Lightning strike kills 4 horses
Thursday, Sep. 19
Betsy Burke Parker
The intense lightning storm that struck the area Thursday, Sept. 12 killed four local horses at a weekend family farm near the Fauquier-Rappahannock County line with a single strike as they huddled together in a run-in shed to stay out of cold, driving rain that accompanied the fast-moving front.
A caretaker noticed nothing out of order as she reported to work Friday morning, but she soon discovered a scene that reminded her of a horror movie when she rounded a corner to dole out morning feed.
What she found left her shaken and crying, confused and desperate for answers.
“I'd left the farm on Thursday around 3 p.m., as usual, and went to Warrenton,” said Sheri Shambor, who cares for eight horses at a neighbor's weekend retreat. “It was raining quite hard, and I saw lightning in the distance, but I did not think the storm was out of the ordinary.”
Friday morning was cool and serene, relief from the late summer heat and from the previous day's fierce storm. “I arrived at the farm around 10 a.m. and started my usual chores then headed to the upper field to feed and care for the eight horses. As I approached the shed, I could see the paint horse lying down. I thought, 'Aww, how cute,' that she was sleeping.
“As I got closer, I realized there were several horses all together, down, and I immediately panicked and ran to them.”
An experienced horsewoman, Shambor knew that while horses sometimes lie near each other, they never would lie down all together, touching one another.
“I was shocked,” she said. “Four of them. They were obviously dead.” Four others grazed nearby, apparently unharmed. “My mind raced to retrace my actions the day before. Did I somehow spray them with something toxic or feed them something toxic by accident.”
Shambor leapt into action, furiously dialing Rose Hill Veterinary Practice, calmly recounting what she'd found.
“They were almost sure the cause of death was lightning,” Shambor said. The vet could not come out for several hours, so Shambor called another knowledgeable horse friend.
“I explained what I'd found and she said, immediately, she bet it was lightning. She'd been at her own farm (about eight miles from the Amissville farm) during the storm and said it was very scary, with lightning strikes everywhere. She called her own vet for me, an older, very experienced horseman, and he said, too, lightning. That's how it happens – the horses all get together under cover, and then, boom, one strike can take them out.”
Shambor found singed hair on two of the horses' legs, and a piece of wood in one of their manes.
“It is truly a heart-breaking tragedy,” said the horses' owner Kris Hitt, who operates Mainstay Veterinary Practice in Fairfax.
The farm is a weekend family retreat. “Our farm does sit on one of the highest spots in the county, and we have been hit by lightning before … our satellite TV has been taken out, and our stove, but we have never had other damage.”
The storm was violent, according to Russell Hitt, Kris Hitt’s father-in-law, who was on the property at the time of the deadly strike. “The lightning bolt passed very close to me on the back porch at the cabin,” built by his father Warren Hitt, original owner of the property. “(It) lit up the porch and the loudest thunder clap I have experienced. Makes you think of God.”
Kris Hitt said they've pieced together the likely strike was to a tall tree a few feet behind the shed that likely sent electric current through the wet ground and into the horses' hooves as they stood in a slightly wet depression at the front of the metal-roofed shelter.
“I am going to look into having the shed grounded but if the lightning charge traveled along the wet ground then that will not prevent this freak accident in the future,” Hitt said.
While 70 percent of humans struck by lightning survive, horses almost always die, veterinarians say.
A large charged bolt immediately destroys their brain and a lesser strike interferes with the electrical activity of their hearts, and they drop dead. Hitt takes small comfort from the information. “Mine were felled where they stood. It (must have been) extremely quick.
“I believe they did not suffer.”
Jetson was a 10 year-old Gypsy Vanner-Shire gelding born at the farm. Skye, also 10, was a Gypsy Vanner mare, imported from England. At age 30, Quarter Horse gelding Jack was a farm elder, along with mule jenny Cricket, also 30.
“When we had foals, Cricket was the 'caretaker' and would protect the newly weaned youngsters from the other horses - who were really no threat at all,” said Hitt, remembering the kind mule, and the others she lost, with fondness. “It was 'Auntie' Cricket.”
A horse was killed by lightning caused by the same strong cold front in western Pennsylvania Thursday morning, and another in central Canada on Wednesday, possibly by the same line of storms.
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