Thoughts from the Summit: Horses in Search and Rescue

5 mins read

26 seconds.

He has a job to do, and he knows it.

Kodak is an air scenting horse. He’s ready and eager to do his task and when Sharon asks him to search, he gets down to business.

26 seconds into the search he indicates he’s found a scent. He follows into the wind, working his way up the scent cone towards the source. He locks in on the treeline and, when he finds he can’t go farther because of the terrain, he circles around and locks in again.

A K9 team comes in and, with the general area identified, makes quick work of finding the subject. A large field and accompanying treelines have been narrowed down and cleared in just a couple minutes. While it is a training exercise, neither the horse nor the rider had any clue where the subject was hidden; it was a blind search exercise with successful results.

For someone who doesn’t actually work in search and rescue, I’ve spent a lot of time with search and rescue groups over the last three years. This weekend was unique and incredible: I was over with Highlands Search and Rescue (HISAR) for an equine air scent detection clinic.

It was not ideal weather conditions. It was hot and humid, and the wind kept playing games, but it was still a good weekend.

I hid for a different team with just a few days of training. Hidden a few yards in the woods under a camouflage blanket, with a huge hay field spread out above me, I could watch Zephyr and Elsie conduct their search.

They begin with a basic grid search, back and moving along the field, searching for the scent cone. The rider isn’t looking for the subject; she’s focused on her horse, watching for the cues that show he’s found something.

A snort, a blow, an increase in speed and energy: you can tell when he’s found something, but he’s not using his eyes. His nose is locked on, soft velvet and whiskers twitching a mile a minute, his ears pointed forward.

He comes as close to the treeline as he can, still locked on to me, and his rider calls out, “is someone there?”

“I’m here.”

He’s looking for the scent and if I move too quickly, since he’s only been learning this game for a few days, I’ll scare him. He’s still learning that there’s a person attached to the scent. I am part of his training, so I move slowly and reward him with a treat.

Search and rescue operations use resource layering to accomplish the goal: bring home the missing person safely. In Maine, the Maine Warden Service is responsible for search and rescue operations. They work with local agencies such as fire departments, law enforcement, EMS, and public safety, along with trained volunteer search and rescue organizations like HISAR, and if necessary, volunteer civilians. Search methods vary based on the specific details in each case but resources available include ATVs, horses, K9 teams, helicopters, and good old fashioned walking.

Many animals have stronger olfactory senses than humans and can be trained to use those senses in different ways. Most people are familiar with dogs, using their noses for narcotics or explosives, for search and rescue, for object recovery, and for other jobs.

While horses have been used in search and rescue operations in Maine before, they’ve been used as a way to cover more terrain for visual searches. Air scent detection is a newer resource, and this weekend HISAR demonstrated to the Maine Warden Service how it could be used to assist with missing persons.

One of the coolest things this weekend was seeing how much the horses enjoy working. That’s an important part of a working animal: they need to enjoy their job if they’re going to be reliable and consistent. For the horses I observed this weekend, it’s like a game: they are given a job to do and when they’re done, they get rewarded with attention and treats.

More information can be found here: www.highlands-sar.org, HISAR’s Facebook page Highlands Search and Rescue – HISAR, and the following sites owned by the air scent detection clinic instructor, Terry Nowacki on Facebook: American Equine Scenting Association  and on the website: www.airscentinghorse.com

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