This afternoon I was just about to bring my horses in from a field when a massive thunderstorm blew into the area. Within minutes the rain was falling in sheets, thunder boomed, and lightning rippled across the sky. My first thought was that being out in an open field with two horses was not a particularly safe location. So, I sat in my car for a few minutes contemplating my options and hoping it would blow through. Unfortunately, my horses were not in a place where I could leave them, so after several more minutes, I gritted my teeth, and brought them into the barn. In retrospect, I probably should have waited longer as I didn’t really want to be struck down in front of my 10-year old daughter.
The problem with horses and lightning is not — as you might suppose — that they are more prone to getting struck because of their shoes; it is because they are big and they don’t know that they shouldn’t stand in the middle of a field or under a tree.
Lightning is a giant discharge of electricity accompanied by a brilliant flash of light and a loud crack of thunder. The spark can reach over five miles in length, raise the temperature of the air by as much as 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and contain a hundred million electrical volts. If you can hear thunder, you are likely to be within 10 miles of the leading edge of a storm, close enough to be struck by lightning. In fact, many lightning strikes occur under blue skies!
While lightning only kills 5-10 % of the people struck, for animals getting struck is generally instantly fatal. This is because lightning can travel over the surface of the ground (or through the ground) for up to 60 feet from the point of contact. While ground current only affects the feet and legs of a standing person, it is a common cause of death among horses and cattle whose vital organs are in the current path. Death is typically instantaneous; horses have been found with grass still in their mouths.
The best protection from lightning in the barn area is the use of grounding rods. Even trees can be grounded by running a wire from the top down to the ground.
If you are out riding and have access to your trailer, you should load your horse, put the ramp up, make sure the safety chains, ropes, and buckets are not touching the ground and get into your tow vehicle.
If you are riding, you should get off your horse and tie it to a bush (not a tree). Move at least 50 feet away then squat down, balancing on your feet. Curl into a ball and wrap your arms around your knees. Do not lie flat because if the lighting ground current travels through the ground you want it to pass only through your feet and legs. Wait until at least 15 minutes after the storm has passed before you start riding again.
Best advice? Check the weather reports and stay home!