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The Use of Horses in Search and Rescue

The use of Horses in Search and Rescue seems a fairly recent but growing interest in especially ground, wilderness and mountain Search and Rescue. It is being explored a lot right now especially with various US teams and NASAR (National Association for Search and Rescue) teams in the USA.

However, the use of working horses is almost as old as civilization and if you picture the skills of say, Native Americans in the old movies when the ‘Apache’ or ‘Sioux’ could track on miles on horseback it seems to make sense. Traditionally, animals with eyes to the front – like lions, and wolves and humans – were considered more predatory.  Conversely animals with side facing eyes – like cows, deer and horses – were considered Prey.  Whilst this is not a 100% rule it does work in this case.  Important to remember because the horse behaves different when spooked and interested than many might expect.
A few years ago we did so equine SAR training and the horse trainer, Amanda Dolby told us about this prey versus predator relationship.  Once she explained it many people could see why horses behaved a certain way.  Although horses may have historically been prey many breeds have a strong play drive and are used on active hunts and as working horses so like to ‘work.’

Scent-Detecting Mounted SAR
“An additional capability that some riders are already pursuing may well be the most exciting “next generation” option as a specialty for Mounted SAR: equine scent detection. The horse (or mule) as a prey animal routinely performs air scenting, complete with scent discrimination ability, and riders should be able to “read” basic input from the mount. But the equine can also be trained to intentionally use that nose and provide an alert, creating a “SAR Dog” you can ride. Equine olfactory capabilities are similar to a SAR Dog, but with a nose that can be raised notably higher off the ground to detect the airborne scent. This has obvious advantages.”  “…Veteran MSAR rider and experienced horse trainer Terry Nowacki has successfully demonstrated riding an air scenting horse during SAR, using the mount for cadaver detection…”

Quote Source: Jorene Downs, Chair the NASAR Mounted SAR SIG,
and is noted authority on Mounted SAR.

So, not only are horses a great form of transport in these environments, provide good visibility to and from the rider but they also have the ability to follow a scent.  As mentioned, Equine Detection Trainer - Terry Nowacki, has done several studies on Equine SAR including its ability to air scent.  With training, the equine will actually follow a scent searching for a missing person; human remains, etc.

Jorene Downs, one of the horse trainers for NASAR (National Association for Search and Rescue) in the USA says the equine has binocular vision, and while there is a small blind area below the nose and directly to the rear, a minor adjustment of the head provides almost a complete circle of view.  The horse’s vision is 20/30, but with acute ability to detect movement within the vast field of view. The horse’s eye is also better designed for low light than the human eye, providing better night vision.  Vision is the primary equine danger detector, and the horse has greatly increased potential to see something that the rider does not.
Horses have a well-developed sense of hearing that is notably better than the human’s, and their range includes higher frequencies. Ears turn on the horse’s head up to 180 degrees to focus directionally for better hearing, and can swivel independently. As a prey animal, the equine ears are constantly monitoring for possible threats from all directions. The mount has good potential to hear something the rider doesn’t, such as a voice calling in the distance or movement rustling the bushes.
Equine routinely use scent discrimination to help identify friend and threat, food sources, etc. Olfactory sensor capabilities greatly exceed the human’s, and are comparable to a dog’s. In the herd environment it isn’t unusual to see a horse sniff to pick up a scent and follow it to rejoin the herd, locate a wandering foal, seek out a herd buddy, etc.   There has been a lot of work in recent years to bring Equine SAR (ESAR) or Mounted Search and Rescue into the Search and Rescue community and by all reports, it is working well.

Equine Body Language
It is useful to understand the body language of the animals you work with.  Some lay rescuers may see a working SAR or Police horse and notice certain things about its behaviour but not know what it means.  Here are some things I have heard.

Ear Signals
Pinned Ears:
An angry horse may pin both of his ears back. Be careful, a horse usually pins his ears back as a warning that he is about to lash out (bucking, rearing, biting, etc.)

Tilted Ears:
Interest or attention is shown by a horse who ‘tilts’ one ear back.  Usually paying attention or noticing something on that side that it is tilting its ears to.

Forward Ears:
This is a cautious one as I have heard it means ‘Danger’ when both ears are pointed forward. Apparently, it can also be a “friendly” gesture!  I would err on caution and read the rest of its body language too.

Cocked Leg:
Horses sometimes cocks its back leg and shifts its weight when relaxed being groomed. This is a good sign showing the horse is relaxed and calm.

The Meaning of a Horse's Pawing Action
Mounted SAR trainer and horse behaviourist Terry Nowacki, gives this advice for reading a horse’s pawing actions.

1. Please or beg are sometimes referred to as a point - The front leg is held up off the ground with the head in a medium to low position. This is usually seen when the horse is really begging for water or food.

2. Nervous/Upset. The pawing is a quicker more sporadic action. The horse head is usually in a medium position. Many horses will use this sign while tied short or in a trailer.

3. I want. The pawing is slower and more evenly spaced with the head in a medium to low position. Many times this sign is used when you are late with their feedings.

4. Check it out. The paw is softer with head in a low position. This sign is usually seen when a horse wants to roll in unfamiliar ground, it is checking the ground condition. During scent locating, some horses will also communicate with their riders using this sign.

5. Tool/Weapon. The pawing type action is used as a tool to move, break or hurt. This sign can usually be seen when the horse is moving something in order to get your attention, moving feed around or breaking ice in order to get water.

6. Demand/Show of Dominance.  In this sign the horse's head is held in a higher, many times in an arched position. The paw type action in this case is a hard stomp with the leg moved in stiffer position. Usually seen when horses meet for the first time. Sometimes seen when horses are early in training and are trying to determine their herd positions with the trainer.
As you can see, a paw is not just a paw with a couple of simple meanings as the majority of people thought. The paw sign provides a full spectrum of meaning, some completely different than others.

How does it work?
The SAR horse rider, and the SAR Team around it, need to work similar to a K-9 unit.  Let them get on and do not hinder it.  Stay down wind and let the horse and rider do their thing.  You may find it useful to learn some of the natural ‘body language’ signs – like what the Ears Signals mean when they do this (pinned = angry) or that (pricked = listening) or if the tail is still or Swishing (and not batting flies) or its Pawing Action.  It all means something.

Horses are versatile able to work in cold snow and heat, traverse distance quickly, walk through water or over small obstacles and through woods or in towns.  With the necessary kit the Equine SAR team can track, access and treat and even carry (injured or tired) victims out.  And similar to a K-9 unit, the handler or rider, in this case, should be a good and useful SAR Operator before or without being in a horse.


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