A true love of the outdoors has tempted many horsemen and women to go beyond recreational trail riding to participate in endurance riding, horse packing, or rounding up cattle in the Sierra Foothills. Combined with an interest in people and saving lives, a number of riders belong to a very special group of volunteers: the search and rescue teams who work with emergency service teams.
Mounted search and rescue teams are active throughout the United States and Canada. They provide a tremendous resource and service in their local communities and often beyond.
Nevada County Sheriff Search and Rescue, Inc. has approximately 70 members. They work together forming specialty units for nordic, rock climbing, and water rescues, land search activity, canine searches, aerial, all-terrain vehicle, and mounted searches. As with all volunteer, non-profit groups, they depend upon the community to support them with a staff of volunteers and funds through donations and fundraisers. In return, the Sierra Nevada foothills and mountain ranges are safer for the thousands of locals and visitors.
Qualifications are sensible. Volunteers need to be in reasonably good health, have a valid California driver's license, and be at least 18 years of age. In becoming active, participants have the opportunity to learn valued skills through training within Search and Rescue. These include 'man tracking,' use of maps and compass, rough terrain, CPR and first aid. Familiarity with radio and GPS skills are essential. All members of the Search and Rescue keep up with on-going training and search activities. They meet the first Monday of every month at 6:30 p.m. at the old Juvenile Hall building, 15076 Highway 49, Nevada City. Anyone may attend. Those who join the mounted unit have specific requirements regarding the suitability of their horse and their own horsemanship skills.
Both riders and horses thus have an opportunity to become a valued asset to our county and state. Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal is responsible for the protection of life and property in the unincorporated areas of the county. This includes searching for lost persons and evacuations from normally inaccessible areas.
All members of the Search and Rescue Team work together, as needed, meaning mounted members may also be asked to work on foot. Members also may be called upon to go outside the county to help if that area has exhausted its manpower resources. An example was the Polly Klaas case, in which mounted members from our area assisted with crowd control at the rescue site. In times of need, The Office of Emergency Services may call upon our local search and rescue members, who are certified as disaster service workers.
Specifically, for horse people, it's important to develop needed skills to be an effective Search and Rescue volunteer. Riders need good basic experience in horsemanship and in being able to "read" their horse. Horses are valuable as their senses of eyesight, scent detection and hearing are highly developed. They are far-sighted, and an alert rider will note when the horse suspects anything unusual by the animal's head position and ears, as well as changes from body relaxation to tension. The rider is much higher than a searcher on foot, and also can travel faster and longer on a horse. Horses can go where all-terrain vehicles cannot.
Donna Martin, an 18-year veteran of Search and Rescue and Mounted Unit leader, says "Horses are an extra set of eyes and ears. The horses actually often find a person, thus the rider needs to be alert to their horse." Lost children, who may be frightened and in hiding, find an affinity to a horse, and will come out and be calm. On the other hand, in a more confrontational situation, the horse demands respect.
Horses also go through training before being passed as qualified search and rescue mounts. They may be of any breed, a mare or a gelding, but must be "bombproof" and at least 4 years of age. Training sessions for them emphasize dealing with emergency situations.
To save lives and help people in need has to be one of community service's greatest goals. Having been in the back country in past years with youngsters, horses, but with no telephones, radio or vehicle for days on end, one appreciates even the thought that an efficient and well organized group could search for you, and possibly rescue you should an emergency arise. The distances, terrain, and weather all play such an important role, let alone the expertise - or lack of it - among the persons missing or needing help. Search and Rescue volunteers give not only their time, but sincere dedication and willingness to face difficult situations, whether on a horse, on foot, or with another means of getting there, or supporting those who are.
Nevada County has a well-organized and trained small group of volunteers, but invites those interested to learn more, and to see if this may be a special "calling." And don't forget those good horses may love a special purpose in life too!
The Internet has a wealth of information on "mounted search and rescue" - (check Google.) Neighboring counties with Web sites on this topic include Sutter, Sacramento, and Placer counties. Kathy Roberts from the Auburn area has written a book called "Mounted Search and Rescue." And Nevada County's Mounted Team Leader, Donna Martin and Roberts were honored to present the first seminar on the subject at the National Search and Rescue Conference held in Colorado Springs, Colo. Call her at (530) 273-2438 for further information.
Felicia Schaps Tracy is the owner of Emigrant Springs Horsemanship, co-founding instructor of Northern Mines Pony Club, member and Certified Horsemanship Association and the American Riding Instructors Association. Write her in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.