I was clearly not the boss.
Our guide, Tara Spires, had instructed us to not let the horses eat grass during our three-hour ride, but as an equestrian novice I was fighting a losing battle with "Griz."
It didn't take long for the chestnut horse to realize he knew more about navigating the trail and keeping us both safe than I did. So, he went ahead and enjoyed the grass buffet despite my protests. With some tips from Spires (a swift kick to the side and yank on the reins should do it), pretty soon I had the hang of things and Griz and I eased into a symbiotic partnership.
Griz handled the winding, rocky path, and when I was too awestruck by the scenery, and general serenity, to notice what he was doing, he got to munch on some greens.
The day at Piiholo Ranch
in Maui's upcountry started with an introduction to our horses and basic riding techniques. We learned that some horses, just like people, do not get along and are best kept at a distance. Tara taught us the Western style of riding and the keys for directing our steeds, and we were on our way.
The horses moved at a deliberate, steady pace through part of Piiholo Ranch's 800 acres, making our way past grasslands and lush forest canopies, gradually ascending the mountain side. Spires was a personable and knowledgeable guide, offering just the right amount of information along the way while allowing the group, a media trip sponsored by the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau, the opportunity to take in the panoramic views. During the tour we learned about the ranch's long, interesting history and details on the flora and fauna.
Tours through Piiholo Ranch's 800 acres include the opportunity to see a variety of native flora and fauna. Photo Credit: Tovin Lapan
The ranch is owned by Peter Baldwin, and the family's roots in Hawaii date back to the 1830s. The Baldwin's first got into ranching in the late 1870s, when Henry Baldwin formed the Haleakala Ranch with some business partners. The Baldwins still compete in roping and other cowboy competitions, and lease the land for cattle grazing.
The property abuts the Makawao Forest Reserve, and the vegetation and trees gets thicker and grander as you get closer to the rain forest. There are numerous native plants and animals to see, including the koa acacia tree, kukui tree, eucalyptus groves, various coffee plants and ferns, the yellow plover and nene goose.
At 2,000 feet, the weather was noticeably cooler than at beachside, and the intermittent light drizzle and fog were a nice change of pace after days of sun. Trotting through the woods with few sounds other than the chirps and calls of birds nested in the trees above, the ranch felt a world away from the resorts, surf and sand of Kaanapali.
The ride included lunch at the Baldwin family cabins, where grazing black angus cattle came to inspect our group and the horses from a safe distance. While we rested from the first leg of our ride and took in the views from the rustic cabin, we enjoyed kale Caesar salads, Champagne and turkey sandwiches on ciabatta bread.
For those looking to get a bird's-eye view before experiencing the ranch, Piiholo offers a helicopter ride from Kahului Airport that takes visitors past some of Maui's waterfalls before landing at the cabins, where a wrangler is waiting to lead a horseback ride.
Piiholo also offers a shorter, two-hour ride with no lunch ($229 per person), and programs for both beginner and more experienced riders. In addition to standard lessons, true horse lovers can tackle the "cowboy for a day" experience ($349 per person), where riders learn basic techniques and assist in rounding up cattle. The helicopter tour (starting at $3,335 for two people) and three-hour ride with lunch ($349 per person) are great options for honeymooners or couples looking for a romantic getaway from beachside activities.
The ranch, which has gradually adopted more of a tourism-focused business plan, opened a zipline in 2008. They offer packages with a range of four to seven different ziplines to ride, and a combined zipline and waterfall hike tour, as well.