Silent Thunder: Hawaiian Horse Whisperer

Harry Nakoa is a horse whisperer.  This is not terminology he uses or ordinarily approves of; nonetheless, his rapport with horses invites scrutiny and commands respect.

“I can talk better when I have a horse next to me,” Daniel “Harry” Nakoa shared.  He had tethered his horse to a post outside his rustic office, late for an interview because of an emergency situation on Dahana Ranch.  His blue windbreaker glistened from the rain that’s a frequent part of life on the northeast–or “wet side”–of Waimea, located in the uplands on the Big Island of Hawai’i.

I had formed a mental image of Harry’s well-groomed, well-fed horses before seeing them.  While waiting in his office, his three youngest children had played contentedly with Kiyo, his close friend and business partner.  Each child had a distinct personality and a youthful confidence.  Ku’uipo (“My Sweetheart” in Hawaiian), his ten-year-old daughter, played a computer game with her nine-year-old brother, Dustin, and both posed enthusiastically for photographs.  The youngest, Ikena (to “see” or “know”), almost two-years-old at the time, was openly inquisitive, sitting close and requesting pen and paper so she could also write.

Harry’s 14-year-old son, Pa’akaula (a “steadfast rope”), appeared later.  He had been working on the ranch.  His warm brown eyes and infectious grin belied the fact that he was soaking wet.

If there is a secret to Harry’s well-adjusted children, it’s the same secret that he uses on his horses.  In fact, insiders call Harry a “horse whisperer”:  an uncommon and some say “mystical” trade immortalized by Robert Redford in a 1998 full-length feature film.

“It’s all about empathy,” relates Harry, “and respect of space.  A horse reflects its owner’s personality.”

Harry Nakoa (“Many Warriors”), a Native Hawaiian and third-generation paniolo (cowboy), is the owner and manager of the 600-acre Dahana Ranch.  Situated on the slopes of the scenic Kohala Mountains, the lush, rolling hills of the ranch are home to 200 cattle and 65 horses.  It’s an ideal setting in which to live, work and raise a family.  The Nakoa family, including Harry’s 26-year-old daughter, Ka’uwela, also entertain visitors from around the world.

Seven days a week, Harry and his professional Dahana Ranch “Roughriders” offer the “ultimate horseback adventure” to visitors as young as three-years and as heavy as 300-pounds.  A variety of experiences are available, including open range horse rides and cattle drives, western photo shoots with a live Brahman Bull, roping demonstrations with audience participation, and even “outlaws” on horseback who re-enact Wild West holdups and kidnappings.

When first meeting Harry, he’s decidedly low-key about his accomplishments.  He fits the stereotype of the cowboy/rancher:  friendly but laconic, and with the level gaze of someone who sizes up 1,200-pound animals for a living.  However, after spending time with him, it’s apparent that he’s as much a philosopher as he is a rancher.  He labors over issues that most people leave to theologians, college professors or psychologists.  Holding a conversation with him is like throwing a rounded pebble into a lake:  If the water is calm, ripples form, creating larger and larger waves.

This trait may be one of the reasons that Harry was singled out at the age of seven by a kupuna, an elderly wise man.  Born on Oahu in 1947, Harry, his parents and five siblings had moved to the Big Island in 1952.  While attending an elementary school in Waimea, a substitute teacher named Henry K. brought an old Hawaiian book to Harry’s fourth-grade class.  Rreading it, he stopped to explain each paragraph.  On that particular day, the story was about a boy who could fly.

I can fly!” exclaimed Harry.

The elderly kupuna, born in 1884, looked at him intently and replied, “Come see me at my house.”

The other children later teased Harry, thinking he was in trouble.  Instead, with the blessing of his parents, Henry began to tutor the seven-year-old, using stories as a vehicle for teaching the philosophical and spiritual tenets of ancient Hawaiian culture.

Two other wise men were to impact Harry’s life.  Papa Kahanui, a kupuna from Kona, was a man of great faith, who, through prayer, had experienced uncommon dimensions.  John Pe’a, a massage therapist from Hilo, treated his protege’s high school football injuries.  He was known as a “healer,” and taught Harry that everyone, whether great or small, can tap into God’s power.

In addition to teaching the tenets of ho’opono’pono (an umbrella of spiritual understanding and awakening), pa’ola (self-healing and self-understanding), ha’ola (the study of one’s spiritual self and surroundings), kahea (to ask, to call, a state of mind and being), they taught him to pule (pray).

“Your creator is always with you,” they said.  And, “Never mind the language,” John always added:  “Learn the way.”

These three men had absolutely no idea that their young student would one day use their admonitions to train and rehabilitate horses.  In fact, Harry developed a “fusion” of their philosophical and spiritual teachings, which he incorporates with training received from his father, William Pa’akaula Nakoa.  A head paniolo on Mau’i from 1930 – 1940, William later worked in the same trade for forty years on the Big Island.  Calling him “one of the top ten horsemen I’ve known in my life,” Harry admits that he once fled from his father’s influence.

“I wanted to get as far away from Hawaiian culture as I could; I wanted to be exposed to something different.  I didn’t think I wanted to work with horses,” he remembers.

That opportunity came in 1965 when he graduated from Honoka’a High School.  Harry, who had played halfback on his school’s football team, was awarded All-American honors from Sports Magazine.  Receiving numerous letters of interest from various colleges, he accepted a football scholarship from Wichita State University.  This move put a considerable distance between him and his Hawaiian roots, and opened the door to work with Bill Parcels, a football coach well-respected by the NFL.

While playing for Wichita State, Harry became discouraged after sustaining injuries.  Knowing he liked “horsey things,” a friend tried to ift his spirits by taking him to a public riding stable.  However, without his knowledge, Harry was given an “ill-mannered” horse to ride.  Surprisingly, the animal became docile under Harry’s hands and responded readily to his directions.  The owner of the stable enthusiastically suggested he apply for work with a needy rancher.

“I had had no idea that what my father had taught me was special,” he remembers, thinking of the physical aspects of horse training.  “The guys on the mainland were better riders than me, but most of them didn’t understand how horses think.”

Harry returned to the Big Island in 1968 and began his own business.  He purchased older, sometimes condemned and dangerous horses form Parker Ranch that would ordinarily have become “zoo meat,” and spent five or six months training them.  After this rehabilitation period (which he eventually shortened to weeks rather than months), he successfully sold them to rodeo performers and even families with children.

A rancher from California heard about Harry’s unusual problem-solving abilities and hired him.  From 1969 through 1979, he worked for Peach Tree Ranch in Monterey County where he started and managed 400 head of horses, including 75 brood mares, and rode all of their foals.  His reputation expanded and he spent the next five years managing ranches in Colorado an Texas.  He held exhibitions and horse communication workshops in all three states, as well as Louisiana and Kansas, and appeared on numerous TV and radio programs. He also held an exhibition in Germany, where he earned a prestigious international award in 1994.

Essential to the hour-and-a-half exhibitions–which are a combination of  “storytelling, counseling and intuition”–is Harry’s request for a young horse that’s never been ridden.  Unlike other trainers, he prefers one that he’s never even seen.  When it’s led into the exhibition area, he “works” the horse, holding it by a lead rope, asking it to perform as far away as 30 feet, and as close as two feet.  Speaking into a cordless mike, he uses the horse as a prop to share stories about “life”:  about creation and people, about the Hawaiian paniolo culture, and about his own experiences.

“Horses don’t talk,” shares Harry.  “They project.  If I’m working with a horse and it has a problem, it’s because I’m not listening.  I’m not taking the time to study the situation.”

Participants of the exhibitions and workshops commonly believe they learn as much about themselves as they do about their animals.  In fact, some say the horseman has an uncanny ability to address unrevealed problems in peoples’ lives.

Fans of Harry’s techniques have enthusiastically communicated his abilities worldwide, and his services are often in demand.  Surprisingly, he doesn’t advertise.  Apart from opening up Dahana Ranch and its Roughriders to tourists as well as locals who want to experience the Wild West, he’s content to let others be the mouthpiece for his remarkable workshops.

“Become silent thunder.”  Taught to Harry by his father, and never far from his mind, this intriguing, “protective” metaphor speaks of the inherent power of humility:  the power of actions over words.  It’s the gateway for sharing special gifts, a reminder to keep privilege in perspective.

Recently, Harry participated in the equine program at the University of Hilo, teaching classes devoted to “understanding the horse psyche with practical application.”  Looking to the future, he would like to start a non-profit, motivational organization for children and teach the mental and practical aspects of working with horses.

“Ho’ala” is what he would like to call this organization:  “to awaken” or arise.”

(This was written by C.E. Chambers and published by the Hawai’i Island Journal, December 1-15, 2002.  The title was originally “Silent Thunder: Mana’o from a Hawaiian Horse Whisperer.”  The Hawai’i Island Journal has changed since this article from a print to an online publication.)

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