JACKMAN – The first U.S. Border Patrol agents rode horses along the national borders, looking for hoofprints or footprints crossing from one country to another.

They could determine the age of the footprints and whether they belonged to men, women or children, while also accounting for rain or wind, and ultimately track and capture people who had entered the country illegally.

The work was — and still is — centered on acquired skills and intuition in order to protect the country’s borders, said Jodi Williams, a supervisory border patrol agent based at the Houlton Border Patrol Station.

Thirteen residents graduated last week from the first border patrol citizens academy, where they learned about the purpose of the Border Patrol in an effort to strengthen the connection between the agency and the community.

Denise Plante, principal and assistant superintendent at Forest Hills Consolidated School in Jackman, graduated from the program with five other women and seven men on Sept. 21.

She signed up “to further the partnership of the border patrol with our school, it being probably one of the first responders should we have a major crisis,” Plante said.

She said it was “eye-opening,” learning about the agents who interview people crossing the border. They often need to quickly decide whether people are a threat. They must compare facial features between a passport photo and a person in the vehicle.

“I hadn’t appreciated that aspect of the job. It feels like an annoyance to me when I’m going across. So I have more respect,” she said. “I didn’t realize the amount of abuse and fraud just even in the passport part of it.”

Participants also learned how to identify a suspicious vehicle by considering the time of day, vehicle license information and proximity to the border. And they learned what it’s like to track ATV or truck tracks across borders.

The goal of the class was educational — “to understand what we do and why we do it” — and to connect the border patrol with the community for increased cooperation, Williams said.

The course tries “to bring in people that are not necessarily in positions of authority, but positions where they could then share the information to the other members of the town council or what have you,” she said.

People often don’t realize just how many people try to cross the border between Maine and Canada illegally, according to Williams.

They also don’t realize how the border patrol’s mission is now to quell terrorism — by catching either possible terrorists or their weapons.

“After 9/11, our mission changed to be terrorist-focused,” Williams said. People often say, “ ‘You guys are just out there to catch illegals.’ Yes, that is true, but after 9/11, and the Department of Homeland Security was formed, that was all changed primarily to focus on terrorists and terrorist weapons.”

Williams said future citizens academy classes are planned.