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Permanent ID mark for a horse

From: Emily

Jessica -- This past weekend, my filly (who is currently 7 months old and only 11.1 hands) managed to jump out of her paddock into a neighboring one over a 3'6" fence (the top board was down on a 5' fence).

Although this incident didn't turn out badly, it really raised my awareness of how vulnerable she/I would be if she actually 'escaped' and ran away. How on earth would I find her? How would I prove she was mine if I *did* find her?

I started to think about the issue, and realized that I would like to do something to permentantly mark her as 'mine', but I don't really understand my options. I know that some horses are branded . . . but my mental picture of that is kind of a 'wild west' kind of thing. Is branding actually still done? Is it painful for the horse? What about tatooing? Is that hard to do? Would the local vet do it? What part of the horse is typically tatooed? I have my dog & cats microchipped & registered with a national database. Does a similar program exist for horses?

Thanks for your time & consideration on this matter. Emily (& Cricket -- the jumping bean)

Hi Emily! Those are good questions, and I'll do my best to help.

Branding is still a popular way of marking horses, but it's a way of saying "This is MY horse", not a way of saying "This is THIS horse".

The difficulty with this style of branding is that most of it is non-specific. It serves its original, intended purpose, which was to identify the horse as the property of an indivual or business; it does not identify a specific, individual horse, although horses (like the Lipizzaners) that receive multiple brands can be identified more precisely.

In other words, these brands identify ONLY ownership. There's also the registration issue to be considered - you can design and use your own personal ownership brand, and many people do this, but you should be aware that not only must the brand be registered within your state (check with your state to find out details of applications, fees, renewals, etc.), but that there may be limitations as to what the design can be, how large or small it can be, where it can be applied, etc. Brand-registration rules and regulations vary from state to state - and may be valid only within a state, or only within a part of a state (in Texas, brands are registered by COUNTY...). If you want your brand to be valid in more than one state, you'll have to register it in more than one state.

If you do decide to use a brand of your own, contact your state agricultural office and apply for your brand registration FIRST. Don't create your brand first, brand the horse, and finally apply for your brand - you may find yourself in violation of a state law.

Hot-Iron Brands -- Yes, hot-iron branding is still done - in fact, probably more than ever. It's not just for ranch horses - many of the European Warmblood registries brand the horses that they have approved for membership. Hot-iron branding is just what it sounds like: a hot iron is held against the hide of the animal, and the resulting burn leaves a permanent scar in the shape of the branding iron.

European Warmblood registries brand animals that are accepted into those registries; there are some American registries that do the same, but again, this identifies the animal as a member of the registry, NOT as a particular individual animal or even as an animal belonging to a particular person or ranch, and so, although better than nothing at all, a registry brand isn't terribly useful as a means of identification.

Some forms of freezebranding DO identify an individual horse, using a series of letters and symbols specific to the individual. Otherwise, freeze branding is just the "cold burn" version of hot-iron branding, and does nothing more than identify a horse as belonging to person, ranch, or breed X. It's been in use since the 1960s.

Freeze Brands -- Freeze-branding is, like hot-iron branding, the creation of a burned area on the horse's hide. One is a hot burn, one is cold; freeze-branding is more humane. If you choose freeze-branding, the branding iron will be placed in liquid nitrogen to make it truly cold; meanwhile, the horse's hair in the to-be-branded area will be clipped or shaved. When the branding iron is cold enough, the area is washed with alcohol, and the branding iron is applied to the skin for between ten and twenty seconds if the horse is dark-coloured, and between forty and fifty seconds if the horse is light-coloured. Then - you wait. In a month or two, you'll see the result: if your horse was dark, the hair over the brand will grow back white (hair follicles damaged); if your horse was light, the skin under the brand will turn dark, and the hair will not grow back at all (hair follicles destroyed).

What breed is your horse? Some breed associations are keeping track of horses with brands or freeze marks.

Some commercial freeze-mark companies are also maintaining databases, so any horse that you have branded by that company will be in their database for as long as the company maintains the database and/or stays in business.

Kryo Kinetics Associates Inc. is one of the better-known companies providing freeze-branding services. Their marks use the international-alpha-angle system to create a unique mark that IDs a specific animal, and a copy of the paperwork given to the owner is kept in a company database. Since these brands are complex, they are less easy to alter than some simpler brands.

If you've always wanted a brand of your own, you can draw it and have a good welder create an iron for you - then your veterinarian can apply it, and your horse will carry YOUR brand. Again, be sure to apply for and register the brand FIRST!

You can put a freeze mark just about anywhere - on the horse's neck, on the shoulder, on the hip. Some people put them on the horse's back where they will be covered by a saddle. Be sure that you are applying your brand in a permitted area.

Lip Tattoo -- A lip tattoo probably isn't very practical for your purposes, especially if you plan to keep this horse for many years. All Thoroughbred racehorses are given lip tattoos before they first race. These tattoos are applied to the inside of the upper lip, and consist of string of numbers and one letter that identify the individual horse and its year of birth. Some other breeds also use lip tattoos. It sounds like the ideal solution to an identification/brand problem, doesn't it? It isn't. Some tattoos become "fuzzy" and indecipherable very quickly; others fade away with age, or even within a few short years. In the racing world, careers are typically very short, and most tattoos need be readable for just a year or two or three. In the riding-horse world, horse-owners would probably prefer to mark a horse ONCE and have the mark remain clear for the next ten or twenty years or longer.

Electronic Microchip -- Since you've had your cats and dogs microchipped, you already know something about how this procedure works. You can have a tiny microchip implanted in your horse's neck (in the nuchal ligament, about halfway up the neck). EIDs(Electronic IDs) are read with a radio frequency scanner. The advantage of the chip is that it's invisible - there is no obvious scar or marking on your horse. The disadvantage of the chip is that it's invisible - since there is no obvious mark to show that the horse is carrying a microchip, there is nothing to indicate to a thief that this horse shouldn't be stolen, and there's nothing to indicate to anyone that the horse should be scanned for a microchip! However, unlike a brand, the chip information does identify a specific, individual animal. Once you've had a microchip injected into your horse's nuchal ligament, it's there for life - insertion is easy and not painful, but removal of the chip is very difficult and dangerous. At least, now that the chips are routinely inserted in the nuchal ligament, they have less tendency to migrate.

As to how useful the chips are, opinions differ. Everyone agrees that they provide useful information IF THEY ARE SCANNED. Some sales facilities do have scanners and use them routinely on all the horses that pass through the facility. But not all farms, vet clinics, auction barns, and slaughterhouses are equipped to scan and read microchips, and not all the facilities that are so equipped actually use the equipment on a routine basis. At a slaughterhouse, for instance, someone MIGHT notice a microchip, if there is a scanner on hand, if it's company practice (not just policy) to USE the scanner, if the scanner can read that sort of chip or at least register that it IS a chip, if the person using the scanner is actually interested in finding the chip, and - last but not least - if the chip has not migrated.

A microchip would, on the other hand, make an excellent complement to a highly visible brand - the brand could provide some indication of ownership, or at least prompt someone to scan for a chip. The brand would say "HELLO, SOMEONE'S HORSE HERE", whilst the chip would say "...and THIS is precisely who I am, and here's how to find my owner and veterinarian".

ID Certificate -- The old way of identifying a horse is still quite effective, and would certainly serve your needs if your filly was found pestering the neighbours' horses. ;-)

Your veterinarian can create an ID certificate for your horse. It involves drawing your horse's identifying marks onto a line drawing of a horse (both sides, back and front) and including written descriptions of those same marks - the same process that's involved in identifying your horse on its Coggins test. Your vet will identify your horse by its age, breed, sex, colour, and markings, including whorls and scars or blemishes.

In some states - check with your state livestock department, and, failing that, with your county records clerk - there are horse registration programs where ID certificate information can be stored. This, plus the horse's registration papers, should help you identify your horse if you find her on someone else's property. These "ID papers" are most useful when combined with another form of identification that can't be altered - such as blood typing or, better yet, DNA.

Blood Typing and DNA Typing -- Blood typing is a useful form of identification; DNA typing is even more precise. The Jockey Club used blood typing for years, and changed over to DNA typing just a year or so ago. Whether this is useful for your horse will depend on many things, including its breed. Some registries do offer DNA testing, and use the information for individual horse identification as well as for proof of parentage. The advantage of DNA testing is that a pinch of mane or tail hairs (with roots, please) will provide plenty of material for DNA extraction. The disadvantage is that although DNA testing is potentially a great way for you to prove that a particular horse IS the horse you're looking for, it's not as easy and routine a matter as looking at a brand...

Those are your long-term identification options. In the short term, if what you need is a method of identifying your horse when she leaves her pasture and goes on a tour of the neighbourhood, here are my suggestions.

Keep a file for each of your horses somewhere in the house, where you can reach it easily - a small three-ring binder is ideal. (If you're really paranoid, keep a duplicate file at someone else's house.) Fill it with EVERYTHING that has to do with your horse: her registration papers, bill of sale, identification certificate or brand certificate, her current negative Coggins, and any and all receipts from veterinarian, dentist, and farrier. Also include - this is key - large, clear photos, 5x7s or larger (no fuzzy, out-of-focus snapshots) of your horse. Begin with clear photos from each side, front, and rear, and then take close-up shots of ALL your horse's markings. If you can provide photos of your horse in both summer and winter coats, so much the better.

Can you take clear photos of the whorls on your horse's head, and the ones on its neck and chest and flanks as well? These can help in identifying a horse, especially if you are looking for one plain bay gelding that might or might not be in a facility full of plain bay geldings.

Does your horse have any scars? Take clear photos. Scars are listed as "distinguishing marks" on your own passport, and they can help identify your horse, too.

Other useful pages for your binder:

  • A list of local police and fire departments and their telephone numbers. The nearest "Animal Control" office should be on the list too - and all of the local veterinarians!
  • A list of your nearest neighbours - if you live in a rural area, this might mean the owners of the next two or three farms in every direction - and their telephone numbers.
  • A list of neighbours who may not be quite so near - but who have horses or horse farms.
  • A list of all the horse and livestock auctions that take place within 600 miles of your home, and their telephone numbers - and, if possible, the auction schedules. Your state veterinarian or state department of agriculture should have this information.
  • A list of regional USDA-inspected slaughterhouses with addresses, phone and fax numbers. For temporary identification, you can etch hooves (they'll grow out), spray-paint your name or telephone number on the horse's winter coat (it'll grow out, too). For VERY temporary identification, you can attach a tag with your name and telephone number to your horse's breakaway halter - or braid it into the top of her tail. These are also helpful precautions in case of emergencies such as wildfires or hurricanes. In the case of that sort of natural disaster, it's a very good idea to spraypaint your phone number on both sides of your horse.

    If you're not worried about theft, but are very worried about a horse just taking it into its head to leap the fence and run down the road, then you need a taller fence, incentive for the horse to stay inside the fence, or both. When it comes to horses running loose, especially in or near suburbia, "freedom" is vastly overrated. The danger to your horse is considerable - and so is the danger to anyone who might be on the road... and then there's the liability issue to be considered. If you're going to keep horses, a good fence is a good investment.

    You have all my sympathy here - it's not an easy issue, is it? Like you, I'm generally less worried about theft than about the possibility of horses going walkabout. It's my personal hope that someday, someone will invent a strong, safe, tall, EXTREMELY ECONOMICAL (read "inexpensive to the point of being free or almost free") barrier that can be used as a perimeter fence. So far, the most practical solution seems to be planting a line of osage orange trees at one-foot intervals along the property edge, and then waiting a few years until they form a barrier. If I do it, and it works out, I'll notify the list. ;-)


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