New equestrian search team rides to the rescue

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

If you go

What: Dauntless Equine Response Team fundraiser. See the horses, socialize your dog to horses, raffle

When: Noon Saturday.

Where: Muddy Paws Dog Wash, 13501 N.E. 84th St.

Information: Mandy Wilson, 360-921-1434 or mandymsar@gmail.c...

The call Mandy Wilson had been training for came Tuesday afternoon: A hiker was lost on Mount Adams.

Wilson packed her first-aid kit, outdoor gear and other supplies. She checked her truck and told her husband about the impending expedition.

And unlike most other volunteers mobilized around Southwest Washington that day, she also readied a saddle and bridle.

Wilson never loaded up Sugar, her trusted mare, because the lost hiker was spotted by searchers Tuesday night, before she mobilized. But the founder of Clark County's newest equine search-and-rescue team was ready for her first emergency deployment. The team has trained since March.

The Dauntless Equine Response Team is made up of 12 active volunteer riders and their horses, half of whom already are certified to go on searches. They are among the hundreds of volunteers aiding the Clark County Sheriff's Office in searching for missing people.

There are only about 10 other horseback search teams around the state, said Bill Gillespie, president of Washington's Search and Rescue Volunteer Advisory Council.

One of them is the Clark County Mounted Search and Rescue, of which Wilson was a member before starting this new team.

A better view

There are many advantages to having searchers on horseback, which means the group is sure to be called in again, said Clark County sheriff's Deputy Bob Carder. He is a search-and-rescue coordinator for the sheriff's office.

"We're turning more and more toward using equestrian searchers," Carder said. "They can go a lot longer distance."

Riders also have a higher, i.e. better, vantage point than searchers on foot, he said.

Horses are great for packing gear for searchers, and they cover distances about twice as fast as pedestrian teams, said Gillespie, the head of the advisory council. And they can do some of the actual searching, if not with the same acuity as trained search dogs, he said.

"Horses have a sense that something is out there," Gillespie said.

The new team's founder agreed. Horses pick up unusual scents — such as an unconscious human hidden from sight by foliage, for example — and they detect movement, Wilson said.

"When you're out riding on trails, horses let you know when they sense something," she said.

Usually, a trail rider would train his horse to soldier on and not worry about every scent or unusual sight. But Wilson has taken to not correcting Sugar, encouraging the horse to let its rider know when something's not quite right.

Sugar's superior senses and natural curiosity aren't the only attributes making the buckskin mare a perfect search horse, Wilson said.

The ideal search-and-rescue horse is one that's in good shape mentally and physically, Wilson said.

It needs to be calm and be used to working around flashing lights, barking dogs and crackling underbrush. But that calmness can't come packaged with laziness.

This week, Sugar stood in the small riding arena behind Wilson's house. The horse's head hung low in the hot sun. Its ears drooped. The big eyelids lowered.

"She looks really out of it right

now," Wilson said with a caring smile toward her steed. "But she's ready to give me eight hours of work."

A few minutes before, when Wilson sat astride Sugar, she whistled to her sheep-dog mix, Annie. The agile hound leaped up on the saddle.

Sugar never moved a muscle. She's a natural with dogs. The first time the canine jumped on her flanks to ride with its master, Sugar was just as blasé about it, Wilson said.

Some horses might need a little more training to not be flustered in that scenario. And that's okay; they're getting that with Dauntless.

Wilson has been in touch with search-dog teams in Clark County, she said. Several dog owners have offered to hold combined training sessions.

That training will be beneficial for all four-legged team members. The dogs can get comfortable being put on horses, so that in the future they can arrive at a remote search site fresh, instead of walking there for hours.

And the horses get more exposure to the deep barks of bloodhounds or German shepherds.

Time in the saddle

The riders, of course, need to be just as experienced as their mounts.

Riders interested in joining a search-and-rescue group need to already have spent a lot of time in backcountry settings with their horses, Wilson said.

They need to be committed volunteers and ready to be work long stretches at odd hours.

They need to be ready to spend about $500-700 out of their own pockets on gear for the search missions -- not counting the tack any rider needs.

They need to be willing -- and able -- to learn the use of maps, compasses and electronic navigation systems. They also train in first aid.

Search volunteers -- no matter if on foot, leading a dog, or riding a horse -- need to demonstrate mastery of certain skills under state law, said Carder, the deputy. Horses and riders are certified by their organizations for the equine-only skills.

But most importantly, riders need to be confident they can control their horses in just about any situation.

"You must have spent a lot of time in the saddle and know that your horse is bomb-proof," Wilson said.

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.