Sheriff's posse harkens back to county's agricultural roots
When Nick Kohanes started riding with the Washington County Sheriff's posse in the 1960s, things were a bit different than they are today.
"Years ago it wasn't as strict as it is now," said Kohanes, 84. "Years ago, if you've got a horse and trailer, you're in the posse. We've got to be certified for everything now."
Kohanes, who's past his riding days, zips up his yellow down vest and sidles toward a low-slung barn north of Forest Grove. Half a dozen horses and riders dawdle at the edges, watching as a woman on a light brown mare guides her mount between a set of poles and a pile of lumber, training the horse for the posse's work.
The posse is a stubborn holdout of Washington County's agricultural roots. Created in 1945, the posse represents the sheriff's office at safety events, ride in parades across the county, patrol the grounds at the Washington County Fair each summer — and this winter the posse is gearing up for use as a search-and-rescue team.
Washington County Sheriff's Office Commander Gil MacGregor, one of several deputies to ride with the posse, said horses haven't been used for search and rescue for five years. MacGregor said Sheriff Pat Garrett requested the posse become certified for searches.
"It's just another tool in the toolbox to respond to lost citizens," MacGregor said. "We can find someone far more efficiently than on foot. We won't go through the brush, but we can cover trails, cover the logging roads and those type of things quicker with less fatigue factors than someone doing it on foot."
The horses can get around obstacles too high for ATVs or motorcycles to cross, and have the dexterity to handle narrow trails and steep terrain. They can also pack injured hikers or hunters back to safety instead of forcing volunteers to carry them to the nearest road.
"It's not grid work where it's elbow-to-elbow looking at the ground ... they bring the horses out and look in a particular area," said Linda Friday, the posse's captain. "We have the advantage of being up high and can see further than being on the ground."
Next month, the posse is off to a camp in Timber for more search and rescue training with the hopes of being ready should the group be called out this fall. Clackamas, Deschutes and Lane counties have mounted search and rescue units as well, as do many of the coastal counties.
Open communication: Melissa Mills, a new posse prospect, sits high above the others on her black Clydesdale, Kevyn. From time to time, she takes a walk around the barn with some of the other riders, slowly getting used to turning as a unit.
MacGregor, a Commander with the Washington County Sheriff's Office, reins in his paint, Bo, next to Mills and Friday. The three work on parade technique as a group with the large Clydesdale in the center.
"Most of the horses are pretty seasoned," Friday said. "They've been doing this for a while and have been working together, but we have to keep our skills up. We have to keep our communication open so when we're riding together we can talk to each other — slow down, speed up, or whatever it is we're doing."
Friday has been with the posse for nine years. Many of the other riders have been around for some time as well, and while the group's membership has fallen since the glory days — Kohanes remembers 35 or 40 riders in the 1960s — membership has started to climb again.
There are a handful of deputies that ride with the posse, but most are citizens like Friday, who joined as a way to get involved in their community.
Posse members own their horses, trucks and trailers. Most own their own equipment. They pay a $20 annual membership fee and participate in the posse as a volunteer. Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett has ridden with the posse in the Hillsboro Fourth of July parade for several years.
The posse is regularly seen at parades, but Friday said the group plays an important role during other community events, such as the Washington County Fair, where the posse works crowd control.
"At the fair, we're extra eyes," Friday said. "We're working the parking lot, keeping an eye out and talking to people as they come into the fair."
Fairgoers tend to respect someone on a horse, Friday said, whether in the parking lot or at the posse's booth where the organization does most of its advertising.
In the arena, it's Friday's turn on her brown and white pinto, Walli. He's 14 — "Sometimes he acts like he's two," she said — young enough to be spry but old enough to have his wits about him.
Friday guides Walli between a pair of upright poles, then tries to back him around one of the poles in a circle. Nick Jones offers help from the back of Barry, his horse, as Friday and Walli complete the obstacle course.
Nearby, Joe Long on Hawk, a brown and white quarter horse, sits alongside MacGregor. Diane Long, rides Ranger, a chocolate brown Missouri fox trotter. Mills and Kevyn nose their way in at the edge of the row, watching as posse member Paige Smith wraps up her training session on her horse, Red.
MacGregor said there's a reason the posse has stuck around for more than 70 years.
"I think people involved have a love of horsemanship and want to support their community and help the sheriff," MacGregor said. "There's an allure to owning a horse and riding for the greater good."