Riding high


POSTED: Sunday, September 13, 2009

A saddle is as important to a paniolo's (cowboy's) work as a hammer is to a carpenter. Because he spends many hours on horseback, it has to be sturdy and comfortable for both him and his mount. In local ranching circles, noho lio, or rawhide-covered Hawaiian saddles, are admired as works of art crafted by men who can handle a band saw as skillfully as they do a lariat.

Alvin Kawamoto learned how to make and repair saddles from his late dad, Yoshio, who was a paniolo at Parker Ranch on the Big Island for 45 years. Although Kawamoto chose a different career path - he was an elementary school teacher for 31 years - he maintained saddle making as a hobby and side business.

In 2004 Kawamoto displayed noho lio from Maui, Kauai and the Big Island at Kamehameha Day festivities in Kohala. It generated so much interest, he organized a similar exhibit for the Waimea Fest celebration a few months later.





        » Place: Kahilu Theatre, 67-1186 Lindsey Road, Waimea, Big Island

» Dates: Friday and Saturday


» Admission: Free


» Phone: 936-6220


» On the Net:






        6:30 p.m.: “;Los Primeros,”; by California documentary filmmakers Paul Singer and Susan Jensen, makes its Hawaii debut. Filmed in Spain, Mexico and the American Southwest, it traces the history of the vaquero and the Moorish and Spanish horse culture.

        Noon to 3 p.m.: Talk story with and view the exhibits of saddle makers and rawhide braiders from throughout Hawaii.
        6 p.m.: ”;Celebrating the Art of Hawaiian Saddle Making,”; a 20-minute film on the history, techniques and artisans of Hawaiian saddle making, will be shown. Waimea Middle Public Conversion Charter School teachers produced it with a grant from Kamehameha Schools. The program also will honor five master saddle makers and share music, chants, stories and hula celebrating Waimea and its cowboy heritage.




Encouraged by the positive response he also received there, Kawamoto approached Dr. Billy Bergin, president of the Paniolo Preservation Society, about coordinating an event that would recognize the artisans who are perpetuating the art of saddle making in Hawaii. “;Last year Billy said, 'Let's do it,' and here we are,”; Kawamoto said.

The Paniolo Artisans Showcase, set for Friday and Saturday, will honor five respected master saddlers (see sidebar). More than 20 others from Maui, Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island will be on hand to display and talk about their noho lio, including the “;tree”; or wooden frame; the aweawe, the adjustable braided rigging that attaches the saddle to the horse; and the signature designs they impress on every saddle they make.

In his book, “;Loyal to the Land: The Legendary Parker Ranch, 750 to 1950,”; Bergin describes the differences between noho lio and the Mexican vaquero saddle from which it was adapted. These include a higher cantle to give the paniolo more stability in the saddle; a taller, wider horn enabling him to more quickly and easily fasten rope attached to moving cattle; rawhide aweawe that, unlike leather, won't rot in the wet, humid conditions of Hawaii's ranges; a rounded leather skirt to protect the horse's back; and a large leather tailpiece upon which lunch, game, rain gear or a second rider can be packed.

Donnie De Silva, one of the Paniolo Artisans Showcase's honorees, credits Kaoru “;Yama”; Horie, a longtime saddler at Parker Ranch, for being a patient mentor.

“;After I finished my work at the ranch, I'd go to the saddle shop and hang out with Yama for two or three hours,”; De Silva recalled. “;I watched and asked questions; he taught me a lot and I did some minor repairs. After I retired in 1996, I had a lot of free time to get more into it.”;

Today a Hawaiian tree saddle costs around $2,000, but De Silva asserts one characteristic of a good saddle maker is that he does it for love of the craft, not the money.

“;He's also familiar with horses and the work that horses do because the saddle has to fit right,”; De Silva said. “;And he knows how to handle rawhide because it's tricky; it stretches and it shrinks.”;

De Silva is looking forward to the upcoming festivities that will spotlight noho lio and the artisans who make them. “;I'm not usually a person who gets excited about things,”; he said, “;but with this event - to tell you the truth, I feel really happy and proud.”;



Donald George “;Donnie”; De Silva: Hailing from Honokaa, De Silva enjoyed a 37-year career as a Parker Ranch paniolo, roughrider, cattle breeding foreman and horse program manager. He excelled at making aweawe and saddle parts requiring leather work and is happy that his son Don and grandson Dillon are carrying on this paniolo art.

Hideo “;Hide”; Maeda: This Kohala native, who died in 1990, monitored reservoir volume and water flow in ditches in the Kohala mountain range where neneleau (sumac) flourished. Neneleau wood is light but strong - perfect for Hawaiian saddle trees. Maeda covered his trees with steer hide bleached a distinctive custard yellow.

Joseph Punilei Manini Sr.: Manini is a third-generation Kauai paniolo who worked at Makaweli Ranch and Gay & Robinson Ranch. He's adept at all phases of saddle making, including curing wood for trees and carving and dowel pinning the parts together. He retired in 1994 and now tends his 285-acre Puu Opae ranch.

Harry Masashi “;Cowboy”; Otsuka: Besides being a skilled saddle maker, Otsuka was known for his beautiful braiding on bridles and martingales. In January, he accepted the invitation to be honored at the Paniolo Artisans Showcase. Sadly, Otsuka died at his Molokai home in May. His saddle was in his living room, already being readied to ship to Waimea.

Henry Silva: Silva, a veteran cowboy at Haleakala Ranch in Upcountry Maui, earned a reputation as a saddler while moonlighting as a farrier, a specialist in horse hoof care. He developed a unique style of aweawe that requires no ili hope (rigging keeper around the cantle) and is known for his artistic braiding of rawhide headstalls, whips and lariats.


Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Bulletin have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.