Just two days before her daughter's wedding in 2006, Sandy Olds and her neighbors received an automated Code Red telephone call from the Walworth County Sheriff's office saying that a 13-year-old autistic boy was lost in their rural neighborhood. Olds recalls thinking that she couldn't begin to imagine what it was like for that boy's mother and, despite the wedding preparations, she offered to help in the search.
"I have horses and have done a lot of trail riding," she recalls. "I knew the woods because I rode in them all the time."
Olds, who works in geriatric physical therapy, was directed to law enforcement's temporary command station just down the road, and staff there welcomed her help, although they didn't want her to go out on horseback on her own.
She called a friend, and they went out together. By 4:30 p.m. that day, the boy had been found.
Although it wasn't Olds and her friend who found the boy, the experience planted the seeds of an idea.
After spending a great deal of time researching existing mounted search and rescue teams, developing by-laws, guidelines for both members and horses and exploring training options, a core group of six-10 women from Jefferson, Rock and Walworth counties formed WAMSTAR, the Whitewater Area Mounted Search Team and Rescue.
WAMSTAR volunteers its services to law-enforcement and emergency professionals who are searching for missing persons in rural areas.
Although most of the searches in which they've participated have taken place in the three-county area, as they become more well known in emergency and law-enforcement circles, they've been welcomed to help out in other areas, like Reedsburg.
"We were told there was a need, and we thought we could fulfill it," Jelaine Goehl, WAMSTAR's chairperson, says of the group's beginnings.
The group, which was formed in 2007 and was granted its 501(c)3 non-profit standing in early in 2010, is made up on nearly 20 area men and women.
Mounted search and rescue teams offer several advantages. Mounted teams are able to search large forested areas, snowmobile and bike trails, open fields and other terrain relatively quickly to locate - for example - downed aircraft or lost hunters, hikers and children.
They are not greatly hindered by steep or boggy terrain, bad weather, thick or tall ground cover, dense woods or heavy brush.
"Horses are good for searching," says Goehl of rural Whitewater. "You have a higher perspective and sometimes it's easier to see where people have gone."
The horse's innate ability to hear, see and smell something out of the ordinary helps searchers, and the horse's stamina far outstrips that of people searching on foot, she adds.
WAMSTAR has specific requirements for horses, many of which are qualities riders desire in a well-trained horse.
They include standing quietly when being mounted and while tied, the ability to remain under the control of the rider both when ridden with other horses and when other horses ride away, to tolerate loud noises and distractions like caution tape or flares, to cross water and railroad tracks, to move across different terrains and grades, and to be ridden double.
BEST SEARCH HORSES
Goehl believes the best search horses are ones that are reactive to stimuli.
"A reactive horse works best," she says. "You want a horse that isn't going to freak out at things, but it's OK if they're reactive because they're going to let you know what's going on around you. It's much easier to work (based) on the actions of a reactive horse. You really don't want a bomb-proof horse. You can have a reactive horse and still have a safe horse."
Searchers are always on the alert for tracks, trails and clues like broken branches, dropped debris or flattened grass, but they also need to pay attention to what their horse is telling them.
"It's amazing how easy it is to walk right past a person. . . (but) your horse tell you when there's something out of the ordinary," she explains. "You have to be a partner with your horse."
TRaining and preparing
Although the group might be called out on a search and rescue mission just once or twice a year, training and preparedness are a major focus of the group year-round. Members are expected to attend a minimum of 50 percent of all training sessions.
Group members attend first-aid and CPR training sessions put on by the Whitewater Police Department, obstacle training with their horses and mock searches, for example.
Members work at exposing their horses to unfamiliar noises, equipment - like ATVs and farm equipment - as well as other livestock, and members have to learn search and rescue protocols, like how to work with others in a grid search and how to identify and protect clues.
Already proficient in navigating by compass, the group recently completed training in land navigation led by both Goehl's son, Mike, a military veteran, and an ROTC sergeant at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
The training will enable riders to use topographical maps from the U.S. Geological Service to search grids by topography instead of relying on landmarks.
Two members of the LaSalle (IL) County Sheriff's Department Mounted Posse, Ruth Fenneck and Lois Guyon, regularly provide training on topics like victim behavior, tracking and night, winter and summer searches.
Later this month, the group will participate in a cooperative training program with the Madison Mounted Police. The Madison Mounted Police will train WAMSTAR members and their horses around urban obstacles, and WAMSTAR members will train members of the Madison Mounted Police on search techniques in rural areas.
"The more we learn, the more we feel we need to learn," says Goehl, a registered nurse.
One of the challenges WAMSTAR faces is simply getting known to law-enforcement and emergency professionals leading search and rescue efforts.
Although WAMSTAR members train extensively and have positioned themselves as serious, professional volunteers, Olds says it's taken awhile to become known to the professionals who can best make use of their services.
"I think a lot of the professionals were thinking that this was a group of people who just liked to ride horses," Olds says.
With each search and rescue effort with which they've been involved, though, that perception has changed, and professionals they've assisted have been complimentary.
New members welcome
Goehl notes the group welcomes new people to their group as mounted riders as well as people to work at the base station with law-enforcement and emergency personnel. People at the base station work with the search commander - a county or municipal law-enforcement or emergency professional - to assign and coordinate riders in search areas, keep track of riders' locations and maintain an activity log.
The group has had a variety of experiences. They sometimes are called to assist with a search, only to be called off en route because the person has been found, for example. Some searches have ended well, with the missing person found, although not necessary by WAMSTAR members.
"Sometimes, by the time they call (for assistance), they're looking for a body," Goehl says. ". . . And sometimes they put us in places where it's not likely that the people will be, but then they know where they aren't."
Goehl notes that group members have diverse equine interests. Some show, some go camping with their horses and some do endurance riding, for example, "but they all wanted to be able to provide a service and also use their horses."
Both Olds and Goehl view WAMSTAR's efforts as a way to provide a unique service to others.
"We usually don't interact a lot with the family (of the missing person). . . but even when it's a bad outcome, the family is so grateful that you came and that you helped," Goehl explained.
Olds says she always puts herself in the shoes of the family of the missing person.
". . . I can't help but think of what it would be like to be the mother of that child who is missing," she says.
For more information about the Whitewater Area Mounted Search Team and Rescue, contact Jelaine Goehl at 262-473-6668 or email to email@example.com.
The group's website is www.wamstar.org.