In a spectacular demonstration of “equine air-scenting”, Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins watched, astonished, as Appaloosa gelding named Joker and rider George Ehmer, 66, of Milton-Freewater took 2 minutes and 20 seconds to find a carefully hidden volunteer in a 13-acre, semi-wooded field near Terrebonne. Richard Cockle of The Oregonian takes up the story.
“They’ve definitely got my attention,” Adkins said Wednesday . “That was a pretty difficult search because the wind kept changing on us. That horse just went right over there and zigged and zagged and zoomed right in.”
Horsewoman Kate Beardsley of Redmond arranged the search demonstration with Laurie Adams of Camp Sherman. The pair are assembling a team of a dozen air-scent trained horses and riders that they hope eventually will be deployed around the Northwest when hunters, hikers and others go missing.
Joker, a 22-year-old Appaloosa, and rider George Ehmer of Milton-Freewater have their picture taken by a volunteer hiding in a ditch during a June 6 demonstration that horses are as good as bloodhounds at finding missing people. Joker sniffed out the volunteer in a 13-acre, partially wooded field near Terrebonne in 2 minutes, 20 seconds. PHOTO COURTESY GEORGE EHMER
“A lot of people don’t know that horses do this at all,” said Beardsley. “Laurie and I are focused on saving lives.”
The ranch-raised Beardsley, 47, said a horse’s olfactory receptors rival those of a tracking dog. As a horse trainer, professional horse packer and founder of a non-profit horse rescue called Mustangs to the Rescue, Beardsley owns two horses schooled in air-scent techniques and has helped organize air-scent clinics here for six years.
Joker, a 22-year-old Appaloosa, and rider George Ehmer of Milton-Freewater have their picture taken by a volunteer hiding in a ditch during a June 6 demonstration that horses are as good as bloodhounds at finding missing people. Joker sniffed out the volunteer in a 13-acre, partially wooded field near Terrebonne in 2 minutes, 20 seconds.COURTESY GEORGE EHMER
While little-known, the concept has been around awhile.
“I call it the lost art,” says horse trainer Terry Nowacki of Argyle, Minn., who began reviving the techniques about 11 years ago. “It is the best-kept secret in the horse world.”
Theodore Roosevelt was aware of what horses’ noses can do, and hired a hunting guide in the 1880s that “followed his horse’s nose to buffalo,” according to Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris. Four decades earlier, a mustang called Sacramento repeatedly saved explorer Col. John Fremont’s life by scenting enemies along the trail, wrote frontier historian Glenn R. Vernam. Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie also wrote of horses with exceptional noses in his 1952 book, “The Mustangs.”
Tracking dogs can outperform horses in thick underbrush, said Nowacki, 57. But horses often hold the advantage because airborne scent rises and horses stand taller than dogs, he said.
Another plus for horses: A tired horse opens its nostrils wider, exposing more olfactory receptors, said Nowacki. A dog, on the other hand, pants when tired and overheated, diminishing its scenting ability.
Letting a horse sniff a hairbrush or article of a missing person’s clothing isn’t necessary, said Beardsley.
“They will search out the most recent scent, the hottest human scent,” she said.
Listening to horses
Nowacki, a professional horse trainer, stumbled onto the usefulness of search horses a dozen years ago in Minnesota while helping to look for a missing 80-year-old Alzheimer’s patient, he said.
For three days, searchers and tracking dogs walked a narrow trail to a forest where they believed the missing man became lost, he said. On day three, a horse ridden along the trail stopped suddenly and snorted. The rider glanced down and saw the missing man in the undergrowth. He’d never even made it into the forest that was being searched.
The man survived, and Nowacki began probing the capabilities of horses in search and rescue scenarios. He’s since written two books, the “Air Scenting Horse,” and, “Equine Language and Communication Journal.” Nowacki has a website, Equine Detection Services, and hosts four or five clinics a year on equine air-scenting around the nation, including one here in Terrebonne in early June.
“This is so natural for a horse,” Beardsley said. “Horses smell everything, and they tell everyone around them what they smell.’
Chatterboxes by nature, horses communicate with other horses via a complex equine sign language of ear movements, body posture, neck swings, head positions, snorts and exhalations. Riders seldom have a clue what’s being said, but horses are stoic about that, said Beardsley.
Horse trainer Kate Beardsley of Redmond said a horses olfactory receptors rival those of a tracking dog. She hopes to use horses in the role of bloodhounds during backcountry searches. RANDY L. RASMUSSEN/The Oregonian
“They say to themselves, ‘I’ve got a stupid human, and I’ll just put up with it,'” she said.
Accordingly, most of Nowacki’s clinic time is focused on teaching riders to understand what their horses are trying to communicate.
Adams, who has been through Nowacki’s clinics, said she’s become so proficient at deciphering her registered Paint gelding Joey’s conversation that she knows when he’s scenting a deer, a cougar or a human being.
Horses also can be taught to find elk antlers, wild morel mushrooms, illicit marijuana gardens or any number of things, said Beardsley. All that’s needed is to reward them with a treat for going to the source of the scent.
Beardsley’s Haflinger mare, Mocha, began finding hidden volunteers after a single 10-minute lesson, she said.
“I couldn’t hold her back from chasing the scent to the source,” she said. “It does blow my socks off.”