Meet the last horsemen of these paradise islands

For centuries, the Marquesans have preserved their home's rich natural heritage and distinctive cultural traditions.

Photograph by Julien Girardot
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Jérémie Kehuehitu rises and dances with his horses on Hiva Oa's black sand beaches.
Photograph by Julien Girardot

The Marquesas Islands are part of French Polynesia and yet proudly apart. You won’t find overwater bungalows and turquoise lagoons on these 12 volcanic islands, six of which are inhabited. Instead, the Marquesas feature green peaks that plunge directly into the sea, waterfall-laced valleys, and dramatic rock spires. In addition to this rich natural heritage, the Marquesans are active in keeping alive distinctive cultural traditions in tattooing, dance, language—and horse riding.

Horses were introduced to the island of Ua Huka in the mid-19th century, a gift from French admiral Abel Dupetit-Thouars, who brought them from Chile. Islanders tamed and adopted them over the years, and they became the perfect transport for traversing roadless valleys, steep slopes, and high ridges. Horses enabled islanders to range widely in their hunt for wild goat and pig, which are traditionally slow-cooked in an umu, an underground oven.

Along with the meat from hunting, and the islands’ abundance of breadfruit, coconut, mango, banana, and other tropical fruits, and the sea’s bounty, Marquesans have long “had a very good living from the land,” says photographer Julien Girardot. Nowadays, with the introduction of cars and roads, he says, “almost every Marquesan goes with a Japanese pickup to the shop to buy rice, pasta, and frozen chicken from the U.S.” Yet, there are still people, he says, who resist the islands’ globalization and continue a generations-old horse culture.

In a series of photos, Girardot, who has lived in French Polynesia for the past seven years, tells the story of three horsemen: Vohi Brown of Ua Huka, and Lucien “Paco” Pautehea and Jérémie Kehuehitu, who both live on the island of Hiva Oa.

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Marquesan horses love large leaves from the uru, or breadfruit.

On Ua Huka, wild horses outnumber the inhabitants. Vohi, who has an image of a rearing stallion tattooed on his back, is especially skilled in capturing, taming, and training them. He tends to his stable of horses when he’s not working at local guest house Mana Tupuna Village or tending his crop of copra (dried coconut), from which coconut oil, one of French Polynesia’s top exports, is manufactured. And occasionally Vohi does lead visitors on horseback treks along the island’s arid uplands.

The island of Hiva Oa may be known by Westerners—if it’s known at all—for artist Paul Gauguin, who spent the last years of his life here. But both Paco (who runs Hamau Ranch) and Jérémie lead horse treks that reveal what they know and love about their island: its lush landscapes fragrant with frangipani and tiare (the national flower of Tahiti); the sacred site at Meae Iipona, where ancient tikis brim with mana (spiritual power); and ridgetop views of the vast ocean, riding fearlessly to unknown horizons—just like the last horsemen of the Marquesas themselves.

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A group of wild horses runs through a falcata forest on the Hiva Oa plateau.

Amy Alipio is senior editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow Amy on Twitter @amytravels and on Instagram @amyalipio.
Julien Girardot is a freelance photojournalist based in French Polynesia. Follow him on Instagram @julien.girardot.photography.