Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
There has been a lot of talk lately about lightning and the effect it can have on the dry tinder surrounding our valley. If you own horses, lightning creates a different concern, one of deadly proportions.
A couple of weeks ago and about 150 yards away, across fields of green and just beyond a cottonwood-shrouded creek, the strike was true and without mercy. It wasn’t much of a thunderstorm, not carrying enough raindrops even to get a fat man wet, as we worked outside on hay equipment, but in the haphazard way of tragedy, a prized horse suddenly lay dead, sizzled by lightning.
You’ve seen ’em do it – a herd of horses flying into a thundering gallop through an open pasture, manes and tails flowing in the wind with a natural grace. Horses sometimes put on that sort of show out of serendipity simply because they can. At other times, something in the weather triggers their stampede, and we should take a cue from them, if we’re that cognizant.
My grandfather, who had a fondness for blue roan horses, had ridden up to the top of our largest mesa to check on the progress the boys were having on installing a large, wooden gate at the summit of the steep road. It had been raining off and on all day, and thinking he could help out before another looming rainstorm hit, Granddad dismounted, looped the reins over a jack-oak bush and went to do what he could. About that time, a flash of brilliance and a large crack of thunder spooked the hell out of all of them, and Blue, the big roan, uncharacteristically took flight, breaking the reins and racing down the hill at a full-on gallop.
From above, Gramps hoofed it around the corner through the mud, just in time to see Blue flying across the pasture at the bottom, toward home, when a bolt of lightning struck with unerring accuracy. There was no grotesque jerking of limbs or pounding of the head against the earth. Blue was gone, midstride.
The “experts” say about 70 percent of humans hit by lightning survive, while around 98 percent of horses hit with the same sky-borne wrath, die. It doesn’t appear to matter if the horses are shod – they seem to be just as vulnerable either way. It is likely the result of the greater mass of the equine species and its inability to dissipate the heat quickly enough for survival. The cobbled bones of once-majestic steeds, brought down by the shearing, random radiance of a deadly flash across a rumbling, dark sky, are testament to the dangers from above.
While doing my part for the Vagneur Ranch Co., packing salt to Hereford beef in the Kobey Park area, my horses and I came close to becoming perennial parts of the landscape, thanks to lightning. We’d ridden all morning through drizzling rain, without a hint of lightning or thunder, until we topped out on the Twin Oaks ridge.
Without warning, a bolt hit within feet of our location, knocking the packhorse to the ground. The whirlwind it created rides with me still. I was preparing to mount up, having just unloaded a block of salt when it occurred, and about as quickly as the horse went down, she was back up, just in time to join my saddle horse in a panic attack over what to do. The lead rope tightened around my hand, dallying me to the saddle horn, and I found comfort in the knowledge that by being unable to escape the mess unfolding around me, those horses weren’t about to leave me up there to walk out. Clearly, I remember the dirt rising up to meet the electricity – a fountain of grit pulled upward by millions of volts, a deadly flash that barely missed.
It could happen at any time, even on a partly cloudy day, a lethal burst from the sky. But it’s not something we can really worry about. The odds of you or your horses getting killed by lightning are almost infinitesimal – but real. My blue roan Drifter and I have the conversation occasionally.
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