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Curlies to the Rescue

by Tames Alan

It's 12:45 AM on a cold November night when the pager goes off. Instantly, Tamea Denault is awake, not surprised at being paged this hour, as most calls come between 11 PM and 3 AM. She looks at the pager as it flashes, Hunter lost in the Cascade mountains, possibly attacked by a cougar, more snow due, rendezvous point Packwood. Within an hour, she has loaded her gear and her Curly mare, Copper Billie, ABC P-770, and is setting off for the four-hour drive it will take her to reach Packwood.

As she drives, she reflects on what it takes to be part of Peninsula Mounted Search and Rescue (PMSR), which is called out by the Pierce County Sheriff's Department to find missing persons in the wilderness, but especially in the mountains. Thankfully, this call isn't a disaster call, like a downed plane. The training is rigorous for both horse and rider. Tamea has three horses that are certified for Search and Rescue, two Curlies, Copper Billie, and a straight black gelding, Toranado, S-486, as well as an old-style Morgan named Silver Buddha.

The horses have to be able to do a 10-mile ride in two hours, take a night ride in unfamiliar territory, be hobbled and tied on a high-line overnight. They also must be able to lead a pack horse (or be lead themselves) as a pack animal, turn on the haunches and on the forehand, cross bridges, swift running water, thick mud, and snow as well as stand still while their riders open maps, take compass readings, and do radio calls. They must be willing to leave other horses or be left behind at all gates, be passed by vehicles on narrow roads, have their owners hold onto their tail and then pull them uphill, and pack out a dead body. They even must stand tied to a trailer while a helicopter lands in a nearby field, and they must pass a siren test-walking toward a vehicle with flashing lights and wailing siren while the siren changes pitch.

The training Tamea had to go through for her certification was no less rigorous. She must be a competent rider and be able to read a map and compass, do wilderness navigation, tie high-lines, and work all the gear she must carry. She must take courses in learning how to see clues to find someone, how to approach a crime scene without destroying evidence, how to safely approach a helicopter and strap down a patient, and have a ham radio license. She must learn how to perform first aid, CPR, and become certified up to the level of blood-born pathogens, plus she must be must also be able to perform first aid on horses.

Not all of PMSR's activities are answers to distress calls. They participate in children's and horse fairs to help educate people on what to do and how to survive if they become lost in the wilderness. Rule Number One is: If you are lost, hug a tree. A stationary target is easier to find than a moving one. They also advise hikers not to go out without some food, good shoes, and a jacket even if it's a sunny day. Most importantly, let someone know where and when you are venturing out.

Once Tamea reaches the rendezvous point in Packwood, she gets a cup of coffee from the Red Cross, who have also responded to the call, and waits to be given her assignments. Her first assignment starts out with more snow falling. It takes her and Billie four hours to cover five miles with no results. By the time she reaches her second trailhead to begin her second assignment, it's 6:00 AM, overcast with light snow falling, and the trail already has 3 1/2 feet of snow on it. This assignment would take her 2 1/2 hours to cover 8 miles on an eight-inch-wide trail that travels 7,000 feet above sea level, well above the cloud cover.

As she's tacking up for the second time that day, she meets a local hunter just starting out on the trail with his mules. "No, I haven't seen any missing hunters," he says, "but the trail is high, narrow, and difficult to navigate. That's why I ride mules. I'm a firm believer in mules." He starts out, and, half an hour later, Tamea follows him on Billie. A little while later, she passes him on the trail and heads up above the cloud clover. There's no sign of the missing hunter, so they start back down the mountain, once again passing the hunter with his mules. By the time Billie is untacked, the hunter has appeared at the trailhead with his mules.

"Lady, what kind of horse are you riding that could go so far, so fast, so high up, on such a narrow trail, in such deep snow, carrying almost three hundred pounds?"

Tamea answers, "It's a Curly horse, and she's eight months pregnant."

Two days later, the missing hunter walked out of the mountains on his own. He hadn't been attacked by a cougar, he just lost his way. Three months later, Billie foaled a big, healthy stud colt.

From Curly Cues, May, 2002



Tamea C. Denault

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Tamea C. Denault is the founder of Dreamswept Farm and coach of the MountainWind Vaulters in Kettle Falls, WA. She is a certified CHA multi-discipline riding instructor. While earning her degree in psychology and education at Mt. Holyoke College, she also learned vaulting and has continued vaulting and coaching ever since. More...