Whitewater Area Mounted Search Team and Rescue uses horses to help with searches

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Andrea Anderson
October 11, 2014

WHITEWATER—In summer 2006, Sandy Olds was preparing for her daughter's wedding when an automated call alerted her that a 13-year-old autistic boy was missing near her Richmond home.

Olds called the Walworth County Sheriff's Office and offered to search for the boy on horseback. Deputies directed her to a command post, where she was told her services would be appreciated but that she wasn't allowed to go out alone.

She phoned a friend and gathered a few horses.

The boy was found later that day.

Olds and her friend didn't find the boy, but she found a use for her riding skills and compassion. The Whitewater Area Mounted Search Team and Rescue formed a year later.

“I just can't imagine myself being in that position and only hope if anything did happen somebody would step up and say, 'Hey, I'm here to help. I don't know you, but I understand what you're going through, and no matter what the outcome is we're here for you guys,'” Olds said.


After researching mounted search team training and techniques and calling area law enforcement and emergency personnel, Olds started recruiting members.

The team in seven years has grown from Olds and her horse to about 22 participants from Walworth, Rock and Jefferson counties. It leads four or five searches a year across the state.

The team primarily covers the three local counties, team members have gone as far as Reedsburg.

The team has partnered with numerous law enforcement agencies and the Department of Natural Resources in Eagle.

Members, including Olds, watch the news and surf the Web for missing persons searches they can help.

Walworth County Sheriff's Office Undersheriff Kurt Picknell and Capt. Scott McClory said the team is an invaluable resource.

“They work well with our search operations,” Picknell said. “I find them to be extremely valuable … They're very in tune to the search areas.”

The horses and their owners can search terrain deputies on foot can't normally access because of brush or narrow trails.

This summer, the mounted search team took to the Kettle Moraine State Forest in search of Russ Delorme, an Elkhorn man who went missing in July and was found in the Kettle Moraine in August.

Delorme's family spoke kindly of the search team, McClory said.

“The family and friends of Russ Delorme were very appreciative of the fact that WAMSTAR joined us in this search,” McClory said. “Obviously, more eyes are better than less eyes when you're searching for someone in a large forest area that's very thick and full of brush, etc. They were very appreciative and asked us to share that with them.”

Expediting searches is one reason Olds founded the mounted search and rescue squad and a reason Roger Kincaid joined. It's not for money or praise, it's for the hope of a happy ending, they said.


There are certain things horses can pick up on that seasoned law enforcement and other volunteers or animals can't, Olds said.

The animals' heightened sense of hearing, smell and eyesight picks up on clues faster than humans. Being 10 feet above the ground gives riders an aerial view people on foot or ATV don't have.

In a simulation training in the Kettle Moraine, a woman was placed in a gully, and law enforcement, riders and horses had to find her. Fire departments were put on standby in case medical attention is needed at mock and real searches.

The woman they were looking for later told Olds the officers on ATVs went by her three times because they couldn't hear her calls for help. Searchers on horses, because they're quieter, heard the woman's screams and were able to locate her about 30 feet off the narrow trail.


Mock searches are one way the team trains for real life situations.

Sometimes law enforcement joins them. Other times it's just riders and their horses.

Olds encourages law enforcement to join the team in practices because it shows officers how they operate and that they are trained and professional.

All riders and horses go through training and follow strict search guidelines, Olds said.

Team members, who must be 18 years old and older, spend the winter learning how to perform search techniques, operate radios, be team leaders, read maps and operate a compass and GPS devices. They also must be certified in CPR and take a first aid class.

Once the weather turns nice, riders and their horses work to get certified on about 30 activities, such as horses standing quietly next to a trailer while riders search on foot, crossing water and traversing obstacles.

Participants are required to attend at least 50 percent of the monthly meetings and training sessions. The training helps limit liability and demonstrates professionalism to law enforcement, Olds and Kincaid said.

The group has trained and swapped tips with the Madison Police Department Mounted Horse Patrol Unit and LaSalle County Mounted Sheriff's Posse out of Ottawa, Illinois.


“I try to help out with what I can just to give back to the community,” Kincaid said. “If it happens to be one of my friends or family members, I just hope I can help out and give people closure and reunite their family.”

The majority of the riders work full-time jobs, but their employers have let them off early for searches, Kincaid said. When someone goes missing, a phone tree begins.

Kincaid is retired and lives in Whitewater. He's chairman of the team and base commander.

When they're searching, Kincaid monitors the radio at home base and communicates with the riders. He doesn't ride because of back problems.

Mounted search teams are not as common in Wisconsin as in the West, Kincaid said. The only other one he knows of is in northern Wisconsin.

He and others reach out to area law enforcement, and awareness of the team has grown.

“I think that when they see us in action, they're starting to realize the training we've had is good and that we are an asset,” Olds said.

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