The Matriarch of Mahealani

Whether punching cows or pā‘ū riding, Barbara Nobriga keeps Hawai‘i’s paniolo traditions alive
Story by Alan McNarie. Photos by Megan Spelman.

Anyone who ever owned a horse as a kid will recognize that smell: a mix of dust, manure, leather and the musky tang of dried horse sweat. Tack room aroma. And a lot of the room’s contents are familiar, too, no matter where the tack room is: saddles and bridles, ropes and reins.

But some of the saddles in this room look very different from the average Western saddle: Instead of tanned and dressed leather, for instance, the seat of one is worn, ivory-colored rawhide. And there’s a lot less leather overall, a lot less weight. It’s whittled down to the bare essentials of saddle anatomy: Everything you need to rope a calf and ride all day and not one ounce more.

It’s a Hawaiian tree saddle, the traditional saddle of the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy). This one belongs to Barbara Nobriga, but she wasn’t the first to ride in it. “It’s got to be more than a hundred years old now,” she says. “Once you mold yourself into one, you don’t want to change.”

Talk to a rancher anywhere on Hawai‘i Island, and they’ll likely know Nobriga. She has her own page on the Paniolo Hall of Fame web site. She’s celebrated not just as a paniolo but for her deep knowledge of paniolo culture and her efforts to keep it going. She’s been around long enough to celebrate her sixtieth wedding anniversary with her husband, Edwin, a retired cop who’s also from an old ranching family. She still rides the range on her Mahealani Ranch in South Kona. She still shoes her own horses, fixes fences, ropes and brands calves—though she has plenty of qualified help these days.

Her roots run four generations deep in this land. The ranch has been in her family’s hands since the days of King Lot, Kamehameha IV. She learned ranching from her grandmother, Noenoe Wall, and from her mother, Kapua Heuer, who’s also in the Paniolo Hall of Fame. One of her ancestors was a grandnephew of Isaac Davis, the Welsh boatswain who became one of Kamehameha I’s most trusted advisers; others were Hawaiians from the Lahaina area. “My great-grandmother had ten children. They were all raised here, and they all participated in various phases of the ranching,” she reminisces. “There’s three in my generation that still ranch.”

And she’s taught the next two generations that culture—not just the “old way” skills of making rawhide, tanning leather, making and braiding tack, the skills of riding and roping and how to take care of horses and cows; she’s also passing on the Hawaiian language and its culture of caring for the land. The Hall of Fame page cites her efforts at land stewardship. Her restoration of native forest parcels on the ranch got her a reward as Rancher of the Year by the Kona Soil and Water Conservation Commission in 1999.

“Now I can watch because the kids have learned how,” she says. “I can point the finger and tell them what has to be done.”

Ranching isn’t lucrative, Nobriga admits; her family’s kept it going for so many generations through “bonehead stubbornness and tenacity.” But she adds, “When it’s in your blood, you don’t let it go. My kids aren’t going to let it go. I know if our kids are secure, the next two generations at least.” Her children, she says, “all have jobs outside,” but all work on the ranch nonetheless. Every morning as early as 5:30 some of her grandchildren and their friends arrive to care for their horses and to practice riding and roping; after school they’re back for more.

Nobriga is seen here teaching her students to groom the horses that she will teach them to ride. “You have to work them, you have to push them,” she says of the younger generation, “because they’re timid. But once they get their confidence, oh boy — a couple of years later, they’re as good as anybody.”

“I’ve seen kids come here who’ve never been out of a trot before,” she muses. “You have to work them, you have to push them because they’re timid. But once they get their confidence, oh boy—a couple of years later, they’re as good as anybody.”

Nobriga notes proudly that seven of her grandchildren have gone on to the high school national rodeo finals. “They compete in the big people’s rodeos as well, and they hold their own.” One grandson recently won best all-around cowboy honors in rodeos at Pana‘ewa in February, Hōnaunau in March, Moloka‘i in April and Honoka‘a in May. “And his sister and his cousin aren’t very far behind him.”

That’s important, because with the possible exception of bull riding, rodeo skills are ranch skills. Barrel racing, for instance, is excellent practice for the sharp turns the rider and horse have to make when cutting a calf out of a herd—only out on the range, orderly barrels are replaced by a chaos of trees and boulders and lava outcrops. A paniolo must be an athlete even when there’s no audience; he or she has to love this hard, gritty, dangerous work and take pride in it. Perhaps Nobriga’s progeny are so good not just because they’ve got the genes and a good instructor, but because this land teaches them, too. The stony, steep, drought-prone south slope of Mauna Loa is tough land: tough on people, tough on horses.

“We’ve had several people come from the Mainland,” Nobriga reminisces. “They saddled up and started to ride out, and said, ‘You don’t really ride in this country, do you?’” They were just appalled because that’s lava up there.” When one of them got back he told her, “Back home, if this was my horse, he’d be lame already.”

Mahealani Ranch isn’t as large as it once was. Originally, Nobriga says, “it ran from the ocean all the way up to about five thousand-foot elevation.” That huge tract has been whittled down by land development and inheritance, but it still comprises several hundred acres and, she says, “plenty of cattle—enough to keep up.”

Most of the ranch’s working horses are of Mainland stock, sturdy quarter horse types, and they’ve adapted to this harsh land pretty well—but for hardiness they’re still no match for the traditional Hawaiian horse. Nobriga still has a couple of those, too, which trace their lineage back to a herd in Waipi‘o valley. They’re smaller but tough as nails—literally. Nobriga explains that they don’t wear shoes, because their hooves are so hard that nails can’t be driven into them.

The cow and the horse both arrived in Hawai‘i shortly after the first Western ship. In 1793, at Kealakekua bay—just down the mountain from the Nobrigas’ ranch—Captain George Vancouver unloaded some cattle that he’d brought from California. Kamehameha I put a kapu on the herd, forbidding anyone to kill them, and had a massive seven-foot-high, five-foot-thick wall constructed for a huge paddock to confine them. The remains of that wall still serve as a boundary for Mahealani Ranch today. But the cattle soon got through that wall. So in 1832 Kamehameha III brought in Spanish vaqueros (“paniolo” comes from “Español,” or Spanish) to teach Hawaiians how to manage the herds: to rope and brand, to make saddles and rawhide lassos, to salt down beef for the ships. But not how to ride: “By the time the horse got here, the Hawaiians were riding the cows. By the time the vaqueros got here, the Hawaiians were riding the horse,” says Nobriga.

Most paniolo skills, she notes, are the same as those practiced on Mainland ranches: “There’s only one way to castrate a bull or to earmark them or to tackle them down.” But there’s one Mainland cowboy custom that didn’t reach Hawai‘i: “Paniolos don’t carry six-guns. A rifle, maybe, in a scabbard. There’s no history of violence like the Mainland’s. The Hawaiians were a loving group of people.”

Above left, Nobriga opens the gate to take food to her sheep and goats on Mahealani. Above right, she traverses her ranch on horseback. “When it’s in your blood,” she says of ranching, “you don’t let it go.”

If you want to see how much Auntie Barbara and the paniolo lifestyle mean to the Hawai‘i Island community, show up in Kailua-Kona on Kamehameha Day. At 5:30 in the morning, dozens of horse trailers begin arriving on Kalua Road, near the downtown parade route. All up and down the street, volunteers begin organizing a full-fledged paniolo spectacle. The parade queen will ride in an antique horse-drawn carriage, accompanied by a retinue of pā‘ū riders: women dressed in flowing, billowing outer costumes, each made from a single, continuous strip of yards of fabric, wound toga-like around the body and held in place by bunching the fabric occasionally and tucking it in a rider’s belt. Pā‘ū originally protected women’s good clothes when they rode to church, but soon the pā‘ū themselves became the Sunday finery. The custom began to decline in the late days of the Hawaiian monarchy, and when autos appeared, some feared the tradition might die out entirely. In 1906 a woman named Lizzie Pauahi organized a pā‘ū riders club to participate in a floral auto parade in Waikīkī. The custom of elegant pā‘ū riders gracing parades caught on, and clubs were organized throughout the Islands.

Today the pā‘ū are pure rainbow pageantry; the men in their lei-wrapped cow-boy hats are plain by comparison. The pā‘ū riders’ horses sport their own finery, enormous lei that take dozens of hours of work to create: gathering flowers and foliage, tying the flowers around lasso ropes, bundling the ropes of flowers together.

In addition to the queen’s riders, there are pā‘ū troops representing the Daughters of Hawai‘i, as well as each of the major Hawaiian Islands and various other groups. Each troop has its own matching horse lei; those of the various contingents contain flowers representing their islands, and the Ni‘ihau lei also contain Ni‘ihau shells. Some of the horses have elaborately braided tails, too, and bystanders should beware of those: It’s a paniolo custom to braid the tails of horses that are prone to kick.

For years, Nobriga’s been responsible for organizing the whole parade, and when it’s on she seems to be everywhere along the route. In 2017 she loaned twenty-eight horses to various groups of riders—but then one horse went lame, leaving her without a mount for herself. At one point she trotted up the line on a borrowed pony; a few moments later she was on foot, helping a less experienced rider put on her pā‘ū. Later, as the parade started to move, that same rider’s horse managed to lose its lei. Nobriga slipped in among the moving horses to rescue the lei and return it.

Once the parade was under way, she walked along for its whole three-hour length, quietly moving among the floats and riders, greeting old friends and making sure things were running smoothly. But whenever she walked past the loudspeaker stands where parade emcees were describing the floats and riders, they always announced her as if she herself was a parade entry. One called her “the queen of all things.” Another simply called out, “Aloha, Auntie Barbara. Thank you!” HH