George Ehmer snaps a halter on his appaloosa gelding Joker, an air-scenting horse, June 14 on his property near Milton-Freewater, Ore.
TERREBONNE, Ore. -- An appaloosa gelding named Joker took 2 minutes and 20 seconds this month to find a carefully hidden volunteer in a 13-acre, semi-wooded field near Terrebonne.
Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins watched, astonished, as Joker and rider George Ehmer, 66, of Milton-Freewater nosed out the hidden volunteer.
It was a dramatic and spectacular demonstration of what practioners call "equine air-scenting." The event was organized by a loosely knit central Oregon group that hopes to use horses in the role of bloodhounds during backcountry searches.
"They've definitely got my attention," Adkins said. "That was a pretty difficult search because the wind kept changing on us. That horse just went right over there and zigged and zagged and zoomed right in."
Horsewoman Kate Beardsley of Redmond arranged the search demonstration with Laurie Adams of Camp Sherman. They are assembling a team of a dozen air-scent trained horses and riders that they hope eventually will be deployed around the Northwest when hunters, hikers and others go missing.
"A lot of people don't know that horses do this at all," said Beardsley. "Laurie and I are focused on saving lives."
The ranch-raised Beardsley, 47, said a horse's olfactory receptors rival those of a tracking dog. As a horse trainer, professional horse packer and founder of a nonprofit horse rescue called Mustangs to the Rescue, Beardsley owns two horses schooled in air-scent techniques and has helped organize air-scent clinics here for six years.
Tracking dogs can outperform horses in thick underbrush, said horse trainer Terry Nowacki, 57, of Argyle, Minn. But horses often hold the advantage because airborne scent rises and horses stand taller than dogs, he said.
Another plus for horses: A tired horse opens its nostrils wider, exposing more olfactory receptors, said Nowacki. A dog, on the other hand, pants when tired and overheated, diminishing its scenting ability.
Nowacki, a professional horse trainer, stumbled onto the usefulness of search horses a dozen years ago in Minnesota while helping to look for a missing 80-year-old Alzheimer's patient, he said.
For three days, searchers and tracking dogs walked a narrow trail to a forest where they believed the missing man became lost, he said. On day three, a horse ridden along the trail stopped suddenly and snorted. The rider glanced down and saw the missing man in the undergrowth. He'd never even made it into the forest that was being searched.
The man survived, and Nowacki now hosts four or five clinics a year on equine air-scenting around the nation.
"This is so natural for a horse," Beardsley said. "Horses smell everything, and they tell everyone around them what they smell.'
Chatterboxes by nature, horses communicate with other horses via a complex equine sign language of ear movements, body posture, neck swings, head positions, snorts and exhalations. Riders seldom have a clue what's being said, but horses are stoic about that, said Beardsley. "They say to themselves, 'I've got a stupid human, and I'll just put up with it,'" she said.
Accordingly, most of Nowacki's clinic is focused on teaching riders to understand what their horses are trying to communicate.
Adams, who has been through Nowacki's clinics, said she's become so proficient at deciphering her registered Paint gelding Joey's conversation that she knows when he's scenting a deer, a cougar or a human being.
Horses also can be taught to find elk antlers, wild morel mushrooms, illicit marijuana gardens or any number of things, said Beardsley. All that's needed is to reward them with a treat for going to the source of the scent.