Searching for people from the back of a horse can be effective for rescuing the lost. The members of the Whitewater Area Mounted Search Team and Rescue know this and have been providing their services to authorities to help with locating missing persons.
The how-tos of starting and operating a volunteer mounted search and rescue unit were presented by WAMSTAR mother and daughter team of Kelly and Amy Wojcik at the Midwest Horse Fair held in April at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison.
Although first formed in 2007, WAMSTAR acquired official nonprofit status in 2011 and currently has 15 members.
Ten of the members are certified to ride in the field. Search-and-rescue horse and rider teams must receive a 90 percent score in performing the list of tasks to be certified and they must be recertified every other year.
“Practice is so essential in both old and new skills,” Kelly said. “Teams must also be prepared. You don’t want to be putting together the new bridle you bought at Midwest Horse Fair when there’s a call.”
The training for mounted search-and-rescue riders includes learning to pay attention to details and how to “read” their horses. With their sensitive hearing and awareness of their surroundings, horses are especially suited for detecting a person or body.
“We learn how to listen to our horses and see what they’re telling us,” Kelly said. “Our horses can detect things we can’t. They can also draw out a person.”
The special attraction can be effective for connecting with subjects who might resist other types of searchers.
Along with instruction in volunteer safety, navigation and communication, the search-and-rescue volunteers receive training in human behavior. They learn people will behave differently depending on age, mental status, physical ability the circumstances under which the person became lost and the effect fear has on the victim.
“Most victims are found a mile or two from where they were last seen,” Kelly said. “Victims will follow a path of least resistance. They’ll tend to go downhill, but it’s common for them to walk in circles.”
Hunters tend to go into unknown areas, and hikers may use old or overgrown trails. In these situations, the lost want to be found. On the other hand, youngsters and others who are insecure around strangers might hide from searchers.
“Some people don’t want to be found,” said WAMSTAR member Deb Kahn, “but generally, they’re not dangerous.”
The various types of mounted search-and-rescue incidents are hasty, rapid, systemic and tight grid. A fifth type is the “bastard” search; that’s when the victim is found someplace else and was never in the search area.
While the mounted search team offers its services without charge, it doesn’t respond to a situation until law enforcement requests its help. The team needs to work closely with law enforcement, and WAMSTAR has people designated as the go-betweens with incident command. Incident command manages the functions of the emergency response.
The first person from the team arriving on the site becomes the incident lead for the team; that person runs the base for the entire incident.
“All the team members are trained on communication and navigation skills,” Kelly said.
The volunteers are sent out, at a minimum, in teams of two; one of the team is the leader and the other the navigator.
To lessen the chance clues won’t be missed, the mounted searchers stop often to look around.
“Don’t search while you’re moving,” Kelly said. “You’re not going to find as much as if you stop and look.”
Night searches pose their own challenges.
“In night searches, we ride single file, use flood lights, flashlights and reflective gear,” Kelly said.
Riders wanting to form search-and-rescue units should set a goal of forming a qualified resource capable of serving the public.
“Teams should build relationships with law enforcement and do outreach,” Amy said. “Do safety days or National Night Outs; become a credible team.”
More information about WAMSTAR can be found on its website at www.wamstar.org.