Over the past few months, King County Search and Rescue has opened up some of their units and shown us what is involved in back country rescue. This month we’re looking at the Horseback Unit, also known as Northwest Horseback Search and Rescue  (NWHSAR).

NWHSAR is a unit of trained volunteers and their horses that serve the King County Sheriff’s Office in Search and Rescue. The team members are horse handlers first, and learn the required SAR training along with their horses. Their missions utilize all the benefits that horses provide in the field. Due to their size and strength, horses can often replace the work of about 20 team members on foot. If a subject can be carried out on horseback  instead of by hand on a litter, they often are removed more quickly and with only 3 to 5 members of the horse team, instead of 20 to 30 required of a foot team. NWHSAR teams are prepared to render assistance to the public or other emergency workers, as needed.

Images Courtesy of NWHSAR

The group’s founders started the organization in 1996 by completing ESAR training, then organized specifically to utilize horses in rescue situations.  They restructured the ESAR training to suit horseback functions and access the assets of their horses. Members and their horses complete a complex 6-month training process to qualify as search and rescue (SAR) workers.

Horses are an invaluable asset on SAR missions, as they provide a higher vantage point for searching, move faster than rescuers on foot, and can carry more weight.  Additionally, the horses possess an instinctive, observant nature that makes them valuable and active participants in searches. Their senses are much like dogs, more sensitive to sounds and smells than ours, and are effective searchers naturally. Horses will often alert their riders to the presence of other people in the field.

When “paged-out” by the sheriff’s office, NWHSAR members may assist with:

  • Lost person searches (in both urban and backcountry settings)
  • Delivering needed medical/rescue supplies into the field
  • Carrying injured subjects
  • Radio relay assistance
  • Helping other rescue units
  • Evidence searches and other duties as needed.

As a 501-C3 organization, Northwest Horseback Search and Rescue is dependent upon donations to cover unit operating expenses.  If you would like to support this valuable organization and its dedicated members, please contact us at www.nwhsar.org.

If you aren’t familiar or comfortable with how to treat horses on the trail, here are some thing to remember:

-Speak gently, softly, even if you are a fanatic horse lover. The high, squeaky, exuberant voices can startle and confuse horses. Do your best to let them know you are a calm human.

-With a backpack on, your shape looks different than normal. Horses can easily confuse you for something other than a human.

-Their sense of smell is keen, they’ll know you are there before they see you, and it’s best to let them see you in plain sight.

-Give them a wide space to pass on the trail. Horses are 1200 pounds or more. Give them plenty of room to pass you, and do let them pass. They’re likely going faster than you are.

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