Tradition on Parade: Hawaiian Paʻū Riders

Sep 24, 2018

Pa'u riding veteran Ronica Ann Ibarra has perpetuated the old equestrian tradition of pa'u riding in parades for nearly two decades.
Credit Ronica Ann Ibarra

The colorful paʻū riders are one of the most unique features of any parade here in the Hawaiian Islands. Draped in yards of brightly colored fabric and decked in lei, paʻū (pah-OOH) riders continue an old equestrian tradition. HPR Reporter Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has more. 


“Keep your width and keep your distance. Thank you.”

Ibarra shouts orders as she critiques her team or pa'u unit as they practice riding their horses in preparation for the parade.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Ronica Ann Ibarra shouts orders from the middle of a dusty grass field at Kahuku’s Gunstock Ranch. 

"Sit up straight!" yells Ibarra.

The veteran paʻū rider is in customary paniolo or Hawaiian cowboy garb – tanned boots peeking out from her blue jeans; her long brown hair flowing from a cream colored cowboy hat.

“Good job. Good job. There you go," says Ibarra.

Ibarra praises her pa'u unit for completing their last horse riding lesson before the parade.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

She perpetuates the Hawaiian tradition of paʻū riding. Paʻū means skirt in the Hawaiian language.

Traditionally, paʻū riders were female horseback riders known for wearing long, colorful skirts. Ibarra learned to ride when she became a paʻū rider nearly two decades. 

“When you’re new, you don’t know what to do and the horse will just sit there cause its waiting for a command,” says Ibarra, “They say, ʻthe horse won’t goʻ. I said, ʻyes, they will go. They’re just nervous.’ I said you need to relax cause they can feel you out if you’re tense you know?

Ibarra's pa'u unit representing the Island of Kaua'i in the 72nd Annual Aloha Festivals Floral Parade. (L-R): Kalani Ka'ahanui, Jr., Keali'i Chang-Perry, Sandy Higa, Joe Barino, Jr., Reri Solatorio, Ronica Ann Ibarra, and Darren Seto.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

For the past three months, she’s been training her team or paʻū unit to ride in the 72nd annual Aloha Festivals Floral Parade in Waikiki.Her seven-member unit will be draped mostly in purple to represent the island of Kauaʻi. Four out of the seven members in her unit are new.

“In the beginning it was like really scary but exciting too,” says newbie Sandy Higa.

She and fellow rookie Reri Solatorio will ride just behind Ibarra in the parade.

Pa'u unit escort Kalani Ka'ahanui, Jr. will be responsible for the safety of his unit and the audience members watching along the parade route.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“We just want to represent our island Kauaʻi and just make everybody happy and show them the aloha spirit,” says Solatorio.

“Ok, Reri, you guys make a 'U' go around, come back around the other way...” shouts Ibarra.

“What are you looking for?” I ask. 

“Their line. Make sure their line is straight, which it should be. The length between the horses,” answers Ibarra. 

Ibarra closely watches her pa'u unit make one last lap around Gunstock Ranch before riding practice ends.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“What do the judges look for?” I ask.

“Horsemanship, number one,” says Ibarra, ”How the unit reacts to each other? Are you work as a unit? Then they have your flowers. They judge you on your flowers.”

Ibarra began as a pa'u rider in the 1999 Kamehameha Day Floral Parade. She represented every island and eventually became queen of the Kamehameha Parade. She took a five year break from 2009 to 2014, and has been back in the game every since.
Credit Ronica Ann Ibarra

Then there's the costumes, most of which Ibarra sews herself.

The equestrian tradition of paʻū riding dates back to the early 19th century when horses were introduced to Hawaiʻi and women of the chiefly class dressed up to ride for formal occassions. They began wearing long skirts to protect their legs while traveling.

Over time, the outfits became more elaborate. 

“It is hot!” Ibarra admits.

She says one paʻū requires at least 12 yards of fabric. For comparison, a t-shirt requires just under three yards. Add to that multiple strands of lei and a sometimeshefty floral headpiece.

“How do you stay cool?” I ask. 

“Think cool,” says Ibarra, “But its great when you get to do the kaheas (customary greeting) cause you get to lift up your arm and the air goes right through. Its like oh yes.” 

So if you happen to find yourself at the Aloha Festivals parade this Saturday, remember that the beaming smiles accompanying the graceful waves are not just one of accomplishment but of sincere relief.