Sixteen Horses Die in Colorado Storm

After a powerful thunderstorm struck Calhan, Colo., in mid-October, a neighbor of rancher William DeWitt found 16 of DeWitt's horses dead in their pasture while checking his own adjacent pasture. Police and a veterinarian have determined that severe lightning recorded in the area caused the horses’ deaths.

El Paso County authorities arrived at DeWitt's shortly after 10:00 a.m. on Oct. 22, and they checked for everything from bullets and poison to anthrax. Lt. Clif Northam, El Paso County Sheriff public information officer, said all 16 horses apparently died suddenly. "The horses appear to have dropped in their tracks, straight to the ground," Northam said. "They also appeared to have been dead for several days by the time we found them."

There were no signs of physical trauma to the horses, so the officials called in a local veterinarian to determine cause of death. Police wanted to assure local ranchers that no one was shooting horses or livestock. John Heikkila, DVM, arrived on scene to find 11 horses dead within a 20-25-yard radius, which is believed to be the center of the lightning strike. Four horses were in direct contact with barbed wire fence enclosing the pasture and one apparently had been knocked away from the fence about 10-15 feet. Forty-four other horses lived in the pasture and were unharmed.

"Five of the horses appear to have dropped sternally to the ground (collapsing vertically onto their stomachs and chests), and all the horses appeared to have died immediately," Heikkila said. "After discovering increased decomposition of the horses, and through insect larvae found on scene, I determined the horses died around three days before we found them."

Heikkila pinpointed the horses' time of death between Oct. 18 and Oct. 19. He explained the sheer size of DeWitt's ranch and the remoteness of the pasture is why the horses weren't discovered sooner. Investigators did pinpoint a serious lightning strike in the exact sector of DeWitt’s ranch at 5:32 a.m. on Oct. 19. Heikkila also found ocular rupture in some of the dead horses, which solidified the lightning theory.

"Lightning strikes like this are definitely unfortunate, but not unheard of out here," Heikkila said. "There have been incidences of other horses or multiple livestock being killed by lightning." Heikkila has directly experienced the power of lightning. Once he was repairing a fence on the Highwood Mountains in Montana when the fence was struck by lightning. The bolt knocked Heikkila out for an unknown period of time, and he had muscle spasms for days afterward.

When asked what ranchers and horse owners could do to prevent or lessen the damage from lightning strikes, Heikkila acknowledged there is not much that can be done.

"The one thing I can suggest to ranchers is to use steel fence posts to help ground the electrical charge," Heikkila said. "The steel posts won’t prevent damage from lightning, but the faster you can get the electrical charge in the ground, the less damage it will do to your horses, cattle, or anything else."

Before DeWitt's losses were ruled as caused by the lightning, ranchers in the area were very concerned because on Oct. 11, six horses and a burro died of suspicious causes at Ned Sixkiller's ranch (DeWitt's neighbor who found the lightning-struck horses). Sixkiller had kept his eight equines in a pasture two miles east of the DeWitt ranch. His dead animals had puncture wounds no deeper than three-quarters of an inch with bruising in their hides and skulls, but there was no damage to deeper tissues and no evidence of bullet fragments or slugs. The cause of those deaths is undetermined. "There was a blatant lack of coagulation in their blood (in Sixkiller’s dead animals)," Heikkila said. "We still suspect some kind of toxic cause, whether natural or unnatural."

About the Author

John V. Wood

John V. Wood is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, and now teaches his craft to high school students in North Carolina. Wood has been published in numerous national magazines/newspapersover his career, and published his first book in June 2010. Wood currently lives in Willow Spring, NC.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners