Let’s just jump to the bottom line: If you hear thunder you (and your horse) can be struck by lightning.
Summer is the long-awaited horseback riding, horse event, and trail riding season. Summer is also peak season for lightning strikes in the US, although lightning can occur year-round. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an estimated 25 million lightning strikes occur in the U.S. every year.
Human deaths due to lightning are well documented. According to NOAA, from 2006-2014, 287 people were killed by lightning in the U.S. Statistics on lightning-related deaths of horses are not maintained. However after just one April 2015 thunderstorm in central Kentucky, three horses from one farm and two cattle from another farm were killed by lightning.
Organized trail rides, horse shows, race tracks, sales venues...how many have a responsible person monitoring weather who has the knowledge and authority to stop the event in case of an inbound thunderstorm? Guidelines are useless unless they are up-to-date and followed, from county horse shows to international competitions.
An outdated guideline (but one still referenced) is the 30/30 rule: If thunder is heard less than 30 seconds after seeing lightning, an outdoor event should be stopped and not started until 30 minutes after the severe weather has passed.
Don’t bother counting. If you can hear thunder or see lightning, you can be struck by lightning. There is no safe place to be outdoors!
Horse event organizers have much to learn from the United States Golf Association (USGA). At USGA national championships—and at most regional and local tournaments run under USGA guidelines—an official monitors weather radar when players are on the golf course. This person is in contact with the official-in-charge of the event who has the authority to suspend play in the event of threatening weather.
Comprehensive evacuation plans are drawn up before a tournament. These plans typically designate several specific evacuation points around the golf course, where players have access either to safe areas or transportation to the clubhouse. On-course officials are required to know evacuation locations and are responsible for getting players and their caddies to safety when the horn sounds and play is suspended. Players know this standardized procedure.
How many times have you seen horse shows continuing with classes when thunder can be heard, or seen jockeys riding racehorses into a metal starting gate during a thunderstorm? We would challenge all organizers of equestrian events to develop, implement and communicate a severe weather plan that is based on science and the safety of humans and horses. Until then, individuals need to have their own plan for safety by taking weather spotter classes, having a NOAA weather radio, getting a weather app for your cell phone, and using common sense.
Sitting atop a horse with metal horse shoes on is a bad place to be during a thunderstorm. Remain weather-aware and ensure people and horses are in safe places before severe weather strikes!
This article is from the Equine Disease Quarterly, published by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Enviornment Department of Veterinary Science and sponsored by Lloyd’s of London and its Kentucky agents. It was written by Matt Dixon, Meteorologist, Biosystems & Agricultural Engineering, and Dr. Roberta Dwyer of the Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center. You may subscribe to this publication for free.