Everybody’s happy to see the Pima County Sheriff’s Posse coming.
Whether the posse is riding in the annual rodeo parade, visiting schools to give safety lessons or just doing a routine park patrol – as we were doing on Sunday – all folks who encounter the horseback rescue team break into a smile.
Well, illegal immigrants would not be grinning. They are not big on horses since they cannot hear them coming – especially when Border Patrol takes their horses out at night. But immigrant sightings are rare for the posse, although evidence of their passing through is not.
And even the hikers who were most likely out without a permit in the highly restricted area of Davidson Canyon met the posse with a wave.
“Thank you for all you do,” they said.
Sunday’s ride-along was in the company of posse Capt. George Herget on his horse Willie; Second Lt. Colleen Leon atop Othello; member Charlotte Krebs-Holtz on her horse River; and 21-year posse veteran and medical director Jerry Simmons, who was on Scooter, his mule in training.
I was in good hands – and on a good horse.
Chapo – which means short, by the way, not fat as I was duly misinformed – is Leon’s 10-year-old Tennessee Walker. The sweet equine put up with my inexperience as well as my distractions. I kept taking photos, notes and playing with video. Or at least trying to.
It’s not easy to do that on horseback, especially the note taking. But it still doesn’t top the time I tried to pen a poem while riding my bicycle.
The 35 posse members range in age from mid-30s to 76. The posse is one of five divisions under the Search and Rescue Council, Inc., or SARCI. The other four include the foot crews, the divers, the air patrol and the rescue dogs.
The posse can go where others can’t, as well as move quicker and with more equipment. They are not authorized to give tickets or make arrests, but report back to sheriff deputies who can.
“We are the eyes and ears of the sheriff’s department,” Leon said.
Each ride contains supplies that include everything from flashlights to bandages, water to power bars, Tylenol to candies for diabetics, ropes to runner’s Goo. They even carry supplies to revive or treat their own horses.
“A patrol can turn into a rescue just around the bend,” Simmons said.
Sunday we spied lots of ATV tracks in areas where vehicles are forbidden, random garbage that included beer bottles, cans and an abandoned tire, a long lost shoe filled with debris and underwear stuck to a tree branch.
We also saw fresh, fat mountain lion tracks.
“Mountain lions and horses don’t have a good history together,” said Herget, who first joined the posse in 1999. “Be ready to run.”
I wasn’t sure if he meant be ready for Chapo to run or for me to run after I got bucked off a terrified horse. To prepare for either event, I put my video camera in its protective case.
We didn’t see the mountain lion. Nor did we encounter a rescue. The biggest hazards we met were a creek and helmet hair.
The latter was only a concern because, when I removed my required helmet and my hair looked like a fright wig, nobody noticed it was any different than before I put it on.
The creek was only hazard because Simmons’ mule-in-training didn’t want to cross it, although she’s crossed water before. She was also unhappy with the highway overpasses and the frequently passing train.
“That’s why we’re in training,” Simmons said. “It’s good to know these things now rather than when we’re out on a rescue.”
Posse members undergo their own rigorous training, which includes a detailed background check. We don’t need any felons patrolling our parks, after all.
They must learn outdoor first aid, CPR, radio training, tracking, GPS training and the National Incident Management System, which is the emergency response protocol introduced after Sept. 11.
Part of the training includes volunteer victims who are outfitted with fake wounds pumping artificial blood and thrift store clothing that gets cut off by the rescue teams.
Leon recalls her first stint as a volunteer victim and the trainees’ seemingly endless body surveys. Body surveys consist of pressing different points up and down the body to check for injuries.
“If I got felt up one more time, I would have needed a beer and a cigarette,” she joked.
Teamwork is key for the posse. Folks who want to be cowboys with their own set of rules never make it. Some never finish training while others are gently let go. Teamwork counts not only with other posse members but also with their horses.
“The horse is a good as the rider a lot of the time,” Leon said. “A nervous, flitty person will have a nervous, flitty horse. If you put a calm horse with a nervous person, the horse is doomed.”
I stayed calm for Chapo, even after the mountain lion warning.
Perhaps equally as amazing as their skills, dedication and courage is their pay. It’s absolutely nothing. The members are all volunteers.
Rescue missions are funded by the state, but posse members foot all their own bills, save for mileage reimbursement. Some money comes from fundraisers – like a monthly Gymkhana – but the rest is from their own pockets.
Requirements include owning their own horse, trailer, and a vehicle to tow them both to various locations. Posse members must be willing to risk their own lives – not to mention the lives of their animals.
They trek into Mexico, New Mexico, and all over Pima County.
They are also regularly called up to Maricopa County. A recent Maricopa call was after a woman’s two dogs came home playing with a piece of debris. The debris turned out to be a human head.
“It still had brain matter in it,” Leon noted.
The posse was called to perform a painstaking line search, walking back and forth along a grid coordinate at a specified location, but still never found the body or any other evidence that went with that head.
Evidence searches, equipment hauling, rescue missions and removing dead bodies are all part of their agenda.
The mission may take more than one day, requiring posse members to sleep outdoors overnight. Simmons recalled using his saddle as a pillow, as seen in the Westerns.
“It was the most miserable piece of crap I slept on in my life,” he said.
But the job is not crap, that’s for sure. Both the posse members and their horses – or mules – are beaming.
It’s hard to gauge who is happier – the folks who see the posse coming or the members doing their jobs.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Posse Series: Tales from the Posse
What do you think?
Have you ever gone off hiking and needed rescue?
Do you have a bond as strong with any animal?
Is the posse the coolest thing since sliced bread, or what?