“It’s exciting and gets your blood pumping!” exclaims Lyle Thomas, Captain of the volunteer San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Posse unit, as he describes the feelings associated with getting called out on a Search and Rescue operation. “It’s an emergency situation, someone is missing!”
Lyle came to the Sheriff’s Posse unit with previous experience in ground Search and Rescue operations. His work as “ground crew” inspired him to consider the Sheriff’s Posse unit. He realized that searches on horseback would both be easier on his body and possibly more effective in terms of covering more terrain in remote areas at a faster rate of speed. Lyle had no previous riding experience. He bought an experienced 16 year old Paint Horse, named “Blaze”, who was perfect to learn on. Lyle learned all he could on Blaze. Four years later Lyle joined the Sheriff’s Posse.
Now, Lyle has three years of Posse service under his belt and is riding a new Paint Horse, “Mulligan”. Lyle is absolutely hooked. He recognizes the unique team approach the horse offers to the Search and Rescue operation.
“The horse is the first to sense something different. Horses have more acute vision, hearing and scent and seem to know when someone is up ahead before we do.”
What Does the SLO Sheriff’s Posse Do?
The Sheriff’s Posse has been instrumental in bringing home many missing people. Horses are called in when the terrain is too steep or rocky for hikers or vehicles. SLO County has many areas where the terrain is more suitable to Search and Rescue efforts on horseback. Lyle finds the Search and Rescue aspect of the Sheriff’s Posse extremely rewarding.
In addition to Search and Rescue operations, the Sheriff’s Posse participates in a variety of parades throughout the county representing the San Luis Obispo county Sheriff’s Department. The parades bring the riders together for a common purpose, and help to bring awareness to the organization through the beauty of the horses themselves.
Another function that the Sheriff’s Posse handles is providing security at large events, such as the Mid-State Fair. “We are the eyes and ears for the on-duty deputies. We’re up high and can see around,” explains Lyle. The Sheriff’s Posse patrols the Mid-State Fair back parking lot, the carnival area and the Main Stage. “We have walkie-talkies to report back to dispatch. Sometimes we provide medical assistance and sometimes we aid in the breaking up of fights. We can get the horses in close to separate crowds.”
Finally, the Sheriff’s Posse is involved in educational events for the public. They put on Jr. Ranger summer camps, have a safety day and talk with kids about what they do. I recently came across Lyle and a few of his fellow Posse members and their horses during the Sheriff’s Family Day held in the back field at
Preparing for SLO Sheriff’s Posse Events
On-going mounted and dismounted training events take place throughout the year. Each Posse volunteer is certified in First-Aid, and horse and rider pairs have been evaluated through a Mounted Performance Test.
One must be ready at any time to be called into action. This means that the department-issued saddle bags are ready with required equipment: First-Aid kit, map, compass, food and water. “We get the call and we go!” exclaimed Lyle. Many Posse members have an agreement with their employer that allows them to take off of work when called into service.
Over-coming sensory issues is a main focus of the mounted training sessions. Horses get used to items they will be coming across in the service and parade environments; wooden bridges, strollers with balloons, orange cones and flares are just a few of the things that the horses are desensitized to. Horse and rider pairs work on focused activities like: mounted gate opening, taking off jackets without a reaction, dragging cones and pulling a stretcher or log off of a trail.
“It can take a long time for a horse to become comfortable with standing for periods of time in a public venue,” Lyle explains. “It also takes a few years for the riders to become used to all of this.”
All Volunteer Posse
“We supply just about everything,” says Lyle. All the horses are owner/volunteer owned, along with the equipment used to transport the horses – i.e. a reliable truck and trailer. In addition, each Posse member purchases his or her own uniform, tack, saddle pads and pays for the horse shoes and vet care, just like any horse owner would.
The steps to becoming a member of the Sheriff’s Posse unit result in trained and approved volunteers. Each volunteer goes through several in-depth steps before being accepted into the unit. There is a preliminary background check, three informational/training meetings, a riding proficiency test that must be passed and, finally, a full background check is completed before officially being sworn in as a member.
Looking for New Recruits
If you are a local rider and are inspired to give back to the community in a variety of positive and often lifesaving ways, the SLO Sheriff’s Posse invites you to check out Posse activities. They are always looking for new recruits. Most Posse members are sold on the experience from the beginning. Lyle has these parting words to share, “I thoroughly enjoy the team members, giving back to the community and doing something really different.”
Cover Photo: Natalie Thomas