Mounted Search and Rescue (MSAR)

Search and rescue (SAR) is about finding and helping people who are lost and/or injured. Mounted SAR (MSAR) is a specialty within SAR, using horses for transportation and sometimes also as trained search animals, a la search dogs. This website provides a broad overview of MSAR skills, MSAR e-mail discussion groups, and MSAR units' websites.

E-mail List Discussion Groups

This website's companion electronic mailing list, MSAR-Riders, is for mutual support of mounted search and rescue volunteers.

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Task group of ASTM International committee F32 on Search and Rescue, for development of formal standards pertaining to MSAR. Everyone interested in participating or observing is welcome to subscribe.

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List of upcoming SAR conferences with an MSAR component.

List of MSAR units that have web sites.


MSAR standards and certification tests

Most MSAR units have a training and evaluation or certification program for both horse and rider. Here is a sample evaluation form from TROT SAR in Maryland, in PDF format: test1.pdf. See also their very detailed "About Us" document, trotsar.txt. Here is another sample from Big Bear Sheriff's Posse MSAR in California, in MS Word format: HARMS_TEST.doc.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

The helmet manufacturer Troxel offers non-profit organizations the SafeTech Equestrian helmet at a discount cost of $20.00 each if fewer than 10 or $15.00 each if 10 or more, plus shipping. This is Troxel's SafeTech Equestrian Helmet Discount Program. Download the program order form (PDF, 410KB) or call Troxel (800 288-4280) to request the order form by mail or fax.
March 2005, information contributed by Larry Raskin of TROT-SAR.

For an extensive review of safety design issues in helmets, visit the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute; although their focus is helmets for bicycle riders, many safety issues apply also to helmets used by horse riders.


Today, no MSAR team should go in the field without a radio, and if you arrive at the staging area without one you might be sent home. It is common to have two kinds of radio: small "family use" radios for communications within the team while driving to the staging area and while searching in the field; and big "police" radios for communications with base camp and/or incident command. Before leaving the staging area, check that all your radios work, and that any team member who is carrying a radio knows how to use it.

In many areas, crucial back-country emergency communications are provided by amateur ("ham") radio operators. One common role for MSAR in back-country is to pack ham radio equipment to a high ridge or mountain top, to provide radio service in an area that otherwise has none. This equipment is heavy: it usually consists of a radio, a transportable antenna system, and car batteries or a small gasoline-powered generator with its fuel. You can be of very great service to any back-country SAR mission if you train yourself, your horse, and a second horse to pack. This is where safe ponying and other life skills come into play. Unless you can provide a suitable horse for the radio operator, and the operator can ride well enough or is willing to be ponied, the operator usually must walk to the high point. If you like radios, consider training yourself to be a licensed ham radio operator. In the United States, ham radio contacts and bulletins are provided on the ARRL website (, via their list of (state-by-state) sections.


Practice this! Your horse should load and unload calmly in both step-up and ramp trailers, in stock trailers with no partitions, and in slant- and straight-load partitioned trailers. It should unload calmly and under full control going forward or backward.

Traveling with Horses

Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA)
EIA, also widely known as "swamp fever", is an infectious viral disease transmitted among horses by biting flies. In the United States, proof of a negative AGID (Coggins) test or equivalent for EIA is required for any horse that travels widely: most states by law require it for horses brought from another state or country, and most sponsors of public equine events require it for all participating horses. The test should be repeated every year, or every 6 months, depending on the prevalence of EIA in your area. The test involves your veterinarian taking a blood sample and sending it to an approved testing laboratory for analysis. The analysis determines if the horse has antibodies to the virus that causes EIA. A positive test indicates that the horse is or was once infected and may be a carrier of this virus. The bad news is that horses that test positive must be quarantined for life; the good news is that EIA is not common. Although the EIA virus is a lentivirus related to the HIV virus that causes AIDS in humans, the EIA virus poses no known risk to humans. As yet there is no vaccine against the AIDS virus, but there is hope in part because for 20 years China has had an apparently safe and effective vaccine against the EIA virus. This vaccine is illegal to use in the United States, and a horse vaccinated with it will have a positive test.

A "current" EIA test usually is within the prior 6 or 12 months. For each state's definition of "current", see testing requirements concerning EIA in the United States, by state.

For more background information about EIA, see USDA distribution maps of EIA in the United States.

West Nile Virus (WNV)
WNV is an infectious viral disease transmitted from birds to horses and to people by mosquitos. WNV is not transmitted from horses, so an infected horse poses no risk of infection for other horses or people. There is a vaccine for horses: it is based on killed virus, so it should be very safe; its effectiveness in general use is difficult to measure, but the very small number of cases for 2003 reported in Florida, where vaccination has been very popular, suggest the vaccine is effective. The vaccine involves an initial shot followed by a booster shot 3-6 weeks later, and another booster shot annually. So far, the risk of infection is low (but good statistics are not available). If infected, the risk of clinical symptoms (that is, illness) is under 1%. If clinical symptoms, the risk of death may be as high as 30%; this number is very imprecise because it includes euthanasia for non-medical reasons such as the cost of therapy versus the value of the horse.

See USDA distribution maps of WNV in the United States for 2003 and prior years.

Traveling across state lines
To transport a horse into a state, most states require a recent certificate of veterinary inspection, also known as a health certificate. The certificate must be obtained within 30 days prior to import (this requirement may vary). Most states require the certificate to include a record of a negative test for EIA within 12 months prior to import; some states require the test within 6 months. For details see the USDA website, U.S. State and Territory Animal Import Regulations.

In the United States, many states require that trailered horses be accompanied by proof of ownership. For example, in New Mexico each horse should have hauling papers: a laminated card obtained by appointment from a New Mexico Livestock Inspector. The inspector draws the horse's distinctive marks on an outline; examines the horse's registration papers or bill of sale, and/or takes your statement that the horse is your own (e.g., if ranch-bred); takes your money ($25 for the card and $5 for the appointment); and gives you the card which travels with the horse. The card is valid as long as you own the horse; a new owner must obtain a new card. To find an inspector in your area, call the New Mexico Livestock Board in Albuquerque (505 841-6161).


You should expect to carry saddle bags on searches, for many hours, so the horse will need a saddle that not only has something to tie the bags onto, but also has an integral skirt. The skirt prevents the bags from working underneath the saddle (where they can gall the horse in minutes). Most "western" saddles have good skirts. Try carrying smaller bags in front of the saddle, instead of in back. In front, the bags tend to bounce and shift around less, so it is less important how the weight of their contents is distributed. When the horse is carrying saddle bags, the risk of saddle galls is much greater. Galls are caused rapidly by creases in the saddle blanket or pad, or by bunching or rubbing beneath the bags. To avoid saddle galls, use a large, thick wool felt saddle pad.

A breastplate is a good idea, to help ensure the saddle stays where it belongs. If you use a standing martingale (also known as a tie-down), not using a breastplate can be very dangerous. A martingale should not be worn when crossing water, because if your horse falls or must swim, it will need its head free.

Recruiting and Fundraising

Two easy steps you can take to improve recruiting and attract unsolicited donations are to establish a web presence, and to produce a flyer or brochure. A web presence may be as elaborate as a dedicated web site, or as simple as a paragraph on someone else's SAR resources web page. See the MSAR units web directory for hundreds of examples, using many different strategies. Also see the MSAR units web directory for a few examples of flyers and brochures.


Some tips on how to build a good website. Show on each page the page's URL; so that your page will be maximally useful when printed from a browser that does not print the URL automatically. This is very important for MSAR units, because many horse people spend little or no time in front of a computer. Don't use an ISP that imposes ads or a gazillion cookies or tries to download unwanted software to the viewer's computer: they are antisocial. Don't hide your links inside an imagemap: many people will not think to look for them there, and no one should have to work so hard to navigate through your website. Make sure your website loads fast (hint, try to access it from your local public library): skip the pointless graphics and cartoon animations. Remember that your audience is global: let the reader know where you are (e.g., name the state or country, show a map). Provide contact information such as a name and telephone number, e-mail address and/or postal address. Use passwords to guard content appropriate only for your unit's members, and use discretion in reporting on SAR missions. It is not appropriate to display names and photographs of the people you were called out to help, unless they give you explicit permission to do so.

Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS). Make your website easy to maintain. And do maintain it. To help you, one useful free website is W3C Link Checker.

Recommended reading
29 April 2002, updated 1 October 2008

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