The Montezuma County mounted patrol division’s search and rescue skills were put to the test for the first time on Feb. 2.
When the county first acquired the three horses that make up the mounted patrol in spring 2017, Sheriff Steve Nowlin said he believed they would be invaluable in wilderness areas.
They went through scent training last year to track missing people, and on Feb. 2 they were called into service after a woman reported her fiancé had gone missing in Ruin Canyon.
He turned up safe at home before the searchers got very far into the canyon, but Nowlin said the horses did well.
According to an incident report by patrol deputy Victor Galarza, Wendy Ferguson reported her fiancé, Mark Westbrook, as missing about 7:40 a.m. She said he had gone on a walk in Ruin Canyon, near County Road 10, on Jan. 31, and she had not seen him since. Westbrook reportedly had no food, water or cell phone with him, and Ferguson told deputies he had a heart condition.
Sgt. Ed Oxley and Deputy Don Brown, two of the mounted patrol deputies, rode into the canyon to search for Westbrook. The county Search and Rescue Team sent a drone to search the area as well.
Nowlin said the horses picked up a trail quickly, but the search was called off after just 15 to 20 minutes when Ferguson told deputies Westbrook had arrived at home.
The man said he had been lost in the canyon for two nights and “almost froze,” but he had no reported injuries.
Nowlin said it’s not uncommon for people in Montezuma County to be found shortly after being reported missing, often by parents whose children wander away. This wasn’t the first time mounted patrol deputies had been called out to help in a search, Nowlin said, but in previous incidents the missing people had been found before the horses could arrive.
This time around, he said, the patrol could test their skills.
“It’s good practice for them,” he said.
He said he believes the mounted patrol will be useful for future searches in areas like Ruin Canyon, where patrol cars can’t enter and there’s too much open space for deputies to search on foot.
Drones like the one deployed by the Search and Rescue Team can also spot missing people more quickly from their high vantage point.
“When it’s such a big area, you can’t send people out there,” Nowlin said. “You cover more ground with horses.”