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November 10, 2001

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Horse Quarterly


Maybe bigger is better. Perhaps it's the large nasal passages of horses that allow them to detect scents up to one-quarter mile away. Nowacki's horses know when they're on a search, and instantly begin breathing a little heavier, trying to catch the scent of a victim.

Using horse 'scents' to find the lost
Seeing is believing

by Kate Morberg
Northern Watch Reporter
Published November 10, 2001

A new searching source has been harnessed by an Argyle man.

For the past 10 months Terry Nowacki has been training horses to use their natural air scenting instinct to sniff out lost individuals. More than a hobby, Nowacki sees the training as a beneficial tool for search and rescue parties.

"I want the knowledge to get out there, because I know it will save lives," said Nowacki.

Nowacki became interested in the air scenting technique after being involved in a search effort using air scenting dogs in Mahnomen County. After teaching his own dog some of the basics, Nowacki soon learned that chasing a canine on a scent trail is quite physical.

"I thought that maybe there's a better way to do this," he said.

This is when he put his 20 years of horse training experience into action. For a horse to become an efficient searcher, Nowacki said it takes around two months. It was explained as a long, building process of praise and reward. Training begins with a simple child's game.

"I compare it to playing hide and seek with a three-year-old," he said.

As the training progressed, Nowacki's horses began to detect human scent up to one-quarter of a mile away. They are trained to find any human in their range. This feat has been accomplished with limited training.

Stormy, a registered quarter horse, has had 90 days of total training over the past 10 months. There was a period of three-months in which Nowacki worked with him only seven times, and then took one month off. Even after the hiatus, he found the victim instantly in a test.

So far Nowacki has trained two of his horses, and is currently working on a third. The horses haven't had a chance to be involved in an actual search, but continue to train, preparing themselves for the day a call comes in.

Nowacki is the current president of the Marshall County Minnesota Mounted Sheriff Posse. Marshall County Sheriff Herb Maurstad sees the ability of an air scenting horse as a real asset to search and rescue efforts.

"I'm glad that one of the citizens of my county is taking a personal interest in search and rescue," said Maurstad.

Maurstad said the a horse will be able to go where other animals can't. Nowacki listed the endurance a horse has as a major advantage in using it in searches. A horse is able to easily plow through two feet of snow, and can cover more ground than a search dog.

Nowacki pointed out that an air scenting horse would never take the place of a dog. Each has areas that they are better suited for. For instance a dog is better able for searching through thick bush, than a horse.

Test situations are staged to check the horses' tracking ability. Successful rescue procedures have been performed by the horses with or without a rider. Nowacki said he doesn't give the horses any type of signals, other than the initial "search" command, while riding them during an air scenting mission. He prefers the horses to "think on their own."

There are skeptics who claim he may be guiding the horse to the victim. This myth is put to rest, as Nowacki shows how the horse can follow a scent trail on its own without a rider.

Nowacki said his horses know they are getting ready for a mission. A change in the animals' behavior is noticed as the switch occurs. The horses begin breathing a little heavier, trying to move more air through their large olfactory passages.

Nowacki knows of no other training like this being done with horses. The National Association of Search and Rescue invited Nowacki to speak at their 2001 conference. They informed Nowacki that they have never heard of this type of training either. Nowacki said that if the air scenting horses are being used elsewhere, NASAR would probably know about it. "Seeing is believing," said Nowacki.

He says friends even have a hard time believing it when they watch with their own eyes.

The whole situation seems daunting. Perhaps because horses, to the inexperienced person, are rather large animals with minds of their own.

Nowacki said the training is something the horses really seem to enjoy.

"They forget other training because they want to forget," said Nowacki. "But they remember this."

A horse uses its natural air scenting ability to find traces of humans. The scent they follow is a combination of dead skin cells, called rafts, and body odor.

A breeze of at least seven miles per hour creates ideal search conditions. In an actual search, Nowacki said he would wait until the right wind conditions to use one of his horses. This secures a more accurate search.

"We're at the grace of Mother Nature," said Nowacki.

Program Manager of the Equine Industrial Management program at the University of Minnesota, Crookston, Melissa Hower-Moritz said there is a part in a horse's nose that helps it analyze odors. She said it's evident a horse is smelling when it throws its head back and lifts up its lip. This is called flehmen.

Nowacki is a member of NASAR, and has been invited back to speak at their conference in 2002. He is also a member of the Polk County Minnesota Mounted Sheriff Posse.

Equine bloodhound may help find missing people
Dan Gunderson
Minnesota Public Radio
December 19, 2001

A northern Minnesota farmer believes he's found a new, very effective tool for search-and-rescue teams. Terry Nowacki claims he's trained his horse to be a sort of equine bloodhound. His work is piquing the interest of search-and-rescue experts nationwide.

Terry Nowacki and his horse Stormy
Terry Nowacki and his horse Stormy pose in their search and rescue gear. (MPR photo/Dan Gunderson)


Nowacki and his wife Debbie farm on the eastern edge of the Red River Valley near Argyle. His avocation is training horses. He's also a volunteer with the Marshall county sheriffs mounted posse search and rescue team.

Early one afternoon, Nowacki runs Stormy, a nearly four-year-old quarter horse who's real name is El Nino Poco, around a training ring to burn off some energy.

Like most horses, Stormy has a large and inquisitive schnoz.

About a year-and-a-half ago, Terry helped search for a lost person in Mahnomen county. Air-scenting dogs had to be brought in from the Twin Cities to help because many rural counties don't have easy access to trained search dogs.

When he came home, Nowacki thought about training his dog, then wondered whether a horse could do the job.

"And to my surprise, the more I did the more they liked it. I've never trained a horse for anything as easy as they train for this," said Nowacki. "Usually it takes months. This horse has only a total of four months training."

Stormy's nose
This is the nose that may change the way search and rescue teams find lost people. (MPR photo/Dan Gunderson)


Terry Nowacki estimates he has invested about 500 hours in his pet project. He's also searched for a lot of volunteer victims.

"For training, of course, I use strangers as much as possible. And if it's clothing I use strangers' clothing. People who the horses have never seen before," said Nowacki.

Many visitors to the Nowacki farm have found themselves playing hide-and-seek with a horse.

To demonstrate Stormy's scenting ability, Nowacki drops a shirt borrowed from a friend in a hedgerow along a farm field. The shirt hasn't been worn for two days. Finding clothing is a much tougher test than finding a person.

According to Nowacki, the shirt will give off what's called a scent cone. Think of light smoke drifting with the wind currents and you get an idea how scent moves.

"He'll go to the closest human scent," said Nowacki. "When he hits the scent cone, he'll let me know. He'll take off on his own, even against my advice and he knows he won't get reprimanded for taking the reins."

In a real search, Nowacki would ride the horse. But just to prove he's not giving Stormy cues, he puts the horse on a 30-foot rope.

"He'll go 30-foot circles, especially when he thinks he caught something. He'll go and circle around and come again. It's kind of like if you ever had anything spoil in your house maybe under the sink. You wander around the house and sniff here and you come back because you gotta check if you really caught that scent. He does that too," said Nowacki.

Stormy starts across the field about 250 feet from the shirt. Midway through the first pass down the field, Stormy catches the scent and takes a hard left toward the hedgerow.

After working up and down the hedgerow a couple times he finds the shirt and points to it with his nose, waiting for his handler to catch up. A handful of oats is reward for a job well done.

Stormy at work
Stormy homes in on the scent of a shirt hidden in a hedgerow along this field. His handler claims Stormy has a 90 percent success rate in training. (MPR photo/Dan Gunderson )


Nowacki claims Stormy has a success rate of better than 90 percent in more than 100 training exercises. Horse and handler are yet to be tested in a real life situation.

Marshall County Sheriff Herb Maurstad is thrilled to have an additional tool to help search and rescue efforts.

"When the need is there, that's when you need the resources," said Maurstad. "And you need them right now and you don't have a lot of time. Because usually somebody's life is at stake. And, depending on your resources, you can save a life."

The sheriff said it's exciting to be part of a project that could affect search-and-rescue teams across the nation.

Mike Tuttle, president of the National Association for Search and Rescue, thinks Terry Nowacki is breaking new ground.

"Using a horse as an air scent is really thinking outside of the box. Something nobody's ever thought of to my knowledge. I think it's pretty exciting and certainly worth pursuing," said Tuttle.

Tuttle doubts horses will replace search dogs, but he sees several advantages. Horses can cover four or fives times as much ground in a day, the rider has a good vantage point from the saddle, and a horse can catch a scent wafting by several feet in the air.

Terry Nowacki knows there are still a lot of skeptics to convince. He thinks they'll be won over the first time Stormy finds a lost person.

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