Almost a century before the art of roping and riding reached the American West, Mexican vaqueros recruited by Hawaiian royalty imported cowboy culture to the Pacific. Adapting to Hawai‘i’s lava landscape, these paniolo—the Hawaiian term for cowboys—created their own distinctive tackle. In addition to stirrup guards known as tapaderos and a deeper, more comfortable riding seat, early eighteenth-century paniolo pioneered the Hawaiian-style saddle.
Kaua‘i craftsman Stanley Valoroso is one of the last living Hawaiian-style saddle makers. He taught himself how to craft saddles by hand in 1975 as a 20-something rider, harvesting Island hardwoods in the mountains to construct a saddle tree and then dressing it with leather. But there aren’t many paniolo left in Hawai‘i who ride them. So a few years ago Valoroso decided to downsize—literally. He fashions miniature saddles and saddle benches, most the size of a water glass or even smaller. He isn’t the only one out there making tiny novelty saddles; Google it and you’ll find a nationwide cottage industry. But as far as Valoroso knows, he’s the only one making them in the Hawaiian style. At a time when Hawai‘i’s rich ranching tradition is in decline, Valoroso hopes his craft will generate a resurgence of interest in the paniolo culture of roundups and rodeos.
The smallest saddle tree Valoroso has made is only a half-inch long. His hands, big and callused, are amazingly adroit at carving, braiding horsetail and stretching rawhide on a small scale. Although some fans of his work have never mounted a horse, Valoroso says people appreciate the history behind his craft and the skill it takes to hand-stamp images of maile lei with mokihana berries onto a Lilliputian scrap of leather. He often gives his creations to friends or donates them to auctions that raise money for a good cause. And he’s eager to teach his method of saddle making to anyone willing to learn. “Nowadays everything is made to break,” Valoroso says. “But why grumble? Go make it yourself. That’s the lesson I want the next generation to take.”