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Lassos, Not Luaus, For Hawaii's Cowgirls

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There is a rich history of cowboys on the Hawaiian Islands going back to the 18th century. They were called paniolos, and some claim Hawaii had them before Texas and Wyoming ever saw a cowboy.

Today, the tradition lives on in the Kauai All-Girls Rodeo Association where girls ages 13 to 60-plus years old — many descended from the original paniolos – wear the name cowgirls with pride.

On a recent day, saddles were cinched and cowboy hats dusted with red dirt were slapped across knees on the last day of competition for Hawaii's all-girl rodeo. Joyce Miranda, a sturdy, 63-year-old woman with well-worn boots, watched the girls compete.

Miranda is the co-owner of CJM Country Stables, and she says people don't often know of the history of rodeos on the islands.

"A lot of people feel that in Hawaii we have bikinis, palm trees and that's about all, but they really don't realize of how rich the paniolo heritage [is], going way back into when longhorns were king in Texas," Miranda says.

Hawaiian cowboys go back more than 150 years on Hawaii, and many of the cowgirls out roping steers, barrel racing and pole bending are descendants of some of the original cattle ranching families. Kim Medeiros' grandfather used to round up wild cattle on sugar plantations.

"He's 87 now, so he can't get on a horse anymore, but he used to be a big-time cowboy back in the day, with rodeos and everything," Madeiros says. "That's how I got into rodeo, because my mom [did rodeo] and then my daughter just started doing rodeo and she's 7."

Kim's mother Charlene Medeiros says that after watching the men's rodeo for years it was time for a change.

"We got tired of sitting on the bleachers in the back of the trucks," she says. "I thought, 'We can do that. We do it out on the ranch — why can't we do our own rodeo?"

Britni Ludington-Braun also comes from a ranching family. Now 17 years old, she says she started riding when she was 3 and did rodeo when she was 5.

"It's just you and your animal doing what you love, spending all the time you can in the arena giving each other your hearts," she says.

The bond between rider and horse is a strong one; a bond that Tammy Puoknu says might explain all the fancy halters and saddles in the arena.

"Cowgirls, especially, I think, we take really good care of our horses," Puoknu says. "We like to bling 'em out, put all those gems on. I think the horses wear more jewelry than we do."

Agnus Prnik, a tourist from Poland, says she knew about the rodeos in Hawaii and they specifically asked for the rodeos on the island. Though she attended a Luau the night before, she prefers the rodeos.

"The hula has its own flavor and style, but the rodeo is more dynamic and much more fun," Prnik says.

When members of the Kauai All Girls Rodeo Association compete on the mainland, they have to leave their trusted horses back home. Kim Medeiros says that's when you see what Kauai cowgirls are really made of.

"It makes us a little more competitive when you have to get on someone else's horse and do just as good as a job as they do," Medeiros says.

In a few weeks there will be the annual award banquet. That's when they'll hand out those coveted championship belt buckles the size of saucers. Until then, the cowgirls will do their very best to win — though keeping with the Aloha spirit, their loudest cheers will be for each other.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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