Pole Mountain was a popular place to be Sunday morning, with trailers dotting the dispersed campsites along the forest roads and hikers and bikers taking to the trails.
Near the base of the mountain, a posse of horses and riders rode single file with the goal of tackling some of the area’s toughest terrain. Their group ride would take them up the Headquarters Trail and down Death Crotch, both trails renowned for their rocky singletrack and unrelenting switchbacks.
They had more than just recreation on their mind, as the ride would familiarize horses and riders with the popular trails and the variety of users one might encounter on them — mountain bikers, hikers, dogs, fellow horses and more.
“If your horse isn’t desensitized to these trails, you’ll have a bad wreck, and somebody’s going to get hurt,” said Jim VanCise, a member of Wyoming Mounted Search and Rescue.
The horses would gain practice staying in a group and remaining calm.
“There’s a lot on these trails that’ll scare a horse,” VanCise said.
VanCise is a longtime member of Wyoming Mounted Search and Rescue, a group that looks to assist government agencies with emergency rescue operations.
The Cheyenne-based group has been active since the 1980s, but membership has dwindled recently.
Members are working to rekindle interest, especially among riders in Albany County, where many calls originate. The group is looking to build membership this summer, embark on training for new members and potentially participate in searches through agencies such as Albany County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue and Laramie County Search and Rescue.
“We’re just now trying to build it back up so we can be more useful to (Albany County) and more useful to Cheyenne as well,” VanCise said.
In a time when ATVs zip through tough terrain and cellphones connect people anywhere, the role of horse and rider in a rescue operation might seem quaint at first glance. But not so, VanCise said.
Horses can go where wheeled vehicles can’t. They move faster than people on foot. They carry more than several people put together. If your cellphone does manage to signal your whereabouts, a horse might be the first to arrive, and it might carry you to safety.
“It’s a very, very important link, and it saves a lot of manpower,” he said.
During a search for a missing person, a rider on horseback can see a lot more than a person walking on the ground.
“That elevation gives you a tremendous advantage when you’re out on a horse, versus being at ground level,” he said. “It’s a big difference there.”
Dan Hutchison, president of Albany County Search and Rescue, said a rider on horseback also has an advantage during a search because he or she can hear more than a rider on an ATV.
“A lot of times when you’re out on a search, you’re listening for sounds and people in distress,” he said. “Horses are fairly quiet, compared to ATVs, and they can get into areas that ATVs can’t.”
Hutchison said mounted search and rescue could potentially be another specialized resource for the Albany County group, depending on the conditions of the operation and available resources. Members of the Albany County group also take part in specialized training for search and rescue using ropes, in water and using dogs.
Search and rescue groups are volunteer organizations, with members usually using their own equipment and paying their own expenses. Members commit to regular attendance at meetings and ongoing training.
VanCise said non-riders are welcome to join as well, as volunteers are always needed in non-search roles during an operation.
“It takes so many different people,” he said.