AUBURN — In the demonstration, Max and Flame found the teenager in less than a minute.

He was a few hundred yards into the woods, tucked as far behind a tree as he could get. Maybe the search-and-rescue horses saw his red shirt, maybe they heard him move or smelled his scent. Whatever caught their attention, it led the horses and their riders straight to 16-year-old Dominic Comeau-Gosselin.

The “rescue” was so quick that the horse teams had to come up with a second demonstration to fill time.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen that fast,” Cynde Putney, vice president of Maine Mounted Search & Rescue, told the gathered group of Pathfinders kids as their classmate walked out of the woods, patting a horse as he went.

Founded in 2000, Maine Mounted Search & Rescue is the only certified horse search-and-rescue unit in Maine. The nonprofit is staffed by a dozen horses and riders, plus two people who serve as ground crew. Its volunteers come from all over the state.

Authorities call the search-and-rescue group when someone is missing and first responders and K-9 teams have not found them within about a day. Horse teams are called in with other volunteers, including searchers on foot or riding ATVs.

“On a horse, we’re high, we’re quiet, we can see a lot more area and we have a partner that’s with us,” Putney said. “All of us have had these horses a long time, so it’s a full partnership.”

With keen senses, horses can locate people by sight or sound. Some horses in the group have also started training to find bodies or missing people by scent — a skill that requires horses to recognize human sent in the air and follow it to its source.

“We start very small, where the rider of the horse knows where somebody’s hiding, so we can kind of help guide,” Putney said. “And in all honesty, yes, the hider does have a treat.”

Some of the horses have been training for scent work for two years.

“Half the time when the person pops up, they’re really surprised because they don’t know they’re necessarily looking for a person. They’re following a smell, and that’s what they’ve been trained to do,” Putney said. “We now have people under camouflaged tarps laying down in ditches and they pop up and the horse is like, ‘Oh!'”

When searching, riders have to be attuned to their horses’ cues. Putney’s horse, Duncan, twitches his ears when he has caught someone’s trail. Another horse might snort or shift his gaze.

“Eventually, they’re just like, ‘It’s over here!'” Putney said, whipping her head around. “At the point the horse gives the rider enough signals that you’re pretty sure they’re on to something, then you let them steer.”

That kind of partnership helped Max and Flame — and riders Rachel Jalbert-Palian and Ellen Ross — find the hidden teenager during a demonstration a few weeks ago at the YMCA Woodland Recreational Facility in Auburn.

But while Maine Mounted Search & Rescue has been operating for almost 20 years, its volunteers have never found a missing person during a real search.

“We’ve come close to some of them, but the four-wheelers found them on the trail before we got there,” Jalbert-Palian said.

Despite that, there is never a shortage of mounted volunteers when the call comes. Horses and riders can spend hours — sometimes days — trekking through remote, muddy, bug-ridden areas looking for a lost child or an elderly Mainer with dementia. Searches can be arduous and exhausting, but volunteers say it’s worth it.

“A lot of people only say, ‘Well, did you find them?'” Ross said. “No, we told (game wardens) where they weren’t, which is a very important piece.”

Animal Tales is a recurring Sun Journal feature about animals and their people. Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at [email protected].

Teenagers with the group “Pathfinders” listen as Ellen Ross, left, and Rachel Jalbert-Palian talk about the mission of Maine Mounted Search and Rescue. Ross and Jalbert-Palian brought their horses Flame and Max to the YMCA Woodland Recreational Facility in Auburn to give a search-and-rescue demonstration for the teenagers. Teens from left are: Madison Binette, Adrian Comeau-Gosselin, Kiley Cote and Chase Bowater-Theirault. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Ellen Ross of East Waterboro, riding her horse, Flame, talks with teenagers from the group “Pathfinders” about the mission of Maine Mounted Search and Rescue. Ross and Rachel Jalbert-Palian brought their horses to the YMCA Woodland Recreational Facility in Auburn to give a search-and-rescue demonstration for the teenagers. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Maine Mounted Search and Rescue members Rachel Jalbert-Palian, left, and Ellen Ross approach a group of teenagers during a search-and-rescue demonstration at the YMCA Woodland Recreational Facility in Auburn. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal


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