would never see this. They would be afraid their expensive show horses might get hurt.”

The day culminates with the action-packed event of team roping. As a steer springs out of the chute, onlookers call out, “Hey, hey, hey!”—sort of like “Batter, batter, batter!” at a baseball game. Two riders chase, twirling ropes overhead. Brandy lassos the horns first, and daughter Brittany, syncing her arm swing to the calf’s stride, ropes the hind legs. Success— and in under ten seconds.

As the sun starts its descent, the rodeo draws to a close. Riders and horses empty the arena. With a satisfied sigh, Brandy affirms that a paniolo’s life is the only one she could ever lead. “I don’t know what I would do with myself without the horses. My life revolves around them,” she says, her eyes sparkling in the afternoon light. “We have horses in the backyard, and I rope every day. If I don’t do it, I feel like I’m missing something.” HH