It was 9 p.m. in a small classroom at the Malibu community center. Eight people crouched on the floor over eight blond female dummies.
"Do you really have to give it your all when you're breathing?" one woman asked, breathless.
"You wait," warned CPR instructor Tony Hoffman. "Just wait until you're doing this on rocks and stones and chaparral. Then you'll wish you had a nice, hard, wooden floor like this."
Once they've learned cardiopulmonary resuscitation and other first-aid techniques and how to use a two-way radio, the volunteers gathered this night will become members of the Mounted Assistance Units (MAU) for the Santa Monica Mountains.
They will join several hundred volunteers statewide whose job is to patrol on horseback through wilderness parks. Volunteers patrol in pairs, five hours at a time, covering park trails where park ranger vehicles cannot reach.
Their role, according to Malibu resident Peno Dwinger, who originated the idea of the Mounted Assistance Units in 1977 and continues to be a unit coordinator for the Santa Monica Mountains region, is to help ensure a smooth coexistence between wilderness and park visitors, who often come from urban environments and frequently know little about regulations and safety precautions.
It is a job, Dwinger said, which is never dull. "There are a million things to do."
Reminders of Fire Danger
Mounted Assistance Unit volunteers have to remind park visitors that fires are not permitted--even small stoves, or cigarettes--or that dogs are not allowed in state parks, since they disturb the wilderness, or that the limit for catching fish is five per person, or that plants and wild creatures have to be left alone.
Volunteers' most memorable experiences while patrolling tend to be humorous rather than life-threatening.
Gary Boyle, another longtime volunteer who patrols Malibu Creek State Park, remembers the first time he and his colleague were called on the radio about a serious accident. It involved a climber who had fallen and had suffered head injuries.
The two volunteers were having lunch at the time. His colleague's horse was tied to a tree. "I had hobbled my horse," Boyle said.
When the message came through on the radio, Boyle leaped onto his horse and prepared to gallop to the rescue. Trouble was, he'd forgotten the hobble.
"The horse leaped like a jack rabbit," Boyle said. "He couldn't go anywhere."
Boyle jumped off the horse and quickly removed the hobble, but by the time they reached the scene of the accident, professional rescue teams were already there.
But emergency rescue has never been the purpose of the Mounted Assistance Units. Volunteers are routinely taught to use their radios to call park rangers for help in any emergency, and it is for accident prevention that volunteers are chosen, equipped and trained.
"Rangers are trained professionals," Dwinger said. "They are armed and have the power of arrest, if necessary. We do not. All we carry is a radio and first-aid supplies."
Yet the role of the Mounted Assistance Units is an important one, according to park officials, especially in the Santa Monica Mountains. The entire Santa Monica Mountains Recreational area is 150,000 acres, and acquisitions of new property are still being made. Meanwhile, according to park officials, budget restraints have meant that ranger manpower is stretched increasingly thin.
Consider, for instance, the state park system. With 40,000 acres of parkland to patrol in the Santa Monica Mountain region, and 3 million visitors each year, Bud Kelly, state park district superintendent, has just 20 park rangers to draw upon, four of them part-timers.
His patrol force is stretched to the limit, Kelly acknowledges. Increasingly, he relies on the volunteers to act as an important link between the public and park officials, saying, "Without the MAU, we could not work."
Kelly estimated that there are about 100 Mounted Assistance Unit volunteers--the number fluctuates--involved in four of the seven state parks in his Santa Monica Mountains district, which stretches from Will Rogers State Park in the east to Leo Carillo State Park in the west.
Each of the four parks, Kelly said, has a separate, independent MAU unit attached to it, ranging from 20 to 35 members. A unit will send out one two-member team to patrol on weekends, or possibly two teams in larger parks such as the 15,000-acre Point Mugu State Park.
Before being accepted into the program, riders and their horses are tested for their trails skills. In the Santa Monica Mountains area, this means being scrutinized by MAU coordinator Dwinger and Linda Palmer, president of the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council.
The horses, Dwinger said, are the key. They have to be well-trained and completely under control. They must have a quiet disposition and not mind being touched, especially by children.
The riders must know the rules of the trail, have good sense and good manners.
"We weed out those who think they are the best cowboys west of the Mississippi," said Dwinger.
If not already members, the volunteers must join Equestrian Trails Inc., a pleasure-horse organization with extensive branches statewide that play an integral part in forming MAU units and provide the volunteers with necessary insurance.
Finally, they must agree to commit themselves to one weekend day a month for patrol work.
Most MAU members find this requirement fairly easy to accommodate, according to seven-year volunteer Gerry Duryee, who is also the ride coordinator for the Malibu Creek State Park MAU unit.
"We call it riding with a purpose," he said. "We have a responsibility to show up, because the park people rely on us. But it's a very, very enjoyable task."