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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Riding with the posse boys - pink bridle and all

By Debra Speakes
Gila County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse Volunteer

As a member of the newly-formed Gila County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse, I recently participated in my first real missing-person search. I’d signed up picturing searches through open woods, looking for lost children who would come running up when they saw the “horsies,” carrying them back to their mothers’ arms on the back of my saddle. Reality proved to be vastly different from my naïve fantasy.

My primary posse horse, Dawn, is a six-year-old Quarter horse. She’s white with blue eyes and her tack is turquoise. Her full sister, Dash, is seven. She’s a beautiful red bay, and her tack is pink. They are both fantastic trail horses, but Dawn always seemed to be tougher than Dash when the going gets rough. So she is used for posse work, whereas Dash is used mostly for pleasant evening rides on familiar trails.

Photos by Tessa Nicolet
 The author with her two mares, Dash and Dawn.  

When I arrived at the search site at 11 a.m. Monday, the rest of the group had already been out for a couple of hours looking for a missing man with a medical condition. He was known to be on foot and “out there somewhere.” Shortly before noon, twelve riders on horses, including Dawn and me, left to go search another sector. I was finally on my first official search.

We rode as a group to the starting point, spread out in a line, and went “that-a-way,” looking for any sign of the missing man. There were five women and seven men, and we randomly positioned ourselves in the line without regard to gender or terrain. We were there to do a job, and we all attacked it equally.

Of course there was no trail going “that-a-way;” so we had to make our own. The footing was rocky, and there was a seemingly impenetrable wall of manzanita and other unfriendly, prickly shrubbery to push through – no casual stroll through open forest on this search.

Dawn emerges from the manzanita thicket.

Push through we did. Dawn had to break her way through manzanita at times as high as her shoulders and shove through tree limbs that occasionally poked the side of her face. I never had to ask twice. One nudge with the heels and she resolutely stepped into the thicket and made her own path. Later I would find spots of blood on her white hide where the manzanita had punctured her, but she never hesitated to go forth when I asked.

We rode like that – breaking through brush and climbing up and down rocky hillsides – for over five hours, until we returned to the command post at 4:45, with no sign of the missing man.

I had to miss the continuation of the search Tuesday but I was there at 9 a.m. Wednesday with Dawn again in tow. By the third day of the search, we had only seven riders – three women and four men. The search moved to another area, also populated with tough manzanita to push through. Again that young mare performed admirably, did everything I asked her to do, climbing the rocky slopes and descending into washes and gullies without complaint until we called a halt to the search at about 3:30 p.m.

Three of the other women who participated in the search.

Some of the other riders had been there for all three of those search days, and they and their animals were exhausted and sore. There was discussion of calling off further searches since we had searched the likely areas and really didn’t know where the man could have gone. But some of us had an idea that maybe Gibson Peak was a possibility. I was warned, “It’s a tough climb,” but it didn’t look all that bad to me; I thought the first day had been the toughest. I agreed to come back at 8 a.m. Thursday to help search Gibson Peak.

Since Dawn had already given two days of hard work I decided to take Dash instead. Dash hadn’t been ridden in a couple of weeks, but I figured she could handle a four- or five-hour ride. I was a bit apprehensive, though, about not taking Dawn since she’s usually my “tough ride” horse. But it was time Dash took a turn at bat.

Only three other riders came that day, all men – cowboys, really – all on geldings. We headed out about 8:30 a.m. and rode on a rocky trail to the foot of the mountain. It hadn’t looked like that steep of a climb when they had pointed out our destination in the distance so I still wasn’t too worried…until we got to the mountain and I looked up....

Jerry and Wyman were intimately familiar with Gibson Peak from hunting forays, Rod less so, and I not at all. We turned to climb uphill. There was no trail at all, just Jerry’s sense of direction to guide us. The route we took was steep, and rocky, and frequently blocked with manzanita or trees. I looked up at the climb ahead and wondered what in the world I was thinking to go on a ride that the cowboys who were actually familiar with the area had described as “a tough climb.” Many times we had to duck over our horses’ necks to get under tree limbs that threatened to knock us from their backs while our horses scrambled to keep footing and dodge prickly pear at the same time. Frequently we had to double back and find another path after being blocked by trees with no way to get through them.

Searching really was nearly impossible on the slope; most of our effort went into simply finding a way to the top. We stopped several times to “let them blow” since the steep ascent was hard on all four horses, but particularly for my relatively out-of-condition mare. I quickly realized this was the hardest ride I’d ever been on in my life and I wondered if we were going to make it.

Twice Dash went to her knees trying to step up and over rocks on a steep section. Somehow she regained her footing without pitching me off onto a cactus. Often we would fall behind and one of the men would call back to ask if we were okay and I would reply that we were fine, and they would stop for a minute to let me come back into view. I was grateful to have three such competent men looking out for me, but determined to get through this on our own steam. It would have been extremely embarrassing to have to call out the posse to rescue a posse rider!

And ultimately, Dash managed to follow in those geldings’ footsteps and made it to the top of the mountain right behind them. I was proud of her – and of myself – for persevering and succeeding.
It turned out two members of Tonto Rim Search and Rescue had arrived on foot and searched from the other direction so we had no reason to go on further. We dismounted and took a break while looking at the views, which were spectacular – a 360 degree panorama of Rim Country splendor.

Wyman and Jerry on Gibson’s Peak.

But as I admired the view and snapped pictures with my cell phone, I worried about the ride back down. I hadn’t known what I was getting into when we came up; now I knew what lay before me on the trip back. I hoped there was an easier way back. Surely we didn’t have to go down the way we had come up?

Uh...yes. We did. The way we had come up was the easier way back. After resting for about a half hour, we remounted and headed back the way we had come.

Down is a very different experience than Up. Going Up, the horses’ powerful hindquarters can push the front end up and over rocks. Going Down, the horses have to nearly sit on those same hindquarters while the front end carefully drops down over rocks as much as a foot high, the landing usually consisting of loose rocks that could slide under the weight of the horse. Many times, Dash had to stop and figure out for herself how to get down without falling down; there was nothing I could do to help her. My job was to sit still and let her do it, lest some unexpected movement of my own upset her balance.

Every time I hit a place (going or coming) that I knew was more than she’d ever encountered before, I would look at the retreating rumps of the mens’ horses and tell her, “If their horses can do it, so can you.” And she did. I’ve never been more proud of her.

While they never verbally expressed any doubts within my hearing, I really think the men had expected me to bail out halfway up that mountain. By the time we got back, they were all expressing how proud they were of us for hanging in there when the going got tough.

I told them, “If I can’t ride with the boys, I’m not much use to the posse.” This was what I had signed up for. Rescue fantasies aside, I knew a search wasn’t going to be a pleasure ride down a well-used trail on soft dirt. I knew the going could get rough – although I had no idea just how rough “rough” could be – and I was proud of the way both of my mares had risen to the occasion and done everything I asked them to do, and gone everywhere I had pointed their feet.

We hadn’t found our man, but my mares and I had found something very important – our own confidence. Dawn had bravely pushed through manzanita that poked holes in her skin and scraped painfully at her hide, and Dash and I had both faced our own fears and uncertainties and made it off that mountain together without help. I won’t hesitate to send either one of them anywhere the posse needs to go.

We had ridden with the boys and made it – pink bridle and all!

Two great mares, ready to go again! 

(Editor's note: The missing man’s body was found two days later by a hunter not far from the search area.)

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