Horses in Hawaii: A Conversation with Trainer Amy Quinlan

By Jess Clawson

Most US equestrians live and ride on the mainland which encompasses quite a bit of regional diversity in the sport, but people ride and compete in Alaska and Hawaii too. Typically, one thinks of palm trees and sunny beaches when they imagine Hawaii, but there’s much more to these islands. We reached out to Hawaii-based trainer, Amy Quinlan, to answer some of our questions. She grew up in Hawaii and is currently based at Dillingham Ranch on Oahu, and was happy to tell us what it’s like riding there.

Have you always lived in Hawaii? 

Yes, I was actually born here in Hawaii and grew up learning to ride here. 

What got you into riding? 

When I was five, I went on a trail ride at a resort while on a holiday with my family. After that I was hooked! I grew up on a sailboat in Waikiki, where it is very metropolitan with no horses or stables anywhere. So my non-horsey parents had no idea where they would find horses for me to ride. We went on another trail ride out at the resort, and by then I was completely horse crazy. My mom researched some stables and found a small city and county riding school where she bought me a package of five riding lessons for a Christmas present. I have continued to ride ever since.

Photo courtesy of Amy Quinlan

How did you decide to become a professional? 

I started as a professional right after high school working for my trainer teaching beginner lessons and riding here in Hawaii. I then had the opportunity to move to California to work for the Karazissis family at Far West Farms. I started as a working student, then moved up into riding and training professionally. I eventually decided to move home to Hawaii where I have developed my business riding, coaching, and developing horses to do the hunters and jumpers at on our local show circuit. 

Tell us about Dillingham Ranch and your role there. 

Dillingham Ranch is located on Oahu’s North Shore. It is a 2,700 acre ranch, founded by B.F. Dillingham and his wife Emma in 1897, and extends from the mountains to the sea. Dillingham Ranch is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to ride and train there and share it with my students. It really is the perfect venue to develop horses and riders with so much available space for pastures, trails, hunt fields, and polo fields, as well as multiple arenas. 

Photo courtesy of Amy Quinlan

How is having horses on Hawaii different than having horses on the mainland? 

There are definitely many differences! We don’t have to blanket in the winter, for starters. But, being an island, everything we need gets shipped in, making our feed and shavings very expensive. We pay roughly $50 for a bale of timothy hay.

The climate here stays pretty much the same all year round, without a big variation in temperature change between summer and winter. Summer does get a little hot through July and August, but we don’t get many days over 90 degrees, so it’s really not too bad. Some horses that move here have a tough time acclimating to the humidity, but they usually adjust and do just fine. The winter months can get a bit rainy, but luckily where I do most of my riding and training stays a bit drier than other spots on the Island. 

Reindeer Derby line up. Photo courtesy of Amy Quinlan

What are competition opportunities like? 

That is a big difference as well. We have a small local horse show circuit which consists of three to four horse shows per year. I also host a hunter and equitation derby, the Reindeer Derby, at Dillingham Ranch each December which gives the Hawaii riders a unique experience to show off their handiness and boldness to more challenging fences over slightly more difficult tracks than your typical hunter rounds. For the young competitors whose horses are stabled at Dillingham Ranch and nearby stables, the Reindeer Derby is a rare opportunity to share their accomplishments in their own neighborhood. 

As far as opportunities for students to qualify for some of the bigger national medals, we go to California. I currently have two students who compete in California regularly. This year we brought one horse over to Southern California for my junior rider to show and gain experience in the bigger equitation medals, so that is very exciting for all of us.

Do you get a lot of clinicians coming in? 

Yes! We get amazing judges and clinicians. Who doesn’t want to come to Hawaii? We have been so fortunate to have Melanie Smith, Bucky Reynolds, Nick Karazissis, Frank Madden, Karen Healey, and many more. John French served as this year’s Derby judge and clinician. We are so fortunate to have these amazing opportunities from some of the top professionals of our sport. 

Reindeer Derby judges’ meeting with Frank Madden. Photo courtesy of Amy Quinlan

What is your favorite part of having horses in Hawaii? 

I really love it here. I love riding here. Having a quiet show season allows ample downtime for the horses. It also allows us time for training and schooling at home, participating in clinics, and enjoying trail ride and beach days for the horses and us. Hawaii is also close enough to California that if we decide to go to show it’s easy enough to get over to California either with our horses or without. The mild climate allows us to be able to ride outside year round, and the horses either live outside on grass pastures year round or get lots of turn out time. I think that is good for them. 

What are your goals for the future of your career? 

I am looking forward to continuing to help grow the sport in Hawaii by developing riders as well as bringing educational opportunities with horse shows and clinics. I really enjoy teaching and I look forward to continue doing that.


About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor. Jess is the Horse Management Organizer for the Virginia Region Pony Clubs and is aiming to get their A rating as a horsemaster.
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