Pāʻū Holo Lio: Horse Riding Tradition and Innovation


The first horses were brought to Hawaiʻi in 1803 by an American trader as a gift for King Kamehameha I – who initially placed a kapu (restriction) on the animals.

A few decades later, the kapu was lifted when horses became necessary for hunting wild cattle that had also been introduced in previous years. By the 1840s, horse-riding was a popular means of transportation, entertainment and recreation. Men and women of all social classes became skilled equestrians.

Although the art of horsemanship in Hawaiʻi was influenced by European tradition and paniolo (cowboy) culture, local style and fashion were adjusted to our islands. Unlike their European contemporaries who rode side-saddle, Hawaiian women preferred riding astride (with a leg on either side) which made it easier to traverse the Hawaiʻi landscape. Yards of draped material fashioned into a pāʻū (skirt) were worn to protect their fancy Victorian-style dresses from getting soiled. The pāʻū was easily secured using kukui nuts twisted into the fabric and then tucked into the waistline.

In the 20th century, motorized vehicles replaced horses but pāʻū riding continued to be carried forward as a modern Hawaiian tradition. Today the art of pāʻū requires a high level of skilled horsemanship and also a strong connection to Hawaiian culture.

Pāʻu riding pulls from other cultural artforms such as oli (chants), mele (songs), lei-making and incorporating even gestures and movements of hula. It is a spiritual experience for the riders and the many ʻohana who are involved in the preparations preceeding the hōʻike (showcase) of this artform. Pāʻū embodies the huina, the nexus or intersection, of modern innovation and tradition and serves not only to embrace this era of our history but also to carry aloha beyond Hawaiʻi, as it has been featured in other parades and equestrian events outside of Hawaiʻi and has had the attention of travel writers from around the world. Pāʻū has been memorialized in mele such as He Wahine Holo Lio, written in honor of Queen Emma, wife of King Kamemameha IV, which speaks of her renowned horsemanship and well-trained horse, Kīnaʻu.

Today the art of pāʻū is featured as a signature aspect of floral parades in Hawaiʻi. It is important to understand that parades are currently the only venues where this unique artform is practiced and perpetuated. Therefore, as kānaka we also have a kuleana to continue its perpetuation, uplift our culture and provide education.

The Prince Kūhiō Parade is one of the legacy parades recognized by the State of Hawaiʻi. This annual gathering, brought to you by the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs and supported by the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (CNHA), brings community groups from across Hawaiʻi together to celebrate the life and legacy of Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole.

Mahalo nui to the pāʻū riders who will participate in the upcoming Prince Kūhīo Parade on March 25 in Kapolei, home to the largest concentration of Hawaiian homesteads and headquarters of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.