Search and rescue volunteers need a lot of time on the trail to develop the skills for the job. In today’s world, horse training just like every other profession has become very specialized. People that show want someone who has an interest and the ability to train for the ring. Cutting horse trainers are expected to bring out those talents needed for the horse to be competitive; and so it goes. Every discipline demands that trainers spend nearly all their time working towards a few specific goals. Unfortunately, the end result are horses very good at a few select tasks and functionally illiterate for any other activity. Search and rescue operations requires riding in situations not always familiar to the specially trained horses from various disciplines.
If a dressage rider decides to volunteer to help search for a lost child, it only impairs the effort if the horse and rider are not ready for the environment. Brush, rocks, and wildlife may cause anxiety for a horse that spent the last five years in the show ring. Other specially trained and advanced horses may not be ready for the trail. Has the competition horse trained to run barrels ever crossed a creek? Has he crossed one with saddle bags banging his sides as his feet slip on the mossy rocks underneath? Is the combination of the slippery surface and the saddle bags beating his flanks going to end up with a wreck? It is far better to find out these types of things before an actual SAR is under way. These are the intangibles that just can’t be taught from a book or classroom setting.
Trail riding also works a horse and rider much differently than eventing, reining, or most other disciplines. In many equine activities, the horse is finished in an hour, two at most. Often there are breaks in between sessions and the horse can stand and regain some composure. Trail horses start early and work late. There’s not a five-minute competition that ends with them being led back to a stall. Trail horses figure out really fast that the day can be long so conserving energy is important. Don’t get us wrong, all disciplines and riders should be welcome to participate, we simply suggest some day long, or even weekend long rides will give some much-needed experience to volunteers who may not recognize how 10 hours in the saddle feels.This doesn’t mean a show horse or a rider from another discipline can’t be useful to search and rescue operations. It does mean they both need some “real-time” on the trail to develop the skills necessary.
Search and rescue members, (not just the horses) need time together on trail rides. Time together on the trails allows the search and rescue volunteers the opportunity to see how their fellow members handle situations with their horse. If asked to pair off with someone and ride a given area, the last thing we want to find is our team member on the ground because their horse acted up. If so, the unit is out of commission with a downed rider and most likely other units will be called away from the search to attend to the hurt volunteer.
Before heading off for a MSAR, we like to know the abilities, skills, nerves, and readiness of the people in the unit. For instance, is the co-volunteer going to have his own water? Has he been “turned around” (lost) in the woods himself? Does he understand he might be leading his horse back to the trailer with some unexpected injury? Has he trail ridden enough to know that water for his horse isn’t always available? We’ve seen MSAR’s where water wasn’t there for the horses. It’s definitely not the preferred way to treat working horses in the hot sun. Trail riding is about as close to “search and rescue” as any activity you can engage using a horse to simulate and teach what will likely be encountered.
If you intend to participate in a MSAR group, make sure your team is familiar and ready for the task at hand. Not simply communications training and operational skills, but the challenges that come with riding in the brush for a couple of days at a time.