There are people who ride horses for enjoyment. And then there are people who ride horses to help in a search-and-rescue (SAR) situation.


Sara Samms of rural Huxley falls into both categories. She is part of a 20-plus member group that has been trained to help with looking for missing people or children. She explains that the group can be called to assist in looking for clues or information regarding a criminal investigation, but normally it’s a missing person or persons.


A new concept using horses?


“Searching with horses is not a new concept,” Samms explains. “Using horses in scent detection is newer. Our next step is to become Equine Scent Certified with our horses. This is a highly specialized skill that takes more time for the horse and rider teams to acquire.”


So how does this work?


According to Samms, SAR responders on horseback are primarily a search resource, but also can provide off-road logistics support and transportation. Mounted SAR responders can move faster in some terrains than a human on foot, can transport more equipment and may be physically less exhausted than a SAR responder performing the same task on foot. Mounted SAR responders typically have longer initial response times than ground pounder SAR resources, due to the time required to pick up trailers, horses and perhaps also water, feed and equipment.


Why horses?


“They are virtually noiseless,” Samms begins to explain. “Horses can evacuate victims, they are virtually unaffected by weather, rain, snow or mud. Horses can be a valuable intermediary between searchers and victims and leave tracks that are not confused with the victim. Mounted searchers can devote their full attention to searching and do not have to watch the terrain, like you would need to do if you were operating a four-wheeler or a snowmobile.”


What breed of horses are used for this?


“Any breed, age or size of horse can be useful in search and rescue,” said Samms. “The horse has to be able to carry two riders and have the stamina to ride all day on a search.”


Samms explained that the riders must demonstrate competency in riding, equine health and equine care, and that is accomplished through a riding test and a written test.


“For someone to become a member of STAR1 SAR (statewide search team begun in Story County in 1993), they must accomplish several skills,” Samms said. “This is done by completing land navigation, knot tying, search skills, clue and site procedures (crime scene preservation), understanding of the ICS system, passing a map and compass test, passing a written test and several field tests.”


Once the SAR TECH II is achieved, the next step is to move on to the MSAR TECH II, which is another completion of more skills, which include several items that the horse and rider must be able to complete.


“Behavior where the horse should be quiet and well mannered; the horse should show no aggression toward people and domestic animals; the horse must demonstrate the ability to transport between search sites easily; the horse must demonstrate the ability to stand quietly while tethered and the horse must demonstrate the ability to work independently from the herd.”


“Agility using multiple gaits the horse must demonstrate when moving forward, as well as the horse must demonstrate the ability to move backward, to ford creeks and streams, to cross bridges and the ability to negotiate obstacles normally found in the wilderness. “


Finally, the horse and rider must be able to pass the equine field test.


Samms said that anyone skilled in trail riding and who would like to give back to the community can become part of the team.


“Right now, we have 20-plus members on the Search and Rescue Team, and we have three certified mounted riders,” she said. “Training is done locally, in Story County normally. We do travel around to various places to train, within Iowa. Our group meets the third Saturday of the month for training. We are SAR TECH II certified with the National Association of Search and Rescue and SAR TECH III certified with the Mounted Search and Rescue.”


This group of SAR team members respond, covering all of Iowa, and have been called into Nebraska and Illinois.


Samms concluded in saying if there is anyone interested in becoming part of the Search and Rescue or Mounted Search and Rescue to please contact her at 515-460-0777.


“We don’t expect individuals to possess the skills needed before they can join us,” she said. “We learn and train together.”