Leadership and the Horse

Bonnitta Roy and George Herget

Bonnita Roy and George Herget

George Herget

Bonnita Roy

This exploration between George and me came about as a result of a conversation between George and Russ Volckmann. Russ could see a special kind of wisdom in George’s stories of the way people and horses can team up to deliver exceptional performance. I have been working with horses and people in relation to horses for many years. Since Russ knows that I use a fair amount of horse metaphors when talking about leadership and character development, he quickly introduced me to George.

George is a financial adviser. Russ described him as one of the most honest and direct people he had ever met. In addition, George directs a mounted search and rescue operations team in the mountains of southern Arizona, one of only a handful in the United States that are medically qualified. They are charged with saving people’s lives – and in the process are creating some of the standards by which other rescue operations are judged. George explains how to deliver consistent levels of trust and success in situations where the risks are high, the conditions are unknown and variable, and the tolerance for error near zero. As we talked, we began to articulate some interesting dilemmas around leadership and character, innate skills and the importance of simulation in training critical operations teams that “need to hit the ground running.” Or galloping.


Bonnie: Hello George, it’s great to meet you today and talk about your work with horses and how this has impacted your life. I know you direct an organization that is a mounted search and rescue team in Tucson, Arizona.

George: That’s correct.

Bonnie: Tell us about this organization. What level are you working with horses in this group? What level are you working with people? Give us a little idea of the way the operation runs today.

George: Okay. The organization is called Southern Arizona Mounted Search and Rescue – SAMSAR for short. What we do is provide search and rescue services specifically with a mounted unit. My job is to head out that unit, put together the trainings and delegate leadership of certain teams in the field.

SAMSAR Members in the Field

Bonnie: How are the teams paired up? For example, do you sometimes work in a larger group and then branch out in smaller units?

George: We have done a number of different training scenarios relating to size that have to do with the actual details of the mission. For example, we might have six or eight horses deployed into a specific grid for what we would call an urban search, which could be an alleyway, a shopping center, or an entire neighborhood. Recently, we were involved, with a missing child. If the situation occurs in a wilderness or in the mountains I will have the option based on who calls in for readiness on the mission to put together two or three or maybe even four teams.

Bonnie: Do you work only with trained groups or do you sometimes call in people with horses from the larger community?

George: Well that’s a great question! The answer is that we train all of our own people. If we don’t train them, they don’t go in the field.

Bonnie: Are the horses trained to have searching skills? Are the people trained to have searching skills? Do you work with dogs?

George: Our team doesn’t work with dogs. We do have a dog unit that we would maybe work in association with on cadaver searches or other searches in the field. We are currently considering scent training for horses and mules. There is a guy in Minnesota who has done remarkable work with horses and their handlers in tracking scent in the field. He says, “Horses have bigger noses than dogs. You’d think they would be really good at this.”

Our team is specific to the mounted patrol. We use horses. We use mules – which is a good animal for this work. Our focus primarily is to train the individual in search and rescue operations. We also have a very active medical unit who receive training on the horses. We can figure out through the qualification process rather quickly if the owner has any idea of what he is doing or whether the animal is going to be able to handle the different distractions at the field.

Bonnie: Can you share with us a little about how your relationship with horses started out? I know that a lot of people have early experiences with horses. I’m wondering what your own introduction to horses was.

George: Well, that’s always a great question and the answer is interesting, too. I remember when I was about four years old my family was traveling down the road on some kind of a trip which, I cannot remember. But I do remember my parents stopping for gas. They had some kind of petting zoo or some kind of a round pen with horses and I rode this huge palomino gelding. His name was Alexander. Then when I was five, I figured out that one of these days I was going to own a horse. So about 22 years ago I bought my own horse and got involved in search and rescue back in 1999. I have been working there ever since.

Bonnie: That is interesting. I have a similar story as well. From the time I can remember I always wanted a horse, but not until later in my life was I able to tap into that kind of dream or need that was with me consciously or unconsciously for a long time.

So, your first experience with horses was in the context of search and rescue or leading toward that as an adult?

George: I got my first horse about 1991 or 1992. I picked up a three year old thoroughbred off the racetrack. That wasn’t one of the smartest things I have ever done, but he turned out to be a very high quality team penning horse. So, we actually earned a bit of money competing in team penning. I rode him for several years and then got involved in search and rescue operations. By then, he had calmed down quite a bit in the field. For example, the helicopters didn’t bother him. I remember him as having a tremendous heart and unbelievable stamina in the mountains.

Bonnie: Wow! That’s amazing to breed a race-bred thoroughbred into this discipline!

Inside of every great horseman I always say are two good stories:  there is the story of the “truly great mentor” and there is the story of the “truly great horse.” Would pick out one or speak to both of those.

George: In terms of a great horseman who I thought influenced me?

Bonnie: Yes, or someone whose horsemanship you were particularly impressed by.

George: Actually, it’s interesting that I’ve never connected with any particular mentor. When I got the thoroughbred, whose name was Rio Nuevo, straight from the racetrack, at first I actually hired a trainer – but that was only for about two weeks. I haven’t had a lesson since. I have done quite a bit of work studying with some of the John Lyons video series – but my own experience is that horse people get to be good horse people by hanging out with better horse people and that’s how they learn. I have always been fortunate to be in the middle of a rich environment of people that knew more about horses, training and tack than I did. So that’s how I got to where I am today.

Bonnie: It sounds like it was really a rich community experience, rather than a more formal coaching, or one-on-one mentorship. I imagine that can be really special in the right environment.

We’ve already talked about your first horse, Rio Nuevo. In terms of great horses or even exceptionally difficult horses do you have any particular story you would like to tell?

George: I have been fortunate to ride a lot of different horses. I think if you are going to be a good rider you’ve got to ride a lot of different horses. But you have to ride a good horse to know what a good horse feels like. Rio, as a thoroughbred racehorse probably wasn’t the most ideal situation. When I sold him about 13 years ago I acquired a mustang – a quarter horse mustang mix, a three-year old gelding. He has turned out to be just the most phenomenal athlete. This kind of athleticism is really the basis for the kind of response I need out in the field. He is just as exceptionally gifted in his mind, or as we say “he’s got a good head.” He’s got an unbelievable sense of balance as well. He has got great feet, which as a horseperson, you know is critical and not as common as one might assume to be the case about horses. I believe that much of this is due to the fact that he is more mustang in his breeding, and I’ve become a real fan of that breed.

George Herget and Willie

Bonnie: Yes, the North American Mustang is truly a remarkable animal, and in my opinion, should be preserved as a national treasure.

With all your horsemanship do you find that you frequently use horse metaphors when you are looking for possible candidates – people – for this kind of work? I know I have drawn out a number of analogies from my own experiences with horses…

George: That’s really interesting! I do. For the people that we screen and evaluate it’s quite a lengthy process. Trainee requirements are fairly demanding. But the big thing for me running this unit and being one of the founding members of this specific group, I pay a lot more attention to demeanor, personality and attitude. And that’s the same kind of thing I look at in a horse.

Bonnie: And for people who are not familiar with horses what does that process look like? What are you observing? What is the kind of process that it entails? What would I see when you are observing a person or a horse during the initial stages of screening?

George: I think you would see a sense of calm demeanor, a sense of stability, a reliance on decision making – if that even makes sense in a horse. But it applies to what you might be looking for in a human. It seems to me if you’ve been around a horse long enough, especially if you have time to be alone with the horse, you begin to understand, perhaps even intuitively, the way they think and how they are going to respond to different situations. I believe that those people who are best qualified for the demands of search and rescue have a very tight connection with their own animals. I also think that people who are good owners and have good animals turn out to be people who are themselves, very coachable and quick learners, when it comes to search and rescue.

Bonnie: I agree completely. When you used the word “ respond”, I immediately wrote down the distinction “respond versus react.” There seems to be a greater intelligence in the notion of “response” – along with a greater degree of options – than with the word “react”, which can create all kinds of chaos and confusion.

George: Right.

Bonnie: You know there is reactive type behavior and then there is responsive type behavior that is an important distinction in leadership. Although I want to preface my remarks here by noting that while I find I can talk a lot about leadership through metaphors on horsemanship, I have to catch myself not to trivialize a person’s situation by creating an analogy with my horses. On the other hand, it does seem to me that there are a lot of nuances that working with horses brings up that function as insights that are directly translatable to leadership in organizations or capacities for working with communities or skills for coaching people one- on- one.

George: I think it comes down to this: if you are going to lead an organization demanding any kind of respect, you innately know – and in saying this, I realize that I don’t know if this innate knowing can actually be something that is taught, or even learned somehow – and here I run up against something that is really difficult to articulate. What I want to describe is a kind of knowing that you can trust that when “it hits the fan” – when the situation is in some kind of crisis, that you are going to do the right thing.  You know that the people that you rely on are going to respond in a similar fashion. Does that make any sense?

Bonnie: I am finding that I understand what you are saying without so many words, because I share this experience with horses. However, for the person who doesn’t know what its like to work with horses, what words would we use to explain what “character” in horses is, and whether this is translatable into working with people?

My sense of it is that you have a certain talent to intuit or to apperceive what’s inside the horse or maybe even the person – that you are not merely observing the outsides of behavior, along with the situation that might be considered the context . You mentioned that the interview process for people was rather rigorous and extensive but it seems to me that in many cases there might be something that is more innate or intuitive operating in you that you are also relying on.

George: You know you might be onto something — though I’ve not spent a lot of time actually thinking about this. I can say with a great deal of certainty that just as we would identify in people we can also identify in horses a certain skill set. It’s something that they bring to the table. It’s our responsibility to identify it and perpetuate it for all its worth.

For example, some horses are really quiet and they just trot along. Some horses are a little bit more energetic and they move out pretty quickly. They are very responsive. They are very proactive. Some horses just roll up the floor and do what you want them to do.

I think in people it’s the same way. If we are looking for a metaphor as it pertains to leadership or horses, when I assemble my team or when I’m working with people for training, I really want to find out what they are good at and exploit it. If they are lacking in some certain skill we need to try and find a way to polish it up a little bit, fine tune it a little bit, but then really rely on what they are good at. The hard part is letting them bring out what they are good at, if they don’t realize the skill that they have.

Bonnie: Do you feel that there is also a complementarity that sometimes you work with? For example, perhaps some horses and people fit better together as a team, than in alternate team arrangements. Do you ever find yourself working with complementaries to build teams either in the field or within the search and rescue organization itself?

George: As far as the personality of the animal in relation to other members in the team or personalities of the individual?

Bonnie: In terms of the whole. I suspect similar to individual sets that teams might need to be combined in ways that would provide the constellation of skills that results in better overall performance.

George: Yes, we do pay a lot of attention to how the person is able to handle his horse and how teams perform in training sessions. Part of the criteria in the trainings is to see how each horse and rider interact with other horses and riders ­– members of the team. In fact, I will purposely mix and match teams to just see if I can create some sense of organized chaos to identify where the weak links are. That’s the beauty of training, because it is for the most part a controlled environment. If something goes wrong, you can shut it down and maintain your safety standards.

For example, there is a training session coming up that is taking place at night, which will be a challenging test in itself, as well as an exercise on qualifying horses to help move injured people out at night. In that typical scenario we will bandage up patients who have leg splits or slings or whatever the injury might be and then have a team of people load the patients on and off the horses Then we move the horse so that the horse gets familiar with people who may not have a great sense of balance or maybe are new to horses. Through this process of training-exercises we can determine if a particular horse is of the right personality to be able to carry out a real life patient under conditions that are as challenging as what we face in the field.

Bonnie: There is quite a lot of literature around these days about the role of horses in teaching leadership. For me the horse stands in the middle between the two sides of leadership – because the horse needs leadership and training from the person, but this process in turn can help shape the person’s leadership role. For example, when you are bringing along a young horse, as you said, you can determine what the horse’s talents are, but also what the horse really likes to do – what he really seems born to do. This is part of leadership, I think – to help the horse, or the person, identify where their talents and their passions align. But because the horse cannot possibly understand something like, “Oh, I’m athletic and I want to do search and rescue!” the horseman needs to rely on more fundamental questions about talent and character. To create excellence in the horse requires a certain type of leadership. This is what I mean when I say that the horse “stands in the middle” – between the need to exercise leadership and the ability to create the conditions for shaping leadership. I am wondering if in your community and the people you work with, is there ever a formal or conceptual discussion around the notions of leadership and horsemanship?

George: First, for the most part, this falls under a kind of gray area for us.  I don’t think that there is a formal conversation around this. A lot of what we are doing is just knowing what to look for and constantly looking for it. I think that recognizing the horse in some kind of a leadership role for us pretty much goes without a lot of dialogue, because you know the horse is only going to be as good as the handler and the handler is always going to be as good as the horse lets him be.

So there is a bit of an exchange there. There is a bit of give and take, a bit of latitude to develop the personality in each. But the best horses I have been around are the horses that know what their job is. This is very similar to what I have experienced in raising my two kids or my experiences coaching various sports for little kids. What I find is that the best kids are the ones that identify what their jobs are. This is the same with horses. If horses have a purpose, they develop as a much more meaningful animal, and they remain a much healthier animal, with their own attitude, in respect to their own mindset.

Bonnie: Do you ever feel like you live between two worlds – the outdoor world of mounted search and rescue that draws on certain skills and talents, as I’m imagining it to be filled with critical situations and adventurous – and then there is the world of the office and the company boardroom. There are also situations that develop and require some kind of crisis management. Do you find yourself drawing from these two worlds in either direction in any of those situations?

The Stallion Khemancho and Bonnita Roy

George: It seems to me that is a well thought-out question and the answer is clearly, yes. Whether you are managing money or managing the care of someone’s life there is a sense of crisis management. The key to a successful outcome is just taking over control of a situation and applying some sense of direction. Your direction might not be perfect every time, but the management style has to be flexible enough for you to change direction if you need to arrive at a specific outcome. So yes.

For me personally, as well, it’s all about adrenaline.

Bonnie: Yes, being able to call on the adrenaline, but also being able to utilize it as an asset versus being actually overwhelmed by its effects – which happens to most people in crisis situations.

George: Certainly, business and business decisions are more flexible than a life and death or an injury situation. I can see the preparation for one leading to the other and complementing each other. Although you can never be sure of what the outcome will be when you are in a business meeting or you are setting up a conference call or you are dealing with people around businesses, you still have a pretty good idea what the tempo is going to be and the direction of the conversation most likely will take. You should already be prepared as to what the objectives are and who’s trying to get what done to satisfy somebody else.

In a search and rescue environment everybody needs to be on the same page from the start. We’ve got to find this person. We’ve got to do a medical assessment on this person. We’ve got to treat this individual and we have to figure out a means to extract the individual out of the field to get higher care. Therefore, with search and rescue operations at the beginning the commitments are somewhat more defined, but at the end of the day there is a lot more at stake.

Bonnie: From the way you are describing it, it seems to me that in both cases there are unknowns at the start. But with search and rescue you are dealing with  people of the same mind, dealing a shared unknown. In this sense it could be difficult just asking the right questions. For instance, where do we even start to look and what are the most likely scenarios for accomplishing the rescue.

George: As well as the consequences on search and rescue is a little less forgiving.

Bonnie: Are there some significant lessons and improvements that you can classify that you’ve learned in your 13 years of search and rescue? Considering that the consequences in search and rescue are much more significant, I imagine there must have been a learning curve in this time period. Are there some significant improvements or procedures that you have certified over the years?

George: I think so. In search and rescue we like the saying, “If you don’t use it you lose it.” So it doesn’t matter how much training you do. If you don’t apply yourself in the field, you are never really going to cement those procedures and those protocols and that instinct together. We have another saying in our group, “You are only as good as the last call out you went on,” which serves as a constant reminder that nobody really cares what you did five years ago. Rather, it’s what you can do today that is in the forefront of people’s minds when we get called out on a mission.

My first experience in the field with a medical condition was unusual. It remains one of the most gruesome head traumas that we have ever worked on. It just happened to be my first one. I certainly learned a lot about that situation, because it was extremely vigorous and it was a very much a life and death situation. The individual ended up with four brain operations and he was in intensive care for six weeks. It was remarkable that he even lived through the trauma, but sadly, he remains totally disabled from his high profile job. So while I am happy we were able to save his life, I regret that the quality of his life was not restored.

Bonnie: With medical emergencies of this kind, are the patients brought out on horseback or do you pretty much hold them stable as best you can, while you wait for other rescuers to come in on all-terrain vehicles or by helicopter, for instance?

George: Actually, as a mounted unit we reserve the right to make that decision – to either say no to holding and moving the patient out as quickly as possible, or making the call that the patient needs to be held, which is dependent on our own ability to correctly assess the risks and to determine how extensive are their medical injuries. All of this must be done by our team in the field. For example, if we know we are dealing with a serious head, neck or spinal injury, that’s definitely not going to go out by horseback. Or if we had someone who had suffered a head injury and can’t maintain consciousness or has been medicated in the field, that’s certainly not going to be a candidate. However, almost all people suffering arm, shoulder or leg injuries, provided they can sit on the saddle and maintain a good level of response, are good candidates to be transported back on horseback. On the other hand, some people are just terrified of horses and they won’t take the option, even when it is otherwise safe to choose it.

Bonnie: Is the advantage of being on horseback that you are entering territory that other vehicles can’t go in, or are there multiple advantages?

George: Yes, that is one advantage. In addition, we are constantly trying to redefine our resources to local law enforcement agencies so that we can, when called upon, be ready and able to act as a good source of search and rescue talent. With a horse you obviously can cover a lot of real estate quickly which is part of what we might call a hasty team. We can get into a field really fast and cover a lot of terrain. We are in areas that can’t be accessed by trucks or RVs or motorcycles.

The second thing is when you are sitting in your saddle your field of vision is quite extraordinary versus someone just walking up the trail with a backpack. There was a recent study by a guy at England just a couple of years doing confined space search theory. The essence of the experiment was laying out some rusty gas cans over a square-mile grid, and starting teams along a straight line to see what type of team comes out the other end quickest with the most success. Our mounted unit out-performed the special ops people, the ground pounders, and a host of regular hikers. We even had 100% going up against the dog teams. So I am assuming there must be many advantages of doing this type of work with horses that are hard to name.

Bonnie: Wow, that’s quite an accomplishment, given that for most amateurs, horses are notoriously unpredictable.

I have a question here that I prepared and it’s kind of a fuzzy question so I’m just going to throw it out here. Do you have any thoughts or feelings, or the impression that working with horses in general, or more specifically working for a purpose like your search and rescue team, which is quite an unusual discipline, about the notion of self- mastery? Is there some kind of process you know that you feel that you have benefited personally from, either being within a mounted situation, but also within this pursuit of excellence and purpose you live out in the search and rescue operation? I am thinking of what personal benefits or sense of self- mastery might be involved that you’ve been able to draw on or see as advantageous for other people to pursue, potentially to develop these kinds of benefits in their lives in one way or another?

George: Yes, this is exactly what you will find out if you are, like we are, team members considered to be a special operations unit from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. I think what you find out is the people who are attracted to this kind of work already have a sense of pride. They have a unique sense of responsibility. They are the kind of people who could take a really nasty situation and have a positive outcome and they could do it individually or they could do it as team members.

So I think as this process evolves wherever we operate, we are going to be recognized – at least it is my intention to be recognized – as the “ go to” team in Southern Arizona, because a lot of counties have search and rescue groups, but they don’t have a great deal of  overall mastery of what is required. For example, the large number of people that are mounted who are also qualified with extensive medical training. This makes a tremendous difference for us.

In this environment down here, which has a lot of visitors, the Southern Arizona Rescue Association is one of the busiest volunteer teams in the country. In this group I am also a field-qualified member. As the person who leads the mounted unit, I have the option of using a backpack and some technical climbing experience. I would also maintain communications with the Sheriff’s Department. I can offer an even wider support capacity. For example, let’s say that there is a team out for a couple of days on a missing-persons search and I get called at 5:00 in the morning to go rescue a horse that couldn’t get up. In my mind – and I don’t know if this is an ego thing or what it is—but I want us to be known for, to be recognized for, if they call us that means everything is going to be okay.

Bonnie: Also, the impression I am getting as you are describing this is somewhat rare in that you need to be specialized in a lot of areas, but not to the point where any of that specialization detracts from your ability to respond. It seems that you are in the process of developing the right kind of the alliance that sounds like a sweet spot for what you are doing.

George: Yes, I see that.

Bonnie: The same must be true with your horses, because although what you are doing is quite specialized, the horse must need many different talents, rather than a single gift such as speed at the expense of endurance. I imagine that you have to improvise on the spot.

Arizona Terrain for SAMSAR Operations

George: We do. We are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Consequently, we are all carrying our ham radios and our cell phones and driving around with all of our gear in our trunks wherever we go. There is no way to know what’s going to happen, because you get the information as it comes across the radio for the first time.

When we get a call about a situation, we will just drop everything and go get the truck and trailer. We load the horse and get out in the field as quickly as possible, as the information is being delivered over the radio. As a result, the dynamics of the whole mission changes dramatically, because information changes, locations change, weather conditions change, availability of resources change.

It really is an interesting dynamic, because I think to do this successfully and to be respected you have to understand the global dynamics of the entire mission. With respect to the specialty of horses now we have to worry about relevant details – do we have a place to park the truck and trailer, do we have access to the trail, what are the actual trail conditions at this particular time, even the question of whether the trail is wide enough to turn around if we pick up a patient. There are a lot of “what if’s” that we need to deal with right along with getting out into the field.

Bonnie: Do you travel and teach or train in the search and rescue field?

George: Not really.  I don’t travel extensively though other special operations groups occasionally ask me to come in and put on some medical training scenarios. I get a big kick out of doing that. In these training sessions I create a number of medical emergencies in the field and then have the students address each emergency and evaluate them on how the various situations are handled. I only do a little bit of speaking. I’m not a really good speaker. I like talking about it, but I think if I was able to charge people and travel to do this I would probably have hit the lottery.

Bonnie: One of the overall concepts that is working my way through this conversation is the recent orientation toward leadership which is called “action inquiry” or “action logic.” The idea is that you can’t solve problems or even ask the right questions without acting in the world, without actually poking at the world, experimenting with the world and learning through the feedback that comes with this kind of action. This seems to be more valuable and rich than just asking questions abstractly and trying to find solutions just by thinking your way through problems. This is something  that is alive in your stories here – the value of doing and observing and learning from the doing that seems to be an overall theme I’m getting from your various operations and interests.

This might seems strange to you, but I think it’s rare today to find leaders who trust the actual doing part. This is a more significant problem in education. For example,  I worked for 33 years in the landscape design/build area. The person coming into the workforce having 10 years experience as a kid working with a shovel in his back yard is much more prepared to go into the field. She often has more potential to be a good  trainer, manager or eventually designer,  than the person coming out of landscape architecture school who for some reason is enamored of the idea of the work, but somehow has developed an allergic reaction to what the work on the ground actually entails. It is just this gap between knowing about and knowing how that makes  a strong case for training scenarios as you describe.

George: You can’t get on a horse by reading about one – you know you can’t.

Bonnie: That’s for sure!

George: So here I should give you some background information on where I came from.

Bonnie: Great!

George: Prior to being the president of SAMSAR and actually being a founding member of this group, I was the captain of another group where some of us were in a struggle to raise the bar, raise the standards for people interested in doing search and rescue work. Basically, we were just looking at a saddle club and we were having a very difficult time trying to get everybody to try harder or learn more or do something different or accept some constructive criticism. Eventually, it got to the point where we had to implement a political coup. The 63 year-old organization ended up getting discarded. This allowed us to take our talent, at the request of the Sheriff’s Department, and start a new, more professional group.

Today, everybody that is in our group is field qualified and everybody who is field qualified can run a mission or step up to the plate and takeover on just about any aspect of the rescue. And that’s what’s different now. That’s why we’re a special unit and out front of the rest today. For us it’s a question of being willing and able to get your hands dirty. Without that, you really can’t do anything of value in our kind of operation at all. You can’t work a horse until you get a wet saddle pad. If your horse isn’t working and you are not riding him in a way that makes you work, you’ve got nothing to talk about. In search and rescue if you’re not in the field getting dirty, sweaty and bloody and having all those wild experiences in the middle of the night, then you are not in a position to train or coach or talk about it.

Bonnie: Right! And in this case it’s more than a metaphor, because it seems to me that this kind of action-oriented training or way of being prepared is directly translatable and valuable advice across many domains in many different disciplines and sorely needed in a lot of places in our culture today. On the other side of the equation, you can have people who actually possess the most natural talent for being effective in a certain field but never get the chance, because they are unable to pass these other types of triage tests. They are people who just don’t show up well under administrative scrutiny or bureaucratic kinds of recruitment, or are able to take advantage of more abstract processes of vetting candidates.

That being said, now I’m very curious about your recruitment process, because I think that this is step one at which you are designing your team – how you find and prepare candidates. I suspect this is something that’s germane to the excellence you achieve, that your process is not a matter of answering yes or no to questions one to ten. But something more: interactive and action-oriented.

George: Yes that is very true. When we put this thing together we found we spent more time talking people out of doing search and rescue when we are training. In the process we will find that for every 20 or 30 people who are actually interested in this, we might get one or two who are truly serious about making the commitment. Even half of these people fall by the wayside.  Because we learned some really hard lessons at first being in the political environment with the bigger, older, well-established well-recognized group that really wanted to just have the Sheriff’s uniform rather than actually performing in the field or at least being recognized as being professional – we have been able to concentrate on doing something better.

We had to call our own shots. The way we structured this in our operating procedure and even in our bylaws is based on the promise that we will help anybody who wants to pursue this. But we also have the conditions that they need to listen, to learn, and to step up to the plate. They need to go through the training. And you know, quite frankly, if we get any attitude, then we ask them to leave. It’s really that simple. We reserved the right to kick anybody out that’s against our standards and our standards are very high. We created this organization to adhere to those high standards so that at the end of the day when we get called out on scene we get recognized for what we do, what we’ve already done, and what we will most certainly continue to do in the future.

Bonnie: You know the extreme importance of excellence in search and rescue and you know the motivating factors for those high standards. I think the members probably demonstrate the same type of high standards elsewhere in their lives. This level of character you are talking about has to come from within. I get the impression that you are picking candidates who have high standards across the board in their life, who are not even capable of just turning it on when they show up for a search and rescue session, and off when they go home. I don’t think the kind of quality in the person that you are looking for can be turned on and off  – it must be something inherent.

Gypsie Wings and Bonnie

George: That’s a valid point. It’s a good observation, because it’s really true. The people who are going to pay attention to the detail are the people who can work well. They don’t put their ego out ahead of the work, thinking, ”I’m going to end up sitting pretty.”

People who are good at search and rescue are not just good on the managing aspect, but must be good in the field exercises as well. This means they have a level of commitment. They have a level of pride. They have a sense of intellect to be able to get the job done. And so there it is – I have never thought about that, but you could probably thread the needle and come up with a group of characteristics for identifying those people who either will not be successful and should not try this, versus where you could tell that they could lead a team and accept some serious responsibility.

Bonnie: In my own experience with interviewing people, I have noticed that the responsibility is for the person hiring to understand the person in front of them, to be able to intuit what is their highest potential and their deepest sense of purpose more that they can actually articulate. They might not even know themselves in this way. I have met a lot of candidates who like the idea of working in the landscape, architecture, construction business. They like the idea of it but they have only a partial idea of what this business is about. Or they have a skewed idea acquired from school or too many promotional job fairs. Since you already know what the reality is, what skills sets are needed and what character types have the best potential to be happy at the position, you often need to take on the responsibility of representing the other person better than they are representing themselves.

Not surprisingly, it is the same thing with horses, as you know – making the judgment between a nice looking horse that can serve as a pleasure mount and loyal companion, and choosing a horse for a demanding job or challenging discipline. The responsibility of the leader, of the horseman, is to find the genius in the person and develop that or find the genius in the horse and carry that into the discipline.

George: Well I am 100% convinced that you can go out into any horse community and you can find a person who owns a horse and they are completely convinced they know everything about that horse – what it will and will not do. After 10 minutes in that saddle you can take that horse and do things that the owner can’t believe. It’s because some people seem to put their blinders on and they are afraid to step outside the box. Search and rescue is a lot about thinking outside the box.

Bonnie: Yes, and as you said that, I can imagine you saying— it’s the power of observation. You get on the horse and then you automatically see what the horse can do, or likes to do, what kind of work suits him. You do this without projecting what you would like to find there, what you fear you might find there. There is a solid sense of givenness to it, right?

I can imagine in a search and rescue situation the approach would be, “This is the situation we are given: it happens to be late at night, and we can’t get into this valley any other way.” If these are the situations and being real with the actual situations is part of the skill set here.

George: Something else that we haven’t talked about either is trust. And there is a great deal of trust in your horse. If you have a good relationship, that horse has a great deal of trust in you. Unless you establish that trusting relationship and unless that trust goes both ways, you really never get to maximize that relationship. So a lot of times at night, we will get off our horse and start walking, because we don’t know the terrain, where it’s going and how bad it is going to get. The horse is trusting us to make sure we don’t injure him or fall off the side of a mountain.

On the other hand we – especially at night, night missions in the mountains down here are pretty dicey – and we did one a couple of weeks ago and I am not exaggerating, I couldn’t even see the horse’s head.

Bonnie: Wow!

George: How my horse got our team up that trail and out of the mountains will forever be a mystery to me. So you just trust in them, their footing and their eyesight, because they have different skills. They see better at night than we do. If you don’t trust that or if you challenge it or argue with it, you are never going to get what the animal is naturally capable of providing.

Bonnie: I am thinking how it feels to trust the skills that the horse has that you don’t have.

George: Yes. I have seen people take their horses into a field, down a trail and then try and take a different trail out knowing the horse didn’t want to go down that trail for a reason – the guy was going the wrong way. That’s part of the communication that has to happen. If there is one thing that’s extremely important in search and rescue with an animal is the communication between the owner of the animal and the animal itself.

And there is – you know, I am not a horse whisperer and I have some serious reservations about some of that anyway, but I know for a fact that there is a spiritual connection and there is a communication connection. If you don’t have that, you have never really been able to enjoy what a relationship with a horse is like.

Bonnie: This is what everybody is always trying to get at when they talk about horses and leadership, about horses and these other qualities that they bring into play – this invisible but obviously causally effective quality that some people demonstrate with their horses, some people even demonstrate with other people.

George: You know what I think it is?

Bonnie: Maybe the answer that we are giving here is that, that’s taught and cultivated out in the world through these kinds of experiences.

George: Maybe, but I think it’s more than that. I think horses know instinctively, who the good horse people are.

I think horses know instinctively if you are not a good person. For example, you could take someone who has never been on a horse and they are a nervous wreck. Within 10 seconds the horse is a nervous wreck. By comparison, if you can have a person who is very calm and collected the horse will become calm and collected, too. Together, they can develop a great experience. But there are certain individuals that horses, just like dogs, will identify immediately as not the right people. When the horse understands that you are a good person, that can be the one of the best experiences in the world.

Bonnie: I would say there are certain emotional and energetic qualities that the horse rejects in certain people.

George: Yes. I don’t know if it’s bad karma or what you have to call it, but I know for a fact on the horse rescues that I have been on and the horses that I have been with over the last 20 years, there are some of these people you just get their number right away. And there are some horses that – you know I love horses, I am passionate about them – you don’t have that connection on every horse you sit on.

Bonnie: This is the general case that we are describing here, but I also know of rare cases when a miserable horse and a miserable person, actually complement each other, for the better of both of them.

George: What I get a kick out of is these people who really should never own a horse, but they are caught up in the romance of owning and riding a horse. They will get a horse. They will pay too much for it. They will take it to a trainer and the trainer gets the horse dialed in. The guy gets the horse back and two months later the horse is just a nervous wreck, not knowing what the heck to do. And the owner takes him back to the trainer.

Bonnie: A never-ending cycle.

George: There is just way too much of that going on around here. I am certain that some people just should not be allowed to own a horse.

Bonnie: I completely agree with you. I believe that good horsemanship requires a completely different kind of relationship. It requires a lot from the person who is not naturally “attuned” with their horse.  It is a serious mistake to think of horses just like a car – take it to the trainer, fix it and then it comes back fixed. But horses are always in relationship, right? You are always in communication. They are always sensitive to who you are and what you bring to the table. The bottom line is what they are responding to—who you really are in the moment.

George: It’s like a marriage… You know, there are some horse and horse-owner relationships that have lasted longer than their spouses. You get out of it what you put into it.

Bonnie: Nice horse metaphor!

George: In business and leadership it’s the same way. If you are going to be identified as a person in a leadership role, you have to have some idea of what you are doing, obviously. But more important than that is people need to be convinced that you know what you are doing, whether you do or not in every case. You have to present the image that regardless of what comes down the road you are going to be able to handle it. And one of the things that we look at when we are looking at recruits is how do they communicate with their animal. I mean if a guy ever raises his hand and hits a horse, he is gone. That’s not the way we roll down here.

Instead we want to see people who are stable in their relationships, their human relationships – that shows us their capacity to develop a lasting, stable relationship with their horses and with their team members. It’s these kinds of relationships among horses and people that create an ideal search and rescue unit.

Willie and George Herget

About the Participants

George Herget is a Vice President at Morgan Stanley in Tucson, Arizona. He is the President of the Southern Arizona Mounted Search and Rescue, an all volunteer organization. He holds the unique position as Field Qualified for both the Southern Arizona Mounted Search and Rescue and Southern Arizona Rescue (SARA) as well as a member of the Mountain Rescue Association. As an Outdoor Emergency Care Technician he often assists in medical training for both SAMSAR and SARA. George began his Search and Rescue career back in 1999. George is also in Large Animal Rescue so that he can rescue not only people but horses and other large critters as well.

For further information about Southern Arizona Mounted Search and Rescue, see

 Bonnitta Roy is the founder/ Curator of The Magellan Courses – an online experiment in facilitating post-conventional ways of thinking, and Owner/President of Alderlore, Inc. – a non-profit organization whose mission is to teach people about body language, emotional balance, energy awareness, and fellowship, through close encounters with horses, and a deeper engagement with nature. She volunteers as an associate editor of Integral Review, runs a blog at Integral Review of Books and has written numerous articles, essays combining process philosophy with integral theory.