On a recent Saturday morning, members of East Texas Mounted Search and Rescue (ETMSAR) listened as their leader, Novalene Thurston, gave them their marching orders. “The young woman did not have her purse or cell phone,” she says. “Friends have been calling. They want something to be done. Come up with an action plan for tomorrow morning. You have fifteen minutes.” It was a practice scenario, but the group nonetheless split in half and began discussing options in earnest. After Novalene called time, the two groups compared notes.
ETMSAR, a non-profit organization, meets monthly to train. Sometimes the group works with their horses; at other times they work indoors, cross-training on a variety of skills. Twice a year, they perform simulations of mounted rescue operations. Teresa Cook, the group’s secretary, says this monthly training is what makes ETMSAR different from other mounted search and rescue organizations. “We are constantly training. We are all CPR certified. We have a monthly training event that we all participate in,” she says. Novalene agrees, “We try to do everything we are doing as professionally as possible even though we are volunteers. We want to do it right.”
Mounted search and rescue organizations are common in other parts of the country, says Novalene, the chairperson of ETMSAR’s board of directors. For example, they are often deployed in the desert southwest when hikers underestimate the amount of water they’ll need and ultimately require assistance. Mounted search and rescue organizations in Texas are relatively rare, but they can be quite useful to local law enforcement. Because riders sit many feet off the ground, they can see much farther than people who are searching on foot. Furthermore, although horses progress slowly in densely-forested areas, they are ideally suited for searches in open areas. “If you have open spaces like fields and pastures and roadsides, we can cover that area three times as fast as people on the ground,” Novalene says.
People don’t seem to go missing as commonly in Texas as they do in other parts of the country, she says, but still, ETMSAR is typically called out two to three times per year on active missing-person searches. The group does not self-deploy, but waits for requests from local law enforcement agencies before activating. The group follows guidelines set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS), so it can easily work alongside other organizations that follow the same protocols. “We don’t want to be a part of the problem,” Novalene says. “We want to be a part of the solution.”
‘Better than any ribbon’
Members of ETMSAR live throughout East Texas, including Montgomery, Walker, Brazos, and Leon counties. Some are retired, but others still pursue a variety of careers, such as medicine, finance, and information technology, says Novalene, who is now retired. During a long career in education, she taught biological sciences at Conroe Independent School District’s Academy of Science and Technology, as well as Lone Star College. Although ETMSAR members share a love of horses, Novalene believes it is their desire to help others that is most important. “They are looking for a way to be of potential service to their community,” she says. “If you don’t have that, then you might have all the love of horses in the world, but this is not the activity for you. A willingness to serve is just a key component.” ETMSAR’s motto says it all: “We ride so that others may live.”
Almost every member has some skill with horses, but ETMSAR is different from other equestrian organizations in a remarkable way: horses and riders do not compete. “You have to be ready to work on a team, not out of individual glory,” Novalene says. “There are no prizes in our organization. The prize is we save somebody’s life, and that’s better than any ribbon you can hang on the wall.”
Not every member of ETMSAR is a rider. Some have spouses in the organization who ride, while others have ridden in the past. Non-riders often provide ground support, performing such necessary tasks as manning radios and setting up the group’s communication trailer. Those who wish to serve as riders must go through a certification process with Cal Monteith, ETMSAR’s lead evaluator.
Riders and horses are certified as pairs, says Cal, an information technology program manager who keeps his horses at his weekend property in Huntsville. He has been riding with ETMSAR since 2014. Riders must show that their horses are willing partners, that they have control of their feet, and that they are desensitized to outside influences, such as sirens, barking dogs, or whistles. Riders and horses are evaluated on about 25 tasks, Cal says. For example, a horse must be able to cross a wooden bridge, clear an 18-inch obstacle (such as a fallen tree), and must be able to cross a three-foot wide body of water that is six inches deep. In addition, riders must be able to go backward on their horses in an L shape.
“We could go out either on one of our monthly rides or meet separately at any arena and go through all the steps in a couple of hours,” Cal says; however, the horse and rider are not considered qualified to participate in mobilizations until they have participated in one of the organization’s biannual simulations. Horses and riders must also participate in one simulation per year to stay qualified.
‘Our finest hour’
On Saturday, November 11, 2017, ETMSAR members learned that a 70-year-old man from Grapeland had not returned from walking his dog, Sunshine, the previous day. The man, Frank Roth, suffered from Parkinson’s disease. “He was not spry or physically fit,” Novalene recalls. Frank’s usual routine was to walk around the lake near his home, but because he was not located near the lake on Saturday, local law enforcement invited ETMSAR to join in an expanded search on Sunday morning.
“We found his sweatshirt in the middle of a pasture,” Cal remembers. The location of the sweatshirt indicated that Frank had become disoriented—possibly because of dehydration—and had ventured in an unlikely direction. Soon, members of ETMSAR found Frank, tangled in brambles. Sunshine was still by his side. Novalene, who was providing ground support by manning a radio, well remembers the moment when she heard from one of the riders. “She came over the radio and said, ‘We found him. He’s alive!’” Frank had been missing more than 48 hours. “It was really pretty satisfying,” Cal says.
“Members agree that was our finest hour so far,” Novalene says. “We don’t go to find somebody because they are a good person. We go to find them because they’re lost. It was just the icing on the cake to discover that we’d found someone who had spent his life serving the environment and serving people, and he had lived a very productive and honorable life. He was a remarkable man. Finding him brought joy to a lot of people. It emphasized to us the importance of our work.”
The memory of Frank’s dramatic rescue inspires members to continue training so that they’ll be prepared for future operations. They will deploy to any county in East Texas after being invited by local law enforcement agencies, and members of ETMSAR agree that they’d like to be included in more search and rescue operations in the future. So that they can seamlessly integrate when needed, they actively train with other search and rescue groups. “We train to be able to do the planning and to be able to take over, but also to fit into a plan,” Novalene says.
When a county sheriff contacts ETMSAR, the group activates its phone tree. “Hopefully within 30 minutes, we know what it’s all about,” Novalene says. “We have discovered which of our members are available, and they are packing their gear.”
For more information, visit ETMSAR’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/EastTexasMountedSAR