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Volunteers Bob (on SSM W Naomi Nekomia) and Riki Griswold (on Edgewood Ethan Elsah) ride down a trail in Annadel Park while on patrol. Photo by Chad Surmick

Saddling Up

Sonoma County Mounted Assistance volunteers add a level of safety to the great outdoors as they patrol park trails in Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley



Valerie Grinnel and her horse might still be stuck in the parking lot at Annadel State Park had they not been rescued by two riders loping by on their volunteer patrol. Grinner loaded her Arab mare in a trailer last Wednesday and drove to the lot at the end of Channel Drive, where she planned to quickly unload and reload the horse. The simple exercise was to allow Black Tie Affair, or Tie for short feel more comfortable getting in and out of a trailer in unfamiliar surroundings. But even modest plans can go awry. Four hours later, Grinnel sat inside her sport utility vehicle as her horse stubbornly refused to go back in. She could do nothing but wait in the simmering summer sun and hope somebody might come along to help.

"I figured the worst thing that could happen is that darkness would come and when the ranger came to close the gate he might help me," she said.

Instead, Grinnel found salvation in Bob and Riki Griswold, who were wrapping up a volunteer shift at the park on their own horses Wednesday when they noticed her plight. The couple, both in their 60s, are members of the Sonoma County's Mounted Assistance Unit, which patrols state and county parks in the Valley of the Moon District.

Bob Griswold, in a white-brimmed hat and jeans, sauntered over to help. After evaluating things, he retrieved a rope from his truck and attached it to the horse's bridle. He explained to Grinnel that the rope she was using had no give. When she pulled, the horse pulled back.

His rope, on the other hand, was like a bungee cord and therefore more horse-friendly.

"It's kind of a high-tech version of an old cowboy trick to tie with an inner tube," said Bob Griswold, his blue eyes flashing "But you can't find inner tubes anymore."

With a few quick tug the horse was back in the trailer, and Grinnel could finally return to her Rincon Valley home. She looked relieved after sitting in the parking lot for so long.

"I don't know how long I would have been here without them," she said.

The patrol unit, formed in Sonoma County in the early '80s, is a blend of volunteer horse riders and mountain bikers whose task is to assist park visitors with directions, trail maintenance and administering first aid. The patrol has even helped rescue people who have suffered bites from rattlesnakes.

"They are extended eyes and ears for us," said Wardell - Noel, a state park ranger for 24 years, the last 14 at Annadel. Noel often is the only ranger on duty to patrol 5,000 acres of rolling hills, streams and woodland just a stone's throw from the city streets of Santa Rosa.

The unit is seeking more volunteers to augment a crew of some 40 horseback riders and 10 mountain bikers. Training sessions for both patrols will begin in September.

Members range in age from teens, who join with their families, to an 83-year old rider, said Janet Brehm, the unit's president. Patrol members are asked to devote four hours a month patrolling the parks, which besides Annadel include Sugarloaf and Jack London. The patrol also covers county parks such as Mount Hood and Spring Lake.

If volunteers are unable to make their shifts -- outlined two months in advance -- they can call another member to substitute. Rangers are given a copy of the schedule to let them know when they can count on the help.

Volunteers typically check in at the ranger station, grab a hand-held radio and head out onto the trails.

"We come into work, and they're already out there," Noel said.

If nothing else, the volunteer work is a great excuse to enjoy the outdoors.

"We're here to have fun," Bob Griswold said. "I mean, what the heck."

Joining the horse patrol requires a bit of work. The key is the horse, which is given a series of tests over two weekends in September to determine its suitability for the job. The Griswolds described a successful horse as being "bomb-proof," because of the many different situations and people they encounter on the trail.

Riki Griswold recalled a time when a biker lost control of his bike on a downhill incline and slid beneath her horse, bike and all, just as she crossed an intersecting trail.

"I was the one that went six feet off my saddle," she said. Her horse, meanwhile, simply spread its legs to let the biker pass underneath.

One part of the test involves a biker, laden with a back-pack full of clanky cans, sliding into the ground near the horse to test its reaction. The horse also must be able to back up 15 feet, lead another horse and be in good enough shape to cover the varied terrain.

Bob Griswold, who designed the test, said it's not meant to be difficult. A few horses might not make the grade, he said. And while the test is specific, the most common situation encountered by patrol members is warning people that dogs are not allowed in state parks.

Copies of the test are mailed out weeks in advance to those who want to gauge their horse's suitability for the patrol. To obtain one, call Lynn Harris at 829-0103 or Brehm at 585-6236.

"There's no way they can cheat," Riki Griswold said. "If the horse is not trained to do those things, it won't do it"

If the horse passes the test successfully, volunteers must then complete docent training administered by the state of California to become full-fledged patrol members. The training is typically in October, and involves time in the parks to learn their histories and regulations.

The reward for both horse and rider is the opportunity to help those in need, like Grinnel, who on Wednesday was rescued from her stalemate with Tie. She said she learned something from Bob Griswold, and is planning to buy a rope like his.

She also said, with an air of pragmatism, that she might even try out for the patrol.

"I dreamed one day I, too, could do something like that. But we're at base one."





Bob Griswold, a volunteer for the Sonoma County Mounted Assistance Unit, prepares his horse, SSM W Naomi Nekomia, for their patrol.





Article and photos reprinted with permission from the Press Democrat.



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