Search and Rescue Horses with Sharon Pomeroy

In this episode of K9 Conservationists, Kayla speaks with Sharon Pomeroy about search and rescue horses. 

Science Highlight: None

Links Mentioned in the Episode: 


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Transcript (AI-Generated)

Kayla Fratt  00:09

Hello and welcome to the K9Conservationists podcast, where we’re positively obsessed with conservation detection dogs. Join us every other week to discuss detection, training, canine welfare, conservation, biology and everything in between. I’m Kayla Fratt, one of the co-founders of K9Conservationists, where we train dogs to detect data for land managers, researchers, agencies and NGOs.

Kayla Fratt  00:30

I am super excited to be talking to Sharon Pomeroy today about search and rescue horses. So we’re neither talking dogs, nor conservation. But I think you all are going to really enjoy this conversation. We’re going to learn all about, you know, what we know and what we don’t know about olfaction and horses, how you train horses to do search and rescue, you know, where this field may or may not be going. There’s all sorts of really exciting stuff. And yeah, we’re just gonna dive right into it. We don’t have any new reviews, nor did I have time to put together a science highlight.

Kayla Fratt  01:02

So Sharon, welcome to the podcast. You’re the entire show today.

Sharon Pomeroy  01:06

Hi, how are you?

Kayla Fratt  01:08

 I’m so good. I really, I we’re just talking right before I hit record that I’ve had to cut down to every other week, and I really miss podcasting. I love doing this show so much. So why don’t we start out a little bit about you know, who are you? What is your background, tell us a little bit about your horses, you know, just kind of lay the groundwork for us of who you are.

Sharon Pomeroy  01:32

Sure. So my name is Sharon, I live on a 90 acre property in Central Maine with my husband and my son who’s six and two horses and 22 chickens and a dog. I’m really lucky to have a property this size. In this area. It’s not that difficult, but it’s definitely nice to have trails there. And in my own property.

Sharon Pomeroy  01:54

I’ve been doing search and rescue for over 15 years now. I’m on my second horse, I still have the first one; my first search and rescue horse is 27. So I expect he’ll be around for another five years or so. And he’s still rideable. But he mostly focused on visual search and rescue. So he was my transportation. And I would pay attention to what he might tell me about but I didn’t expect him to really have much to say, other than I don’t think it’s safe to walk here. So let’s walk over here instead, which is actually more valuable than you might think when you’re trying to use your eyes for something else. So his name is Zephyr.

Sharon Pomeroy  02:31

And then my newer horse, Kodak is about 10 years younger, younger, they’re both they’re both unregistered mutts, basically. So I don’t really know exactly how old either one of them is. But Kodak is about 17. And I’ve had him since 2016. He had no particular training, neither one of these horses had any particular training when I got them. And they’re completely different in personality. From from one to the next, but it when I got Kodak very shortly after I got him.

Sharon Pomeroy  03:06

We started my search and rescue team started training in equine air scent, which was something that I had known about for about five years prior, but we hadn’t had the finances as a team to go after it at all. Because the only trainer that we knew about was in Minnesota, and we’re in Maine. So it was fascinating. And I really wanted to get him into the state. And we finally got him into the state and we hosted and it was mind blowing. It was it was just absolutely eye opening as far as what how underutilized horses really were in search and rescue. And that we were just using them. I mean, we said they were our partners, but we really were just using them as transportation, we weren’t really paying attention to anything that they might be observing and trying to tell us about. Because we didn’t know how we thought.

Sharon Pomeroy  04:03

So that was really eye opening in that first two day clinic. Kodak was was really nailing it. And I got really excited there’s a video actually of his first hidden search and when I say hidden I’m using air quotes because a human could tell that there was a person rolled up in the tarp in the field, but the horse is a horse, they don’t they don’t know that they just see something they don’t realize it’s a person. So it was just it was really interesting to watch this one horse progress through and, and I learned so much and he taught me so much. It’s just been it’s been really amazing in the last few years.

Kayla Fratt  04:44

Yeah, that’s so cool. And yeah, I can also totally see how you’re ending up using or you’re starting out with just using horses as transportation. And then you know, yeah, if you’re gonna have these horses out there anyway, you might as well See if they can be helpful. Yeah, so what do you know about kind of the history of using horses for searching for olfaction? I know we were talking about there’s just really very little research on their olfactory capabilities, but maybe you can outline what we do and don’t know for our listeners,

Sharon Pomeroy  05:20

Right. I have not been able to find scientific data about how many what do they call them set receptor receptors. Horses have as I mean, they can tell you how many humans have and how many dogs have and probably how much a frog has, but I haven’t seen anything about how many scent receptors a horse has. But I will tell you that their signup sinus cavity runs the entire length of their head. Oh my god, yeah. And, of course, your head torso. And, and Kodak’s head is bigger than it should be for his body, like it’s out of proportion. Well, he’s a, he turns out, he’s a draft cross. So he’s, he’s technically a pony, but his head is, is it’s, it’s

Sharon Pomeroy  06:07

Oh, it’s very cute. Very cute.

Sharon Pomeroy  06:10

He’s really cute. Trust me, but But yeah, he’s, he’s a little out of proportion. But anyway, um, so they’re their sinuses run the entire length of their head. And since even before horses looked like today’s horses, they were prey animals, they’re responsible for finding their own safe food and water, avoiding predators, and, you know, keeping themselves and their herd safe.

Sharon Pomeroy  06:37

So they’re used to observing and communicating to their herd about safety and about, you know, like physical safety and food safety. So it’s not something that’s not something you have to teach them. That’s the really cool part about it is they already know that and they’re already doing it. The biggest thing that you have to teach anybody is you have to teach the horse. And when I say horse, please just know that I mean, equine, it could be a mule, I’m sure mules would be really good at this, I haven’t seen it.

Sharon Pomeroy  07:12

You have to teach the equine that when they smell this smell in this category, not necessarily a specific person, although they could do that. But when they smell this smell, it’s their responsibility to take over and get there take you there. You have to teach the rider to recognize when the horse smells that smell, and put their hand down and give over control. Yeah, and that is almost the harder part. I mean, it’s definitely the harder part, because rider has to recognize it. And they have to not second guess their horse. And they have to. They just have blind faith, really, because we can’t see the scent. And then as as your folks know, does all kinds of weird things. So yeah. There’s sometimes like no logic to it, as far as I can tell.

Sharon Pomeroy  08:07

Even with all of the scent theory out there, and you can read about it as much as you want, but you still can’t see it when it’s happening. So I can like see what the Sun is doing and see that I’m in a valley and like know that the wind is coming this way. But like that doesn’t. It’s not nuanced enough, like at least my understanding of it, especially on these big landscapes. You know, it gives you it gives you a ballpark, but it’s hard to predict. And I think anyone who really thinks that they know exactly what’s happening and can predict it perfectly in these big landscapes is probably overconfident in the same way that like stock brokers who think that they know what the market is going to do.

Sharon Pomeroy  08:49

Yeah, or weather forecasters.

Kayla Fratt  08:52

Yeah, you’re an expert for sure. Like I believe you on that. And you’re probably broadly right and mostly right most of the time, but so okay, one of the things that I keep thinking about as you’re talking is when I’m out working with my dogs, and my dogs catch odor, they are small. And they can just go barrel through the undergrowth. And I don’t necessarily have to go with them. So I didn’t really get Yeah, but uh, you go check that out. I’m gonna wait here. And if you find something, then you live out and then I’ll come up, then I’ll come do the data and give you give you your ball. But you have to go with your horses and I have not spent a ton of time in Maine. Although weirdly enough, I did a survival based reality TV show in northern Maine. A couple years really? Yeah. And it is dense. I mean, it’s so many teeny tiny trees everywhere. You know them. Yeah. How do you do that?


We have two things in Maine that we have a lot of and that is trees and rocks. So you actually nailed one of the reasons why we haven’t made more progress here in Maine and that is the trees so that actually makes this whole thing way more complicated because most of our searches whether it’s air scent, or whether it’s visual, or on trails, so I assume you know what happens to scent when you’re on a trail. It’s, it’s not pretty sometimes it can be very misleading on where the scent is coming from.

Sharon Pomeroy  10:26

So for example, on a trail search, as you go down the trail, let’s say it’s a regular truck with trail, like, we get sent onto a lot of ATV trails, and old logging roads and things like that. As you search the trail, you have to weave back and forth, you know, not in such a way that you’re annoying your horse by over steering, but in such a way that you’re catching the scent from both sides, and you have to duck you have to duck into the woods now and then to check to see if there’s scent coming from in the trees.

Sharon Pomeroy  10:59

But you nailed it, absolutely. If the horse catches the scent, he’s going to try to go after it, whether there’s room for you or not. So yeah, that’s actually the biggest thing is when you get to the point where in training, you’re working on what I would consider to be an inaccessible hide, because it’s not accessible from the side, the horse catches the sense that it may be accessible from the other side. Sure, yeah. But the horse had, you have to trust the horse to know enough to say, this is the quadrant I need to get to. And then your horse has to trust you enough that when you say, we can’t go in this way, but we’re gonna go around over here and try it. They don’t give up on you that then say, well, I guess she doesn’t believe me, I’m not going to tell her next time. So that’s why when we try to set up our searches in the beginning, it’s very simple. It’s in a field, there’s as much of a straight line wind as we can manage, which is another thing that mean does not have a lot of it’s straight line winds and fields.

Sharon Pomeroy  12:01

That’s not what I think of when I think of Maine.


No, no, but we do our best. And the horses are surprisingly good at being able to cut through what we would consider to be, you know, the nonsense and and get to it. I did a trail search in the wintertime once and I set it up perfectly. So that and trust me, you can only do winter time searches until a certain point because then the snow is so deep, and it’s got too many isolators underneath and you’re risking cutting up their legs and stuff.

Sharon Pomeroy  12:34

But I put my hider in a position where I thought I could stay on XYZ trail, and they would be perfectly accessible and the wind would be blowing perfectly well, I headed out. And we went a little way down the trail instead of continuing straight down the trail. Kodak insists he has quite an opinion, he insisted on making a hard right. And then a hard left. And he approached the whole problem from the wrong side. And we couldn’t get there from here. So I had to do that circle around deal. And then once I got him close enough, he was able to get the sent from the correct side. And he will not from the correct side. It was still the wrong side. But he got the pooled sent rather than the drifted sent. So it was still a win. And it was a win for him. But it was one of those scenarios where it was like that that wasn’t the way I set up the problem.

Sharon Pomeroy  13:32

Yeah, you were one lesson and it ended up being so much harder. Gosh, if I had $1 for every time that happens in our mentoring group, to me and to our students. It’s like, oh, man, that was really not supposed to be that hard. But you know, the wind shifts that cloud moves, and then you’ve got direct sunlight somewhere you weren’t expecting or, you know, the dog or you know, I guess? Yeah, the dog or in your case, the horse. Yeah, makes a decision about where they’re going. And it’s like, well, because you chose to go that way around the building. Now this is right, 20 times harder.


But we do have the benefit. We do not to overtake you. But we do have the benefit of the horse being so much taller, and they can put their head up or down. So now we have a range of like, zero feet to seven feet that they can catch sentience. Yeah. So, I mean, I have pictures in our presentation that I shared with you of the same horse doing basically he can track or trail I’m not quite sure the difference. I just know my horse. If he’s got his nose to the ground, and he’s you know, acting in a certain way then I know he has sent and that’s why his head is down and I’m gonna let him have his head down. But there are other days when his head is like up like a giraffe and off we go and he’s chugging along. Did you get a chance to watch any of the videos?

Sharon Pomeroy  14:55

 Yeah, they were really cool. Yeah, I’ve never I’ve, I’ve ridden a little bit of dressage for the couple years that I lived in Montana. And that’s the bulk of my horse experience. And it’s just so I mean, it feels like, obviously not dissimilar to when I went from working in animal shelters where my job was trying to get dogs to not not to hide from men, or bark at strangers or whatever. And then going out and working with detection dogs and getting to see dogs do what they’re, they’re bred for out in, you know, these open spaces. And like the difference between a dressage routine and what you’re doing is a similar magnitude, it is so cool.

Kayla Fratt  15:39

And I think, you know, this is something we talked about during the pre interview, and that you hit on earlier that I really want to come back to is this point of control, and the rider and the horse needing to go back and forth on who is who’s driving. And that’s something we talk about all the time with our dogs, but I think the dog world and the horse world have different opinions, and some of them are very real, because you know, when I’m not, my dogs are not 1000s, or hundreds of pounds, and I’m not on their back. So if they make a decision that I disagree with, isn’t likely to cause me a spinal injury. Versus, you know, with your horse, you know, if your horse wants to, you know, drop their head and kick you off their back, it gets a totally different control conversation culturally. So how do you as a rider and maybe talking to other riders, and how do you help the horses understand when it’s okay for them to take the reins, I guess, for lack of a better term, because it’s just, it’s something that is so deeply ingrained in both the horse and the rider that that is not something that’s generally permitted. And my understanding of variety is relatively surface level. So also correct me if I’m making over generalizations?


No, no, it’s fine, you’re good. So the first clue that the horse has that they are going to be given the opportunity to be in control is the gear that you use the tech. Preferably, when you are working in air scent horse, you are riding them with different head gear, different bridle or different bit or both. And I’m using terms that are a little bit in for non horse people. So the minute I put his bridle on, he knows whether he’s going to be working today or not just based on what’s in his mouth.

Sharon Pomeroy  17:36

Additionally, when you are working scent, and they get the scent, and you’ve figured out that they got the scent, you rest your hand on their, their bottom of their neck, their withers right in front of the saddle. So you’ve you’ve got the pressure of your hand with the reins on their withers. And that does two things that makes it so that they can feel your hand the weight of your hand on others. And it also makes it so that if you want to take control back, it keeps you honest, because you actually have to pick your hand up. So one of the things that our trainer complains about when and even last summer when I was riding for him was, you’re fiddling with your reins, you’re fiddling with your reins. And it’s just habit like when you have ridden, especially people who don’t ride Western with the loose droopy rains. It’s just habit to like, fiddle with the head. And so he can see the rein moving. And we’ll be like, No, I wasn’t fiddling. And he’ll say you watch that video back later, you were fiddling.

Sharon Pomeroy  18:46

So that’s how the horse knows. It’s the combination of hopefully a different head gear, tack, bit. And also your hand on the reins on the wither. In that moment when you say yes, I recognize you’ve told me that you have scent so I’m putting my hand down and now you can take over now. Then you’ve got horses like Kodak who were extremely opinionated. And this was actually a real training challenge for me that because I don’t have a trainer that I worked with regularly whose local, I let get out of control. Kodak had developed a habit where he tries to double back. And I don’t know whether it started with when we’re out on a regular ride. He wants to go back to the barn because that’s where his buddy is. Or if it started with us doing too many blind searches and training because blind searches are fun, but you don’t know if you’ve gone past the scent and their boy, the horse turning around. You don’t know if they’re going back to get the scent or if they just want to go back to the barn because I do a lot of my training in my neighborhood because it’s a horse Send a horse trailering especially like my so expensive. And like I said, I live on 90 acres, there’s, there’s you might as well do it up and down my road. Yeah.

Sharon Pomeroy  20:09

That’s why you bought the 90 acres, I assume


That’s been my husband. It’s been in my husband’s family since the 50s. Awesome. But so I didn’t realize that that was happening. And let that get out of control. So now, I have to really still work through that with him where we’re out on a pleasure ride, and I don’t, I can’t let him turn around to go back to the barn anyway, because I don’t want to go back to the barn. So we don’t allow that. But if we’re on a search, did he go past the scent? And he’s go back and get the scent? Or is it something else? So that is where trusting your horse has to come into play. I was actually attempting to certify on my did daytime trail test and I screwed that one up. He he was we’re just all over the place. I hope that’s okay.

Sharon Pomeroy  21:05

Oh, fascinating. This is very, this podcast is usually pretty conversational. Okay.


So we set out from where the, the evaluators are standing because the evaluators can’t go with us. They can’t go with us like a dog test. They go with you. Think about that for a second. Why can they go with you? Well, what are they going to do? Are they gonna run?

Sharon Pomeroy  21:32

Yeah, I guess. Yeah. Are they gonna make them run?


So we actually went through all of this, they can’t ride a bike. Because a lot of the places where we might go, you wouldn’t want to bring a bike. Ride an ATV. Same reason. Plus, it’s super loud and distracting. You can’t do it can’t do a drone, because loud and distracting plus line of sight plus how I mean, this is a three mile trail. Yeah. Can’t walk, because we don’t want them to have to run. Yeah, can’t ride another horse, because horses naturally air scent, and you don’t want the team that’s being tested to be clued in by the horse behind them. So what are you gonna do?

Sharon Pomeroy  22:17

Yeah, I think. So the funny thing in conservation dogs is we don’t really have a certification of any sort. But my understanding is that in some other professional detection dog realms, the certification is that you would like go into a stadium or a room or whatever. And you come back out. And you said, this is how many I found this is this is where they were, and then you’re told whether or not you’re correct afterwards. So I don’t think that’s totally unheard of in the detection, dark world. But it’s not typically how I would envision an exam certification going.


Right. So part of our struggle in trying to develop and I guess I didn’t say this earlier, but the state of Maine has been working to develop the first known AirScent certification standard for horses that that we’ve ever heard of that’s like for a regional or any kind of volunteer search and rescue organization. We have a standard, it’s been revised once, we haven’t released it because we haven’t been able to successfully test against it. Like nobody has passed all three tests yet.

Sharon Pomeroy  23:26

But the challenge has been alright, so the field test is easy. The evaluators can stand at the side of the field and watch. Great, found it didn’t find it. But the daylight trail test and the night trail test are real challenges because they want to be able to see. We want live tracking of the GPS where we can see on a screen there’s where the hider or hikers are, and this is where the animal is the rider. And what am I hearing on the radio at that time that leads me to believe that they do or don’t know what they’re doing? So we’ve got radio comms, and we’ve got ideally, GPS tracking live, but that we hit that part we haven’t quite figured out yet. And we tried to do a helmet cam that we watched later. Yeah. So that’s why I have all this helmet cam footage.

Sharon Pomeroy  24:23

So anyway, we’re out on this trail test and it’s in a completely new area. I’ve only been on this trail on ATV once when we were choosing the trail with the property owner, and the evaluators are at the start of the trail and I go off and well first of all, I won’t go into details but it was very stressful for me. i The level of stress that hit me when I started out was just unreal, because the pressure to try and do this and to be successful was just immense. It yeah to be because it would be the first so yeah, it was immense. So I’m all freaking out in my head. And we go up the hill and we go around the hill and we go on the back side of the hill, and we’re on this like, dirt road with ditches on both sides. And there’s like wet in there and everything. And he’s reacting to the left, he’s got a head swing going on, he’s snorting, he’s blowing, he’s very intense. On the left side, he’s not focused on going down the trail, he’s just left, left Left. And then we get to a, an intersection, and he wants to go up that trail to the left, and then he wants to turn into the trees to the left, and he’s just left, left, left, left, all left. So I go back, and I investigate, and I get off and I tie him and I look both sides. Because that’s, that’s one of the things you have to do is if the horse is giving you signals in a certain area, and it’s inaccessible to you on horseback, which it was at this place, then you get off and you investigate. And that can be hard for the horse to figure out too because they, they want to go find the person. Although it’s only much later in their training that they figure out that the human scent equals human equals treats.

Sharon Pomeroy  26:04

When they’re first starting out, you have to have the hider get up really slowly, because they have no idea there’s a human there. Oh, my God, some of the near wrecks we had in the beginning was just it was unreal. So, so I couldn’t find the person, there was nothing. And we were right in the first half mile, I’d say of a three mile trail. So I was like, really under the gun feeling like I had all this trail left to search. And I had a limited amount of time to do it. So I got back on and we kept going, but he was trying to turn around the whole remainder of the trail, like, very insistent, trying to turn so we we did a lot of ranging back and forth. But in the standard, it says you can’t like range back too much. So I was trying to limit how far back I let him go. Well, long story short. In the end, we did not find the person and they were in that stretch. But they were before that.

Sharon Pomeroy  27:12

So they were in the first like quarter mile.

Sharon Pomeroy  27:14

Well, they were like, remember I said I went up the hill and around the hill. And that dirt. They were like right there.

Sharon Pomeroy  27:21

Oh, my God. Yeah.

Sharon Pomeroy  27:22

But this that was blowing onto the set was blowing up the trail and getting stuck in the water. And that’s where he got it was in the water. So like it the stress basically got to me. Yeah. And if I had really been able to think he hasn’t done this doubling back in a training forever. Yeah, maybe I would have put two and two together and gone back further.

Sharon Pomeroy  27:49

You know what I know? Yeah. So really, but I mean, yeah, the first time I had to do again, we don’t have certifications. But you know, a sign off in front of a couple of bosses and project partners and everything. I had, like, I had like 100 meter by 100 meter square. And I swear to God, it took me like 45 minutes to clear it. Because the you know, it was like they had like three targets that were all clustered in like the corner that I chose to start in. And I like found all three and then just was like, just, I mean, the way that it gets to you.

Kayla Fratt  28:22

And then you know, and it happens every single time. I’ve talked about it before on the show, when I go out on a new project, and we’re working with a different target species or heaven forbid, we’ve got a film crew with us or something, you know, until we find that first target, I am just like a ball of stress. Yeah, it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve done it. And every time the dogs and I come out fine. And we have the benefit. I’m like you, you know, our average day in the field. We’re finding 5, 10, 20, 30 targets in a day. So I get to get over hypothetically, in a way that you just don’t I mean, gosh, I feel for search and rescue people. It is so much harder. I mean, yeah, we’re not going to compare it but like that particular aspect would, would break me.


You can’t you can’t guarantee a find. Yeah, on a on a search. Yeah, that’s that’s, that’s 100% True. Well, we can on trainings.

Sharon Pomeroy  29:19

I talk to search and rescue people who, you know, you can go years and years, you know, you could go a whole career and never have an operational find. And it says nothing about the quality of your training and your skillset and your horse or your dog or whatever. Absolutely. It’s just the game.

Sharon Pomeroy  29:37

Yeah, the person wasn’t where you were assigned to search. And that’s one of the things that generally when I do an interview about search and rescue, whether it’s ground or visual mounted or air set mounted is I love to say this. If we knew where the person was, we would just go rescue them. We wouldn’t need to search the search piece It comes in, where we have absolutely no idea. And therefore all of the 100 people who went out are equally important as the one person or the one team who found the person. Because it’s not that the other 99 were bad at searching, they didn’t have a transect with the person. Right, exactly. So I like to say, I have never had a find on a search, but I’ve never had a situation where I went out and searched and they found the person in my quadrant later.

Sharon Pomeroy  30:27

Yeah. Yeah. That seems to be the most important metric. Yes.

Sharon Pomeroy  30:32

You don’t want to be the person who is the person? No,

Sharon Pomeroy  30:36

No, no, no, no, no, that’s really bad. Especially because, are you doing live finds?


At the moment, yeah. But if we can nail that if we’ve played around with the HR detection, we have access because the dog team has access to the scent source for those but the main Warden service SAR coordinator has told me that if we can nail a live find training, the next thing he wants us to do is HR, because most of the searches in Maine, unfortunately, that we get called out onto, we’re not really expecting to find a live person. Yeah, the good news is that from what we have been able to tell so far, our horses react. They absolutely react to HR sent, they may react differently, like we haven’t actually trained them to seek it out. But naturally, some horses will just really misbehave. Like they will act the worst that they have worked, acted in six months, when they smell it. Others will walk right up to it and try to eat the jar. And the third kind will avoid it like the devil like they won’t they won’t misbehave, they just won’t go over there.

Sharon Pomeroy  31:58

Yeah, they’re just like anywhere. But there. Yeah, yeah.

Sharon Pomeroy  32:02

And that’s interesting, because when you when you look at the tracks, you know, the GPS tracks afterward, if you’re looking for HR sent, and it was a mounted team that was in there, and every time the horse just kind of goes like this a little bit, you know, to look in there.

Sharon Pomeroy  32:16

Yeah, yeah, gosh, I’ve heard the same thing about not just HR dogs, but actually a couple. I don’t know if it’s just wolves that people have seen this with or just kind of apex predators, some, some dogs will have a similar response to the scat, again, I’m not for sure if it’s just wolves, or if people have seen the same thing with like, you know, again, these other apex predators where dogs are like, actually, I’m not interested in going up to that guy. And obviously, people do successfully train dogs and horses to find these things anyway, but you do have some amount of personality that comes into it.

Kayla Fratt  32:53

So I want to go back to you know, way back when you were talking about kind of this, this interplay between control between the rider and the horse, how I understand once the horse kind of understands the job, and the rider understands how to read the horse, how that’s done. But in a really early training, you know, the first time that the the horse is being exposed to that odor? Do you do this? You know, do you start as groundwork so that the horse learns how to do this freely, and then you do it with someone on their back, but without holding reins? Like how do you kind of build up to the horse understanding that they can make the choice to go towards that odor? Even if they’ve got a bit in their mouth? Because it seems like something that a horse has spent years being trained not to do?

Sharon Pomeroy  33:41

Yeah, not to take over? Yeah, yeah.

Kayla Fratt  33:43

Not to make their own choices.


So I am going to be a little bit deliberately vague because our trainer has asked us to not be incredibly specific. But I will say this. The trainer’s name is Terry Nowacki. I’m not entirely certain how to pronounce his last name, but I think I’m close and he never says it to me. So. And if you are interested in learning more about him or about his training methods, he he talks a little bit about it. He is the founder of the American Equine Scenting Association. And his website is airscenting We might need to double check that because I haven’t been there in a while but I’m pretty sure it’s

Sharon Pomeroy  34:35

Just pulled it up.


Okay, good. And so he does in he has a little booklet that he sells, that teaches the method. And in that booklet, he does recommend starting on the ground. Now. He started us at a two day clinic. So he didn’t have the time to do that with us. So we started right from the horse’s back. And it starts with runaways. It starts with the horse watching the person who’s carrying the bucket. And they they run away, and then they stand there and the horse goes up to him and they eat the treats, and then it’s a longer run away, and they duck behind something. And it just, it’s a progression, just like it would be for dogs.

Sharon Pomeroy  35:19

It’s definitely a fast progression, because the horses learn the game really fast, and you don’t want them to get super bored. So you might only do three or four runaways with one horse, and then turn them loose into a small field like that first search that you saw Kodak doing with the person in the tarp. And if you watch that, you see right at the end, the video cut off and he was speaking. And he was in the middle of speaking away from the persons who was in the tarp just about to stand up.

Sharon Pomeroy  35:50

So it’s, it’s that progression, where you might even just have somebody, you know, literally laying in a low part of a field and the horse, quote unquote, finds them well, like I said, horses don’t necessarily recognize humans for human scent. And the other thing they don’t recognize is that you’ve written a horse, but it sounds like mostly in an arena. So you may not have a human holding an umbrella is not a human until they are human on a bicycle is not a human until they talk. They’re just, I don’t I do not want to say horses are not smart, because they are, they just don’t draw the connections we expect them to draw.

Kayla Fratt  36:34

They have an entirely different like, sensory and evolutionary world that like, to us and like our primate brain is like, Well, that seems dumb. If we had to navigate, you know, savannas as a prey animal, we would do a lot of really, really dumb things. Yeah, their evolutionary and sensory perspective, you know,

Sharon Pomeroy  36:55

I’m certain we would die immediately. So, so you progress like that. But then as you as you start working beyond that point, you do small fields, and then you do medium fields. And then you do like somebody hidden in a different type of spot. And then you can do short trail searches. And then you can do longer trail searches. And then you can do inaccessible, and you can do elevated and you can do night, and you can do in the snow. It’s just, it’s really just fun to play with. And I would enjoy doing it even if I wasn’t doing it for search and rescue purposes. In fact, there has been some discussion about trying to create, like an air scent sport, in different areas of the country for horses. But like I said, there’s a lot of things about being in Maine that are kind of challenging.

Advertisement  37:46

Yeah, I mean, I lived in Montana for years. And I could see this being something that I mean, I think some of the 3d complexity in Montana would be really challenging. But there are other parts of Montana, where it seems like the terrain would be a little bit friendlier to this sort of thing.

Sharon Pomeroy  38:03

Really, certainly be able to make a direct Beeline. But I mean, even there, like you’re picking up the scent from, let’s say, 1000 feet away, because that’s not unreal, especially in a field that is beyond reasonable. There’s a fence in the way, a barbed wire fence, and there’s no gate there. So what are you going to do? Right, like, yes, the same problem, whether it’s dense trees or a barbed wire fence?

Kayla Fratt  38:28

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Again, it’s, I mean, this is one of the things I was just talking to a potential collaborator for a project where we want to be working on a species that really likes really, really dense stands of forest. And, you know, it’s like, well, you know, on one hand, you know, we try to select and train for dogs that are comfortable pushing through that brush. But there’s also just a limit to you know, the size of the dogs that we have and what they can push through, you know, I don’t have a Jack Russell or a little Cocker Spaniel, got Border Collie. So obviously way smaller than a horse. But there’s still limiting factors there. And then, you know, it doesn’t do any good if the dog can get into the center of Blackbird thicket and find a scat for me if I can’t get in there to go verify it and reward the dog and collected. So, you know, yeah, that’s a very real issue.

Kayla Fratt  39:18

So is there anything, you know, it sounds like a ton of this is the rider horse relationship and the training that needs to go into that? What can you say about kind of the selection of the horses is something that you look for particularly bold or confident horses, you know, really hungry horses, you know, what are we looking for? In a successful horse, because it sounds like both of yours are doing it successfully. And you’ve, you’ve said that they’re quite different.


Yeah, they’re really different. I do want to put a pin in that thought for one second because it just occurred to me that I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of doing air scent in Maine and not so much about like why we even are trying to do this.

Sharon Pomeroy  40:00

Okay, so in Maine, there is a lot of uninhabited area. And horses are typically used to try and eliminate large portions of land like that have ATV trails and logging roads and whatever running through them and may not have houses in the area, which is all well and good, they can go 20 miles, and the rider doesn’t get tired, they can find their own food along the way, they can get you up higher so that you’ve got eight feet of height to look down into the ditches and over the underbrush. They’re quiet.

Sharon Pomeroy  40:37

So they’re not like an ATV. If you’re driving an ATV down on a logging road, not only are you only like your heads, four feet over the ground, so you can’t see through that roadside underbrush, but also you can’t hear if somebody’s calling for help. And so, you know, in a case like and a lot of times people who are intentionally hiding wouldn’t come out to a vehicle, also.

Sharon Pomeroy  41:02

So horses are actually something that a lot of categories of people who might not normally come out to a searcher might come out to a horse and rider. It’s possible, you know, in some cases, children, some cases, the elderly who have dementia, my understanding some some people who are on the autism spectrum might come out more readily to someone who was on a horse. So a lot more approachable. Especially than a dog. I mean, I don’t I don’t draw comparisons between horses and dogs really in any other area. But I will say that a lot of people are nervous to see a dog coming towards them. So I mean, there’s a lot of people who are nervous about horses, too. I won’t I won’t say that. Totally. Yeah, yeah, but you get my point.

Sharon Pomeroy  41:49

So that is why horses have been used in search and rescue for the last 20 years or more is because of all of those benefits. And we can carry a lot of equipment to like we carry enough for us and a horse for a 48 hour period. And we probably could still carry equipment on top of that if we needed to. Yeah, so So all of those are the benefits to it. And then when you add in the idea of having a sensor attached to the front of this piece of transportation that can get you 20 miles into the woods. That’s that’s just really immense. It is immense. So that’s why we’re chasing it. That’s why we’re trying to make the dream happen is because it would make that resource so much more effective.

Kayla Fratt  42:40

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, how neat. Yeah, there’s, there’s so much in there about and this, you know, these Gosh, I’m babbling, but like, these are some of the things we talked about with the dogs as well, as far as you know, they’re charismatic, and they’re outgoing, and, you know, conservation dollars, like I just had a reporter contact me last night about a project that we haven’t even started yet, because he wants to cover us. And he wouldn’t do that if I was just going out on foot to go find these scats. But because I have a dog with me, he’s excited. And, you know, I had to send him an email being like, do you want to do the interview before the project has happened? Or should we wait? You know, um, and you know, and yeah, people do definitely have I know, some people who are terrified of horses. I had an ex, who was very, very scared of horses. And also a lot of people are really scared of dogs. It totally depends. And it’s nice to have, you know, it’s nice to have a variety.


Yeah, it’s called Resource layering. When you’re in search and rescue, it’s, you know, the all the different ways that you can employ. So you had asked a question that I’m happy to circle back to. So it really there are, there’s no breed, you’re not looking for a certain breed or you’re not looking for a certain body type. Ideally, it would be something that can move faster than two miles an hour. We have had full blooded draft horses that successfully have done this, but if they’re the type that that walks two miles an hour, it can be incredibly frustrating for everyone involved. It would just take a really long time to cover that ground.

Sharon Pomeroy  44:18

So a decent walking pace, I would say is important, but they need to be naturally inquisitive and curious. They need to be surefooted, they need to be smart. They do need to be confident and bold and independent. But that’s in partnership with their rider, like it’s almost more important the relationship that they have with their writer than anything else. I would not consider Kodak to be particularly bold or independent. It’s crazy for me to say that, but he’s really good at his job, but this is a horse who I consider extremely sensitive. I have had him since 2016. It is now 2023. And I walk up to him with my saddle with the saddle pad and he’s still spooks at it. Yeah, he’s he’s really something else. But when I’m riding him, you know, he’ll walk right up to something that I would have expected would cause great consternation.

Sharon Pomeroy  45:22

Like yeah, it’s it’s hard to predict. And that’s my younger horse. My older horse Zephyr is what I would consider to be about as bombproof as they come. We were out on a search once many years ago, and he literally came within inches of stepping on like a dead gopher or something like he just didn’t care. Yeah. Oh, funny. And yeah, but yet again, we had to use him this past summer. He’s had no air scent training at all. But we had to air scent clinics last summer, and I had someone on our team who was in the ground division, but had horse experience and wanted to ride. I said, but that’s fine. You can use Zephyr you know, if he doesn’t keel over, you’ll be fine. Well, he did so well with it that everyone looked at me and said, You’re riding the wrong horse. Like this horse is naturally better at it than your horse that you’ve been bringing along for six years, which did not make me feel good. But but you know, it was like it was a very proud mama moment.

Kayla Fratt  46:25

Yeah, yeah, that’s that’s a real double edged sword sort of compliment there.

Sharon Pomeroy  46:29

Yeah. But it was, it was very interesting for me to see that because these two horses are could not really be more different in personality. Like Zephyr is the pocket pony that wants to be right on top of you, and would mug you for a treat. And Kodak literally, even today, seven years after I got him runs away from me in the field. Like, oh, so there’s really no way of knowing I will say this, the the ability to do this is baked into the horse’s brain. And they’re all good at it. If they weren’t good at it, they’d be dead by now. Because they would have eaten some kind of poisonous weed in their pasture. And they’d be gone. So they’re all good at it. It’s a matter of how much does the horse enjoy the game of it? Yeah.

Kayla Fratt  47:23

Oh, that sounds a lot like our dogs. Yeah, there. Yeah, all dogs have that scenting capability. There was a there was that really funny? I think it was one of Dr. Nathan Hall’s papers where he got oh, I want to say it was pugs, greyhounds, and German Shepherds, and had them do a detection acuity tests like a threshold, like parts per million sort of thing. And I’m, I hope I’m getting this paper right enough as I’m explaining it, but long story short, none of the Greyhounds finished it because they weren’t motivated enough that none of them made it all the way through the test, which not a shocker.

Kayla Fratt  47:57

But the real shocker was pugs actually outperformed German Shepherds on the test. And it’s just a matter of, you know, we work with German shepherds, and I don’t but a lot of people do in the detection world. Because a lot of our detection training comes from dual training, apprehension training, where the German Shepherds are really, you know, they’re one of the top reads for that and be you know, it’s there. They’re a big powerful dog that can physically do a lot of what we need them to do, you know, quite frankly, doesn’t matter to me that a pug can smell just as well as a German Shepherd. Or you know, as in your case, maybe that a draft horse can do this just as well as a mule. If I need a sure footed horse out in Montana, I’m going to take a mule lover a draft who has to every time even if the draft horse actually can smell better.


Yeah, the mule will deal better with the heat. Speaking of which, I did mean to say earlier, one of the other benefits of using horses for air scenting and as a dog person, you can correct me if I say anything wrong here because I definitely don’t know much about the dog world. If you are out on a 95 degree day with 80% humidity. Uh huh. Horse is going to be able to air scent as well as if it was a cool day. Because they don’t pant. Yeah. They continue to breathe through their nose. And as they exert themselves, or as they get hot, their nostrils just get bigger, and they draw more air in. So on a single breath, a horse that’s catching its breath is going to take in literally gallons of air. Wow. Yeah, and they can sort through all of that just as well when they’re hot as when they’re not. And then I think this is true of dogs too. But horses can also do it the left nostril and the right master are separate. So that’s one reason why the horse is swinging his head is because he’s trying to figure out which direction it’s coming from. And that helps him source the scent.

Kayla Fratt  50:10

Yeah, yeah, of course, that makes sense. All right. Well, I think we probably need to start wrapping up here. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about or favorite stories or things you wanted to circle back to and clarify before we before we go here?


I don’t think I missed anything in here. But I do have kind of a fun story. Yeah. Well, let’s go to that then. All right. So we were talking about the different challenges that have come up in trying to develop this testing standard. When I did my field search test, I actually didn’t expect it was going to work because we had 20 mile an hour sustained winds and 35 mile an hour gusts that day. And I had a 20 acre it wasn’t 20 acres of field, it was probably half grass, half chopped corn. The it was on a top of a hill, and then the top of the hill had trees on it. So it was a pretty complicated scent. scenario happening. The wind was blowing gusting so hard that it blew the tablet off the hood of the truck. And we we got it done in 20 minutes. Which it I thought that was pretty good. And the only reason it took that long is because I was letting him take his time just because of the the challenges in the Senate. And my night trail test. I did not complete that one. Because I I lost radio comms, they lost my gps on the map and bear tracks. Fresh bear tracks in the mud. So that did not fly. And I haven’t tried that one again. But the most fun I think we had was actually in a training where we were in our on my street, we have a particular neighbor who has been really wonderful about letting us use your property. Actually, we have a ton of neighbors who have been really nice, but this one particular neighbor has a little pond. And I said, Hey, Terry, you want to do something really fun. And the volunteers agreed and we put somebody in the water. And so the actually, we were going to put somebody in the water. And what he ended up doing is there was a little a little high raised piece in the middle that had tall grass, we couldn’t see anything. He had him swim across to that and then lay flat on that piece. Because a lot of times people are like, Well, are they looking for the treat reward? Are they looking for the person, you know, what are they? What are they looking for. And then we had a second person that wasn’t near the water. And so I was really happy with Kodak. We went through that problem first because I really wanted the challenge of not having a clue anywhere. Or even how many people there were and skirted the outside. He found the first person that wasn’t in the water. And then he went right around and he found the person that was in the water. But we had we had another horse that had never done it before. And he he left the starting line and in 13 seconds was headed towards the middle of that pond. Wow. So it just goes to show. You know, it’s just it’s natural.

Kayla Fratt  53:33

Yeah, that just seems like a hugely untapped resource. And again, you know, it’s such a huge benefit as well. We talked about, you know, you could go 20 miles, and then you can get off and you’re still fresh and the horse can be carrying more supplies. You know, there’s just so many benefits for wilderness search and rescue to have equines as part of the team. You know, and yeah, you know, as you enter that, as well, and we talked about this all the time on the show, it’s also not just the horse, you know, you’re still out there using your eyes and looking for things and you’ve got a better vantage point, because you’re on the horse, you’re covering more ground, you’re fresher. Yeah, it just seems like there’s a lot of really, really profound opportunities to be able to continue doing this.

Kayla Fratt  54:19

So I really I hope that we get to continue seeing more and more of this and that yeah, that there’s just more capacity for this because it a seems like a really cool way to get out and enjoy nature with your horse and be seems like it could really potentially help save some lives.


Yeah, I’d like that. I will put in a plug for our team because we are looking to grow our grow our Mountain Division in particular. But we’ll take ground searchers and mounted searchers all of our mounted searchers start his ground anyway. Yes, just they happen to have a horse to bring along at the same time. So the team name is Highlands Search and Rescue. We’re based in Penobscot and Piscataqua counties in Maine, but we search statewide. And our website is So anybody who’s interested in either donating to our efforts or joining, or finding out more information is more than welcome to visit the website or our Facebook page, which is

Kayla Fratt  55:29

Yeah, well, you you stole it from me. I was going to ask you where to find it and how to support you. So thank you so much for doing that. Yeah, I don’t even have notes for this episode. We’re really we’re winging it today. And for everyone at home, I hope this inspired you to get outside and be a canine conservationist or an equine search and rescuer in whatever way suits suits your passions and your skill set. You can find our show notes links to things we mentioned in the episode. Other podcast episodes, merch our store, you know the, you know the deal. All of that is at And we’ll be back in two weeks. So talk to you then. Bye!