While visiting a mall (of all places to see horses), I was drawn to a group of horses and riders in the parking lot. The horses were calmly walking around, responding to their riders’ cues and generally looking stunningly smart and beautiful. They were there to promote the local search and rescue horse operations, and I was enthralled.
Enlisting the help of horses to perform search and rescue missions is something that’s been going on almost since the beginning of civilization. As people acknowledge the value of these special equines, the use of search and rescue (SAR) horses is gaining more interest.
Interestingly, SAR horses are trained so that their riders can take advantage of their horses' natural instincts, rather than forcefully trying to get them to learn rescue tasks. SAR horse trainers understand that horses are “prey” animals. Riders are taught to read the signs provided by their mounts when confronted by dangerous situations. For example, horses (and mules), as prey animals, are great at scent detection. They routinely scent the air, much the way a dog does, with the advantage of being much higher off the ground. Trained SAR horses can actually locate lost people by scent.
A horse has the ability to detect movement within a large field of vision, and can see at night better than we can. They have a well-developed sense of hearing, and they aren’t afraid to use it; they can hear things their riders may not pick up, because they’re constantly listening in all directions at all times.
But maybe the most fascinating clues SAR horse trainers receive are through a horse’s body language, even with pawing. See if you recognize any of these movements with your own horse -- they’re all natural signals. On a rescue, a rider will apply these actions to the situation at hand. According to Mounted SAR trainer and horse behaviorist Terry Nowacki, horses are talking up a storm when they exhibit these types of pawing actions:
- “Please,” or begging. The front leg is held up off the ground with the head in a medium to low position. Usually seen when the horse is begging for food or water.
- “I’m nervous,” or upset. The pawing is quicker and more sporadic, and the horse’s head is usually in a medium position. Frequently used when the horse is tied short or in a trailer.
- “I want.” Pawing is slower and more evenly spaced and the head is in a low to medium position. This is often what a horse will do if his feed is late.
- “Gotta check this out.” Pawing is softer and the head is in a low position. The horse is checking the condition of the ground, usually so he can potentially roll around. During an SAR operation, a horse will sometimes use this signal while scent locating.
- Tool or weapon. A horse may paw to try to move or break something, or to protect himself. This signal might occur if the horse is moving something to get the rider’s attention, or is trying to reach something, such as water.
- “I’m dominant here.” A horse with his head held higher, often in an arched position, giving a hard stomp with his leg in a stiff position, is attempting to demonstrate dominance. Horses usually exhibit this type of pawing when meeting other horses for the first time. They may also exhibit this behavior when they’re in training and trying to figure out their herd position.
Every movement a horse makes -- whether ear-pinning, tail-swishing or ground pawing, means something. SAR horses and riders are actually training each other in the nuances of horse-and-rider communication -- all in an effort to save lives. It’s truly amazing.