Big Island Trip (2 of 2): Honoka’a Rodeo

Whenever I hear of people visiting the Big Island, I get a little crazy with excitement.  There’s so many amazing places and experiences that you can only get in Hawai`i and on the island of Hawai`i.  My top two must-see experiences are Kilauea Volcano and Waipio Valley.  Two places that take you to a completely different world, you’ll feel instantly transported.   Most people check out the lookout for Waipio Valley but not many visitors get the chance to travel down into the valley.  You need a 4-wheel drive vehicle and some guts to drive down the narrow, sometimes 1-lane road that teeters down the steep mountain side.  At the bottom, you’ll drive past the wreckages in the jungle growth that serve as sobering reminders of cars that slipped or veered off the road and tumbled down, neatly compacted into tangled cubes.  It’s a dangerous drive and there’s an unwritten safety etiquette as cars in opposing directions have to do a little dance to get around each other safely.  But once you hit the valley floor, it’s simply amazing.  A black sand beach that stretches across the entire end of the lush, green valley, with a waterfall at one end and dissected down the middle by a river feeding into the pounding surf.  Small homes and lo`i patches (taro farms) permeate the back of the valley, accessed by rocky roads that sometimes require you to not only drive across the river but up and down it as well.  Horses roam freely through the valley and will approach you inquisitively, hopeful for free snacks.  It’s one of my favorite places in the world, and it’s just a 20 minute jaunt from my hometown, Honoka`a.  20 minutes drives are quick by Big Island comparison.

However, I haven’t been able to make it to the Valley in quite a while and for our last two visits, we’ve opted for my new Big Island experience, a good ole-fashioned rodeo.  I might have grown up across from the rodeo arena and been to a few when I was a kid, but now that my little sister has found herself a real live Hawaiian cowboy, we find ourselves immersed in the country culture.  My little sis has traded in her rubber slippers for cowboy boots and she now listens to country music…and only country music.  Honoka`a plays home to a huge rodeo every Memorial Day Weekend and I’ve fallen in love.  It’s truly a family affair.  Bleachers line one side of the dusty arena but the other side is open for families to pitch their pop-up tents and set out their beach chairs and tables weighed down with food and drinks.  And you may not want to bring your own food, instead choosing to sample from the many food vendors there selling plate lunches, cotton candy, popcorn, hot dogs, and even fried twinkies.  Need a souvenir?  There’s little booths open selling cowboy boots and hats to fit all and even big brassy belt buckles.

Trucks and trailers are parked on the surrounding grass and everyone tethers their horses nearby to rest and wait for their events.  It’s a blast for kids.  They run freely around making instant new friends and taking turns trying to lasso the metal horns of roping dummies  We were super excited to see what my 2 year-old thought of the rodeo.  Her favorite song is “Old McDonald” and this would be her chance to see her favorite animals live and face-to-face.  I was sure she would be frightened.  If you’ve never been just a few feet away from a horse or a cow, you don’t realize how tremendously large they are.  She wasn’t a bit fazed.  She ran right up to the pens with the cows and tried to throw her arms around the horses trotting by.  We did have to keep a special eye on her because horses and their riders were mixed up with the pedestrians streaming around the rodeo arena.

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Left: Community bonding while warming up the horses Right: the kids try their hands at roping

My husband tried out his idea of rodeo attire by wearing a football sports team T-shirt.  I think he totally fit in as he walked our daughter around the rodeo.

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My sister and her friends had ringside seats as we were sitting right up against the arena rails.  My daughter and her cousin wandered over to the next tent and helped themselves to the toys that were there.  I was a little embarrassed but the sweet people there shushed me and welcomed the kids warmly.  They are literally playing just 2 feet from the action but are somewhat protected by advertising banners over the rails.  Farther down, there was a gap where the rails were open and one of the aunties camped herself in front of it and waved the kids away when they got too close.

Note to self: Next time, bring toys to the rodeo

Because of the kindness of strangers helping to watch my daughter and nephew, I got to watch the real action and I had a blast playing with my camera.  Up first was barrel racing.  This was always one of my favorites to watch.

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Then there was the calf roping events.

But the event that my husband I took special delight in watching was something called “mutton busting.”  Last year was the first time I’ve ever seen it.  It’s an event for the wee little kids.  They’re completely bundled up with pads and a protective helmet and then they attempt to ride a sheep. Big burly cowboys completely surround the gate in the chance they can catch and rescue the keiki before they actually fall off.  Someone told us it was not only for safety sake but just to help the children from being scared.

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When we saw it last year, the sheep just kind of meandered out of the gate and around the dirt.  I don’t know if they used an younger batch of sheep or the sheep just had a bone to pick, but this year’s sheep gave all their little riders quite a run.  I’ve never seen sheep move so fast in my life.  Rider after rider started the slide to the ground the second they left the gate.  I have the feeling my 6 month old niece will be making her mutton busting debut in a few years.

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honokaa rodeo photography

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Don't worry...this all happened in a split second. This little rider was picked up and brushed off and he was happy as a lamb.

This is my brother-in-law (on the right sporting the bright red shirt) showing off his rodeo chops in partner roping.

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Before he met me, my husband and his guy friends had an annual golf trip to the Big Island around Christmas time.  With airline fees, they now make the same annual trek minus the golf equipment.  When talk of the upcoming rodeo came around,  we learned of this event called Rawhide Racing.  Basically, a horse and a rider race while pulling behind them another rider on a big old piece of rawhide.  My brother-in-law mentioned that he hated losing to his brother, but it was hard to find someone strong enough to hold on and also light enough to keep from slowing down the horse.  All of our eyes lit up.  We had the secret weapon.  Let me introduce you to my our good friend, HBA graduate and Kaneohe boy, Ted.  He’s all muscle but I estimate he weighs about the same as 5 large pillows, sopping wet.

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Secret Weapon: Ted

Notice his perfectly coiffed hair and neat attire.  Dress for success no matter the occasion.

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Prep for the big ride: Marty had to help Ted with his protective coat (left), The rawhide lies waiting (right)

And let the race begin!!!

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Coming in for the tight turn

I think Marty was a little worried about Ted getting hurt so he was careful around the turn.  No thanks to my hubby and their other guy friends who told Marty to win even if he had to put Ted in the wall.  Guys and their friendly humor=)

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The big finish!!!

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They survived!!! Ted and Marty

It was an awesome weekend at the rodeo and we’re already planning to go back next year.


Thanks for letting me share another piece of Big Island living!  If you haven’t ever been, I recommend checking out the rodeo while you’re there.

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