The mission of the Whitewater Area Mounted Search and Rescue Team is clear — to assist in the location of lost or missing persons in a timely and efficient manner with the use of well-trained and fully equipped rider teams.
Covering the Wisconsin counties of Walworth, Jefferson and Rock in southeastern Wisconsin, the group has been called out to aid in a variety of situations, including locating “hikers lost in the woods, children who’ve wandered off and people with injuries,” said Sandy Olds, the group’s founder. “If the sheriff’s department, police or any other emergency agency feels we can be of help in a particular situation, we want them to give us a call.”
Olds formed WAMSTAR in August 2006 after a child was reported missing from her neighborhood.
“I was preparing for my daughter’s wedding when the sheriff’s department issued a code red for a 13-year-old boy missing in the Kettle Moraine Forest near Whitewater Lake,” Olds said. “As I had ridden my horse in that area many times, I thought I could be of help.
“Plus, as a parent myself, I knew I had to go,” she added.
Her daughter’s wedding preparations for the moment set aside, Olds saddled up her 10-year-old Quarter horse, Roz, and headed for the search area two miles south of her home. She was confident that if the boy was lost in the moraine, she and Roz would be able to assist in locating him.
“Horses have a good intuition and can see up to a mile away,” Olds said. “Plus, they can go places all-terrain vehicles can’t.”
Although the child was later found hiding in a shed near his home, Olds saw the value of using horses in rescue situations and, along with group of riding friends, she formed the Whitewater Area Mounted Search and Rescue Team.
“For a year, we researched similar rescue groups, set up guidelines and established bylaws and a list of training needs,” Olds said. “We were committed to having everything in order before we ever went out on a call.”
Indeed, commitment is one of the most important requirements for membership in the group as participants must not only provide their own horse, truck and trailer but obtain certification in map reading, search strategies and CPR. Horses must pass a 24-point training regimen that includes the ability to cross railroad tracks and rivers, climb and descend steep grades and remain under control in the presence of gunshots or fireworks.
According to Jelaine Goehl, the group’s former chairperson, “we do expect a firm time commitment from our members and won’t send anyone out on a search mission without extensive practice and training, including participation in mock searches and rescues. Our goal is always to be well-prepared and not complicate an already difficult situation.”
The benefits of using horses as part of a search and rescue team are many. While horses don’t track scents like dogs, they do have highly developed senses of hearing, smell and sight and are acutely aware of their surroundings.
“Horses will also instinctively alert on anything out of the ordinary, especially the presence of another human or animal,” Goehl said. “Plus, they give a height advantage to searchers who can see over small trees and other obstacles that someone walking can’t do.”
Other advantages cited by Goehl include a horse’s fast travel speed and ability to cover varied terrain in all kinds of weather.
“Our teams also receive regular training and participate in simulated rescue missions throughout the year,” Goehl said. “When the call comes, we’re prepared.”
WAMSTAR also spends a lot of time getting the word out about the services they offer, including through a community event called National Night Out.
“We partner with law enforcement, emergency personnel and the fire department to promote neighborhood camaraderie in the community,” Olds said. “People learn about what we do and will hopefully be encouraged to call upon us in the future should the need ever arise.”
For more about about the Whitewater Area Mounted Search and Rescue Team, including membership requirements, visit www.wamstar.org or call Sandy Olds at 920-723-9425. The nonprofit organization also accepts donations.