Live in horse country and sooner or later you'll find yourself having a firsthand encounter with a lio and wondering what to do next. Upcountry is definitely horse country. Horses can be seen cropping grass and posing gracefully on the top of ridges just about everywhere you look.
Horse lovers are scattered across Haiku and points east. The concentration of horses increases across Kula and points south. They are tools for cowboys taking care of wily cattle in rough terrain.
Most any day, it's possible to see the president of the Maui Cattlemen's Association - William Jacintho - cutting leafy vines along the road. He's a cowboy of more than a few years, and he's gathering glycine, a kind of legume that grows even when pastures are turned bare for lack of rain. On a recent morning, Jacintho was at work filling his pickup truck with horse food along the edge of an irrigated cabbage field.
"William, you're the hardest-working seasoned citizen I know."
He grinned. "I love my animals. Got to take care of 'em."
Horses prompt intense affection. There's something about their aroma, shape, controllability and sometimes kolohe personalities that can be endearing. That's particularly true for those whose childhood involved a lot of riding. My huapala is one of them. Then there are those whose only knowledge of horses was gleaned from watching rodeos and Western movies. I'm one of them.
Until recently, my only close encounter occurred in Olinda. Home was a cottage inside a pasture fence. Opening and closing a gate while coming and going was a small price to pay for a serene environment. At one point, the pasture was occupied by a large gelding.
One day, I found the horse - no halter - standing in the carport. Eh, 'a'ole pilikia. I'll just shoo it out. Or, so I thought. The horse ignored me. I tried pushing it around so he'd be headed out. The horse ignored me. In a fit of frustration, I slapped its shoulder hard enough to hurt my hand. The horse ignored me.
I remembered one of those Western movies where a cowboy controlled a horse by grabbing one of its ears. Worth a try, I thought. I pulled on the ear, wary of being bitten or kicked. The horse slowly turned around. He moved a few feet, paused, looked over his shoulder and kicked a hole in the back wall of the carport.
Horses don't suffer fools gladly, a lesson I relearned last week.
It was Valentine's Day and my girlfriend, Mary, hadn't been on a horse in something like 20 years. That's a long time for someone who began riding when her legs were too short to reach the stirrups. She was excited about taking a trail ride at Thompson Ranch up off Polipoli Road. I admitted I'd never ridden. Toni and Jerry discussed who would ride which horse. Mary drew Akamai. A big roping horse named Wrangler would have to put up with me.
I was briefed on steering, starting and stopping. Mostly stay centered on the saddle and let the reins droop. "They know where to go." Wrangler started and stopped when the other horses did.
First, I had to get on, struggling to get my leg over the cantle. The comedic combination of ignorance and age-stiffened joints was repeated when I tried to dismount. Days later, I thought about getting on and off a motorcycle. Oh, that's it! I needed to lean forward instead of off to the side to get on and off a horse.
Part way up, we stopped at a water tank so the horses could drink. Akamai was more interested in the grass. Wrangler drank. Toni and Mary moved off. I put the reins on the left side and used my heels to urge Wrangler to swing right. He began playing in the water and refused to move. I gave up and let the reins hang loose. He went the way he wanted, left around the tank.
At one point, the two-hoof-wide trail skirted a steep drop-off. Wrangler swung his head out over the abyss. My heart stopped. No big deal, Wrangler was just swinging wide around a turn. The views were spectacular. Toni's running commentary was informative. It was a beautiful day. Mostly, I hung on to the pommel and watched Wrangler's head going up and down.
Halfway through the ride, Jerry showed up with an ATV he was using to carry feed to his cattle. I'd had enough. I went back in the ATV with Jerry and one of his dogs. Mary was having the time of her life and wasn't about to miss half the ride. It was an enjoyable two hours, although . . .
I really prefer an iron horse, a two-wheeled steed with no mind of its own.
* Ron Youngblood is a former staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.