Pa’u riders and the Aloha Festival floral equestrian parade are part of the great cultural practices of Hawaii. Pa’u riders are women who ride horses astride while draped in yards of fabric and flowers. Parades in Hawaii often feature pa’u riders, including the Aloha Festival, a September month-long festival of Hawaiian culture.
I always wanted to see pa’u riders in person and we were able to be in Waikiki for the September Aloha Festival floral parade. Watching these skilled and beautiful equestrians in person was just amazing and unforgettable.
Cattle were brought to Hawaii by Captain Vancouver in the 1790s. Richard Cleveland gifted two horses to Kamehameha in 1803. In the 1830s King Kamehameha III invited Mexican vaqueros to come help with handling the wild cattle, starting the paniolo culture in Hawaii.
Women in Hawaii also rode horses. Riding sidesaddle never caught on. The women rode astride in their long Victorian dresses. To keep from getting too dirty in their travels, they covered themselves in capes and long pa’u skirts, even covering their boots in the stirrups!
Today equestrian groups continue the pa’u rider tradition. Each rider is draped with 9 or more yards of fabric. A rope is used around the waist and the fabric is folded, draped, and held in place with 6 kukui nuts twisted in the fabric. Once the women have been dressed, they will stay that way during a long parade day.
There is usually a queen and her attendants, then a team to represent each of 8 islands. The princess leads her court and her male banner page and outrider marshals. The men have to assist if there are any problems with the horses or their gear. Each team is dressed in the color of the island they represent. The riders practice long hours with their horses for handling in parade conditions. They ride while sending aloha to the crowds with hula-like hand gestures.
Flowers are a big part of pa’u riders. Each island has a flower or shell. These might not be in season for a particular parade so creativity is used to make leis that mimic the correct flower in color or shape. The women have hair and hat adornments and leis. The horses wear large sturdy leis. The floral work is just incredible!
Pa’u riders sometimes participate in parades on the mainland and usually appear at the Merrie Monarch parade, King Kamehameha Day parade, and Aloha Festival parade. Mahalo for their hard work and dedication to keep this cultural practice alive!
Resource links for pa’u riders
- Aloha Festivals
- 2017 Aloha Festival parade from Channel 808
- Song of the Islands tells the color and flower for each island
- Dressing a queen from Honolulu Advertiser
- Thomas Edison film of pa’u riders at Kapiolani Park 1906
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