TERREBONNE, Ore. – An Appaloosa gelding named Joker took 2 minutes and 20 seconds to find a carefully hidden volunteer in a 13-acre, semiwooded field near Terrebonne.
Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins watched, astonished, as Joker and rider George Ehmer, 66, of Milton-Freewater, Ore., nosed out the hidden volunteer earlier this month.
It was a dramatic and spectacular demonstration of what practitioners call “equine air-scenting.” The event was organized by a loosely knit central Oregon group that hopes to use horses in the role of bloodhounds during backcountry searches.
“They’ve definitely got my attention,” Adkins said. “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, Ore., arranged the search demonstration with Laurie Adams, of Camp Sherman, Ore. They 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.
“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 nonprofit horse rescue called Mustangs to the Rescue, Beardsley owns two horses schooled in air-scent techniques and has helped organize air-scent clinics for six years.
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, Beardsley said.
“They will search out the most recent scent, the hottest human scent,” she said.
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 Sign 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 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.
“They say to themselves, ‘I’ve got a stupid human, and I’ll just put up with it,’ ” she said.
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