A single bolt of lightning can be hotter than the surface of the sun reaching 1 billion volts of electricity. Lightning occurs worldwide, most frequently along the equator and more so over land than sea. The United States for example sees an average of 20 million lightning strikes each year.
A person’s chance of being struck by lightning in a given year are one in 1 million. Those odds increase over a lifetime to 1 in 12,000. Strikes for animals are not well-documented but researchers theorize that 80 percent of accidental livestock deaths are caused by lightning. 70% of human struck by lightning survive but the fatality rate is notably higher for animals in part because their larger body mass suffers greater tissue damage and because treatment is seldom immediately available.
The best place to be in a lightning storm is in doors but if you are caught outdoors perhaps on a trail ride there are precautions you can take to mitigate your risk. Those precautions start with planning. Before you head out on a trail, check the forecast. If your ride is long, monitor the weather throughout the day. Should a storm approach, return to the trailhead and seek shelter in a barn or your horse trailer. If struck, electricity will travel through the trailer’s metal frame, around occupants, to the ground.
There is no safe place outside in a thunderstorm. Fatalities and injuries from a direct strike are rare, most occur from the exuding electrical current that travels along surfaces toward the ground. If you must bivouac outdoors, The National Weather Service recommends these actions to decrease your risk of injury or death.
- Do not be the highest object. Dismount and lead your horse.
- Avoid hills, ridges and peaks. Move to the lowest possible elevations. Shelter at the bottom of a ravine, the leeward side (the side opposite the approaching storm) is best.
- Do not use a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter. If lightning strikes above, it will travel down the face of the hill toward the ground.
- Do not hide in a cave entrance unless you can safely move deep within. The cave is not safe if the floor is wet.
- Do not shelter under an isolated tree.
- Seek a wooded area ideally where the trees are similarly sized, avoid individual trees that stand above the canopy. While a tree remains a lightning target, sheltering within the woods lessens the odds of a strike in your vicinity.
- Avoid water; ponds, rivers, creeks, puddles as water acts as a conductor for electrical current.
- Other conductors to avoid include man-made objects barb wire fencing, power lines and wet lead ropes.
- Do not lay flat on the ground this increases your exposure to ground current.
- If you are in the open turn make yourself small by curling into a ball. Minimize your contact with the ground by keeping your feet close together or better, by sitting on a backpack or saddle bag (something non-conductive).
- If you are in a group, do not huddle together. Spread out at least 20 feet apart. This will reduce the risk of multiple injuries.
- If possible tie your horse to a small tree, ground stake (not metal) or hobble. If you are riding in a group, tether the horses at least 20 feet apart. Then move away from the animals.
Lightning can occur 5 to 10 miles in advance of a storm front and the actual rain center. If in doubt about lightning safety, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends following the “30/30 Lightning Safety Rule.”
Seek shelter indoors if you see lightning and hear thunder less than 30 seconds afterwards.
Stay indoors for 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder.
Be safe out there WARHorses. Enjoy your saddle time but keep an eye on the weather.
Photography Courtesy NOAA
Test Your Lightning Knowledge
Take WARHorses quiz and check that what you believe about lightning is true.
TRUE or FALSE?Lightning never strikes the same place twice.
FALSEThere are many instances where lightning struck twice, including some people. The most notable example is the Empire State Building, New York City. On average it is struck 100 times a year.
TRUE or FALSE?Horses attract Lightning.
FALSELightning is attracted to the tallest item in an area. If the horse is the tallest item in the area, it may be more susceptible to a strike because of its height but not because it is a horse. With four feet touching the ground, horses are more susceptible to being electrocuted from ground current resulting from a nearby strike.
TRUE or FALSE?Cell phones attract lightning.
FALSE“Cell phones, small metal items, jewelry (metal horse shoes) etc., do not attract lightning. Nothing attracts lightning. Lightning tends to strike taller objects.”
source: John Jensenius, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lightning expert.