Stay safe from lightning

Summer is the season for dangerous thunderstorms in many parts of the country. Here’s what you can do to protect yourself and your horse.

Picking blueberries. Swimming. Fishing. Building a treehouse. Sightseeing. Hiking. Walking on the beach. And, yes, horseback riding.

All of these activities evoke relaxed summer days. More chillingly, according to the National Weather Service (NWS), all of these are also listed among the activities people were engaged in when they were killed by lightning strikes in 2014.

In all, 26 people died after being struck by lightning in 2014, and an average of 35 people per year were killed between 2003 and 2012; an estimated 300 people per year are struck by lightning but survive. No one keeps statistics on the number of horses killed by lightning, but we’ve all heard of these tragedies.

Being struck by lightning may seem like a remote possibility while you’re going about your summer day, and it is: The odds of your being struck in a given year are roughly one in a million. However, the risks are higher if you spend more time outdoors in rural areas, and if you live in places such as Florida or the “tornado alley” states of the Midwest, where lightning strikes are much more common. And although lightning fatalities occur in every month of the year, the annual incidence peaks in July.

By understanding a little bit about how lightning works, you can take steps to reduce the risk of harm—for yourself, your horses and your property. Here’s what you need to know.

Reduce risk: On your property

The moment you hear a distant rumble, you are within range of a potential lightning strike. According to the NWS, a significant number of victims were struck because they waited too long before seeking shelter, or they didn’t wait long enough to emerge after the storm had passed. Lightning may strike as far as 10 miles from a storm, even in areas with blue skies and no rain, and strikes may occur as long as 30 minutes before or after the main part of a storm moves through an area.

If you are in your yard or around your farm when you first hear thunder, head inside. The only safe place to be during a thunderstorm is inside a fully enclosed and safely grounded building such as a house or a modern barn. Porches, open-sided run-in sheds or gazebos are not safe shelters: If you’re standing too near the opening, a lightning strike on the roof may use you as its path to the ground, and ground strikes may travel over dirt floors through a shed.

Even inside a house or barn, remember that if the building is struck, deadly surges of electricity can travel through plumbing, electrical wiring, concrete rebar and other metal components of the structure. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about a third of all lightning-related injuries occur indoors. You’ll want to stay away from metal-framed windows and doors and avoid contact with running water or corded electrical appliances. Also do not lean on concrete walls or lie on concrete floors.

If you can’t get into a building, a hard-topped car or metal-enclosed vehicle is a good second choice. Do not get into a convertible or other open-topped vehicle. According to the NWS, it’s not the rubber tires that protect you while you’re in a car; it’s the metal frame. If the vehicle is struck, the electricity will pass through the frame, around the occupant, to reach the ground. Convertibles offer no protection to an occupant.

Trailers offer similar protection to horses. If you’re at a horse show or close to a trailhead when you first hear thunder, put your horses in the trailer, then get into the cab of the truck and wait out the storm. “What’s most important about putting them in the trailer is that you’re putting them in a metal container that wraps around them,” says John Gookin, PhD, of the National Outdoor Leadership Schoolin Lander, Wyoming.

Reduce risk: On the trail

The best way to stay safe from lightning on the trail is to avoid getting caught out there when storms roll through. One way to accomplish that is to download a reliable weather app to your smart phone, says Jamie Zito, also known as “Cactus Jack” of Cactus Jack’s Trail Rides in Ocala, Florida, a region that has one of the highest rates of lightning strikes in the nation. Zito always carries his phone with an app that shows the weather radar in gradients of colors from green to yellow to red, indicating possible nearby lightning activity. “If we see red, we don’t go,” he says.

He also checks his weather app periodically while out on the trail, a habit that he says has made it possible for his stable to conduct 5,000 public rides last year without incident. “If we see a system move in, we head back,” says Zito. “And we certainly don’t stand under a tree waiting for it to pass.”

Another option is to carry a portable weather radio, permanently tuned to a series of radio stations that broadcast continuous weather alerts in your local area, including tornados and other hazardous conditions as well as thunderstorms. Most of the United States is covered, except for more remote areas of the West and Alaska. Also, when possible, to try to schedule your rides in the morning, rather than the afternoons when storms are more common.

If, despite your planning, you encounter a thunderstorm while you’re out on the trail, your best bet is to ride back to the trailhead or find a nearby barn where you can take refuge, if there’s time. However, if you cannot get to a vehicle or building, you can take some steps to reduce your risk of a strike.

• Don’t be the highest thing around. Dismount, and move toward cover if you’re in an open field. If you’re on a hilltop or ridgeline, head downhill as soon as you hear distant rumbles. The leeward side, sheltered from approaching winds, is a better choice assuming the footing is safe in that direction.

Try to get into a deep, dry ravine or canyon to wait out the storm. (Do not, however, take cover under a rocky overhang or in a cave. Lightning that strikes higher up the cliff will travel downward along the face—the electricity can arc across the entrance to a cave, and the current may jump to someone who is near the entrance. You may be OK deeper inside a dry cave, but the NWS reports that people have been struck while standing in water as far as half a mile inside a cave.)

• Stay away from tall objects. Standing under or near a lone tall tree or utility pole is just as dangerous as sitting on a mountaintop—the electricity traveling down the structure is likely to spread over the surface once it reaches the ground. A better choice is to take cover in a copse of trees of uniform height. Any tree in the area might still be struck, but the odds that it will be one near you are much less.

• Keep your distance from conductive materials and objects. Stay at least 15 feet away from wire fencing, metal structures, running water, wet ropes or other objects that could conduct electricity. You do not, however, need to remove any metal you are wearing. Contrary to popular belief, metal and water do not necessarily attract lightning, but they are excellent conductors. Distant strikes can send current traveling long distances through water or wet or metal structures, until it finds a path to the ground.

• Separate the group. If you’re with other people, spread out at least 15 feet apart as you head toward cover. That way, if one person is struck, the current is less likely to travel to others as well. (And someone will be available to administer first aid.) Once you’ve reached the area where you will take cover, tie your horses off to smaller trees and spread out away from them, too.

• Lower your profile. Your best bet, if you have a backpack or large saddlebags, is to sit on them with your feet not touching the ground. If you don’t have anything nonconductive to sit on, your next best option is to crouch, with your feet together. Keeping your feet close together can greatly reduce the impact of ground lightning, current that travels along the surface of the ground after striking a nearby object. Crouching also limits the effects of side flashes and streamers. Do not lie down; this greatly increases your risk of serious injury or death should a nearby strike send ground current toward you.

Note: The NWS stopped recommending the “lightning crouch” in 2008, for an interesting reason, according to its website: “Promoting the crouch gives people the false impression that crouching will provide safety…. [This belief] could cause people to become apathetic and not seek a safe shelter before the lightning threat becomes significant.”

Always remember that you can follow all of the precautions listed above and still be struck by lightning. The NWS recommends that you consider these actions, not as ways to decrease your risk, but rather as ways to avoid increasing your risk: “There is no safe place outside in a thunderstorm.”

After the storm has passed, wait at least 30 minutes after you hear the last rumble of thunder before moving on.

Reduce risk: In your pastures

Horses in pasture are pretty good at seeking shelter during rough weather, and chances are they will go to low, protected ground. But if thunderstorms are common in your area, you might assess your turnout areas to see if you can find ways to reduce the hazards.

Wire fencing on wooden posts is one of the biggest threats to turned-out livestock. “Search Google images and just about every image you see are of livestock dead along a fence,” says Gookin, who is also a committee member of the Lightning Protection Institute. “And if you look, you will almost always see that it’s a wire fence that has wooden posts.” A lightning strike anywhere along the fence can send millions of volts traveling horizontally along the fence, seeking a path to ground, and if a horse is standing too close, all that energy can easily jump into his body to run down his legs.

But, Gookin adds, one simple fix can make the fence safer—by grounding it: “An occasional steel post added to that fence is a really effective, cheap way to add insurance to that pasture.” Wire fences need to be grounded at 150-foot intervals, or less if possible, so that the charge from a lightning hit is confined to just that span of fencing.

Tall trees are another hazard in some pastures. When electricity from a lightning strike travels down the trunk, it also spreads out through the ground around the tree. Any four-legged animal lying or standing in this area is likely to receive a fatal shock: The electricity will run up the leg closest to the trunk, pass through the body, then down the leg farthest from the trunk, and the greater the distance between ground contact points, the greater the potential for death or serious injury. “Because their feet are so much farther apart, there is a greater difference in voltage, and that is what drives current,” says Gookin.

Electricity running through a body typically travels along the nervous and cardiovascular systems—if the current passes through the heart, it can stop it from beating. An entire herd that huddles under a tall tree can be killed instantly. “The most common scenario is you have a lightning storm overnight, and the horse is found dead up under a tree,” says Robert Judd, DVM, of Judd Veterinary Clinic in Hewitt, Texas.

If you notice that your horses like to congregate under tall, lone trees during storms, you might consider fencing them well away from the trunks. Stands of smaller trees of uniform height are not as dangerous, especially if they’re in lower-lying areas of the pasture.

Run-in sheds are not generally considered to be safe shelters from lightning, but you can take steps to reduce the hazards. Although it is generally recommended that these shelters be placed on high ground to improve drainage, if your farm is in a lightning-prone area, you might consider locating your shed on slightly lower ground, especially if otherwise it would be the tallest object in the vicinity. Also avoid placing a shed under a tall, isolated tree. Some sort of nonconductive footing, such as a deep bed of gravel or rubber mats placed over a concrete pad, can help reduce the risks from ground currents if lightning strikes nearby.

Anyone who spends a significant amount of time outdoors develops an appreciation and respect for the more violent weather Mother Nature can throw at you. As deadly and destructive as lightning can be, it’s good to know that you can take steps to keep yourself, and your horses, safe.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #454, July 2015. 




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