Least Resistance Training Concepts

Volunteers Training for Emergencies

  LRTC Emergency Response Team
Mounted Searching:

Updated May 31, 2017

Please note: This information sheet is not intended to be an instruction guide for equine scent detection. It is presented as an illustration of the aptitude horses have for tracking, with an emphasis on using scents to locate missing subjects. We developed these skills as an outgrowth from our historic use of targeting and clicker training for desensitizing range rescue team and MSAR horses to scary objects and unsettling situations. More specific training details appear in links provided at the end of this information sheet.


In an age of technology, high performance off highway vehicles (OHVs,) unmanned aerial devices, GPS and other modern conveniences, many search and rescue organizations have drifted away from effectively utilizing horses. You don't have to feed and clean up after an OHV and a horse can't simply be parked in a garage until it is needed. As a result, a national trend has developed wherein a preponderance of SAR units do not (or no longer) understand the inherent advantages of using horses in specific search and rescue scenarios, or how their effective use can often significantly shorten the time required to locate subjects. Equally imortant is recognizing situations where mounted searches would not be safe or effective.

Clearly there are advantages provided by motorized transport, most notably the reduced time required to travel long distances and the ability to transport people and supplies. However for actual detection, the speed of motorized travel can exceed the ability of drivers and passengers to visually process all of the signs that may be present. Furthermore, the noise generated by motorized vehicles can drown out cries for help and other auditory clues.

Trusty "ground pounding" is often the most thorough mode of searching. Effective use of appropriately trained mounted searchers can materially improve both the rate and distance of ground searches while still traveling at a speed where mounted searchers can effectively process visual clues and without constant engine noise. Plus, horses bring additional detection tools to the incident - their native abilities to notice objects and smells. These traits can be significantly advantageous if their riders are trained to recognize their horses' alert signals and tracking behaviors.

Practical experience has shown that appropriately trained mounted units can access locations that are too difficult to effectively reach on foot or by OHV. Helicopter searches are often an option, however in some types of tree cover the rotor wash can dislodge dangerous debris onto subjects and searchers. This debris can range from birds' nests and pine cones to weak limbs and on rare occasions entire trees that have weakened root systems. We should avoid teaching children to "hug a tree" only to be injured or killed by dislodged objects.

An effective SAR unit maintains a diverse "tool box" of search assets and has a command staff that maintains a thorough working knowledge as to the capabilities and most practical applicabilities for all those assets, including mounted responders. Unfortunately national trends suggest that unless a SAR hierarchy actually trains on mounted search operations, the organization tends to fixate on what they are most familiar with - ground pounding and motorized assets. The mounted unit, if present at all, is often relegated as an afterthought.

Delayed deployment or inappropriate use of mounted resources tends to produce poor performance. In such cases the poor performance attributed to the mounted team often lies in command staff's lack of training and knowledge in how to effectively use available mounted resources.

This information sheet is intended to provide general details regarding the most practical applications for mounted search teams, and to describe the vastly underutilized instinctive abilities inherent to horses - mainly their advanced sense of smell.

Operational Issues.

While the organizational emphasis and techniques employed by search and rescue organizations may vary in response to local conditions and perceived needs, effective organizations typically maintain proficiency in a few key areas. These are described in order to better illustrate how mounted teams should integrate into the overall SAR organizational profile. Key functional elements include:

  • An ICS compliant hierarchy that includes a clearly identified Chain of Command and employs ICS defined Unity of Command during exercises and incidents.

  • A clearly defined and practical safety plan and designation of a formal Safety Officer during exercises and incidents. Also establishment of an operational culture where everyone is a Safety Officer, whether or not a formal Safety Officer's position has been filled.

  • An effective Communications Plan that is utilized during exercises and incidents.

  • A real-time Personnel Accountability System that includes Personal Accountability Report (PAR) updates at predetermined intervals that are appropriate for the exercise or incident.

  • A commitment to constant situational awareness. Everyone needs to practice full situational awareness, not simply rely on superiors or designated observers.

  • A commitment to active listening. Effective search team members need to actively process verbal communications and take notice of details rather than make assumptions that result from hearing fragments of instructions and/or other relevant communications. To this end there is value in limiting superfluous communications during exercises and incidents as this "white noise" can desensitize active listening.

  • The ability to recognize all useful resources and assets, including the most appropriate applicability of each.

  • The ability to develop a practical Incident Action Plan that is readily adaptable to changing conditions and priorities.

  • An Incident Command System that facilitates feedback and real-time situational intelligence.

In analyzing failed operations and incidents where responders were seriously injured or killed, generally there was a deficiency in one or more of these key functional elements.

Continue to Considerations for Utilizing a Mounted Team

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