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Why brand a horse?

From: Shirley

Hello Jessica,

I wish you would please advocate people micro-chipping their horses. It is a much more humane and less painful technique of horse identification. I was a bit surprised at you telling this person to hold the freeze brand on LONGER to kill the hair follicles. It made me upset. There are many new tech ways of animal identification, i.e. he Dutch microchip all Friesians now. Please advocate for this method. If someone like you does, it will be much more commonplace. Why should an animal be "burned" in any manner unnecessarily?

Thanks, Shirley


Hi Shirley! I do advocate micro-chipping, but not as an alternative to branding. Let me explain - and to those readers who aren't interested in the subject, a warning: This will be long.

I don't think that any animal should be burned, cut, or injected "unnecessarily". I think that the question here is what is actually necessary or useful, and what is not.

At this time, for many horses and horse owners, and in many parts of the world, branding IS necessary. I wish that someone would come up with another way - a clever, painless, easy, affordable way - to create a permanent, clearly-visible marking on a horse. Alas, all we have right now is the various forms of branding - nothing else is both VISIBLE and permanent.

Micro-chipping is very useful and can identify a horse very precisely, but alas, it's helpful ONLY if someone actually scans the horse for a microchip. Many horses that end up at low-end sales and auctions, or that are sold privately in the back of a parking lot, aren't scanned. Even at auction houses where there is a scanner on site, it's not routine procedure to scan every horse "just in case". A horse will be scanned IF there is some specific reason to scan it, such as its description matching that of a horse reported stolen, or - much more commonly - if it is branded.

This brings us to the question of why anyone would choose to brand a horse.

The traditional purpose of branding is not to make the horse identifiable to its owner, but to make it identifiable to other people - preferably easily and from a distance. lHorses and their owners can become separated in a variety of unplanned, unexpected, and unhappy ways. Horses sometimes leave their pastures spontaneously and end up on the road, or, if they're more fortunate, in someone else's pasture. Sometimes a fence is broken, sometimes a tree falls and removes a section of fence, sometimes someone inadvertently (or deliberately) leaves a gate open... There are other ways for horses to leave home unexpectedly. Natural disasters - tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, and floods - can all result in horses running loose for a variety of reasons (including desperate owners turning them loose in the hope that they may be able to outrun whatever is coming).

There are other ways to lose a horse. I've mentioned accidents, carelessness, and natural disasters. People also lose horses on trail rides - riders can fall or hores can stray, then get lost in the woods, sometimes for months or years. Horses can disappear (lost, stolen, or strayed) when they are boarded in someone else's barn or pasture. Horses have been sold - not legally, but sold none the less - by people who have leased them or borrowed them, or falsely identified themselves as prospective purchasers who are merely taking the horses on trial. Horses have also been "purchased" by people whose checks (or cashier's checks) bounce a few days later - by which time the horses are long gone. And - last but, sadly, not least - horses are taken from their pastures or their home barns by thieves who intend to take them somewhere and re-sell them. In the States, the number of horses stolen each year is something like 55,000 - that's FIFTY-FIVE THOUSAND. Each stolen horse has an uncertain future (nice owner? bad owner? horrible owner? injury? starvation? slaughterhouse?) and a desperately unhappy owner who misses him dreadfully.

If you're very lucky, you may live in an isolated area where all the neighbours are good people and no strangers ever appear. If your horse leaves your pasture and ends up visiting your neighbour's horse across his fence, getting the horse back will simply mean ringing your neighbour and saying "Is Buddy at your place? I'm so sorry, he got out again, can you put him in a stall, please, and I'll come right over and get him." That's an ideal situation... but what Buddy didn't get out by himself, and what if someone a few miles from you is in the habit of collecting and selling horses that belong to other people?

Imagine what would happen if you called a police officer and said "My horse has disappeared and I think Mister So-and-So down the road has taken him, please go look at his property and search for my horse." Even if he loved horses, believed you, and was entirely sympathetic, he wouldn't have sufficient reason - "probable cause" - to search your neighbour's farm. If you said "My horse is bay and he has a long tail", you haven't said anything that would help the officer identify your horse or give him an excuse to search that property. If you said "My horse is bay and he's very sweet and he has a long tail AND HE'S BEEN MICROCHIPPED", you've said something that MIGHT help the officer identify your horse - IF that officer happened to have a microchip scanner. Unfortunately, that particular possibility is extremely remote. (Call your local police department and ask whether officers routinely carry portable microchip scanners.) And even if he did have a scanner, he would STILL need a reason to go onto the neighbour's property!

"Bay horse" is not enough of a description to justify a search, especially if your neighbour has horses on his property already. Anyone with a field full of horses, whether collected by purchase, breeding, or some other method of acquisition - probably has four or five bay horses at any given time. Even if you are sure that YOUR bay horse is unique, and even if you have photographs of him, that still may not be enough for a positive identification (unless he has very unusual markings, or scars, that are visible in the photographs). But if you were able to say "My horse is bay and he has a brand on his left hip, here's a a photo of the brand," or "Here, I'll draw the brand for you", then the officer has something to go on, and if he watches the field through binoculars and sees a bay horse with that brand, he'll have a legitimate reason to conduct a search. Of course, if the property owner has been watching the officer watching his farm, the horse may be gone by the time the officer returns to make the search.

If the brand is a freeze-brand, it will be visible from quite a distance, which will make the officer's job much easier. In fact, a freeze-brand or even a hot brand may make the job unnecessary, as quite often, when horses are stolen, the ones that have brands are left in the field whilst the unmarked ones are taken. Sometimes, when a group of horses is stolen, the branded ones are turned loose or dumped into someone else's field, because thieves don't WANT horses that can be easily identified visually. It's too risky. Most people can't tell one horse from another, and even horse owners can have trouble identifying their own horses in a group of similar-appearing horses, especially if their horses have been missing for some time. But a brand - that's another story. Many people (including police officers) don't know horses at all, and would have a hard time telling a chestnut gelding from a bay mare - but it's a different story if they're looking for a horse (any horse) with a visible, specific brand in a particular location (e.g, "Heart with a cross inside it, left hip" or "R inside a circle, left shoulder").

Most law enforcement officers who have experience with horse theft cases recommend that horse owners mark their horses in at least TWO ways, not just one. They also recommend that one of the marks be VISIBLE to the casual observer. This makes excellent sense. A microchip is useful but invisible, so if that's one of the marks you choose, don't combine it with a lip tattoo - use a brand. You and I would automatically look at the inside of a horse's upper lip for a tattoo, but not everyone knows to do this, not everyone knows HOW to do this, and, as owners of ex-racers can tell you, not every tattoo is clear enough to read. And many people, including law enforcement personnel, are afraid to approach and handle a horse in a way that would permit them a view of the inside of its upper lip. This brings us back to the usefulness of a VISIBLE mark.

So - protect your horse from a quick trip to the auction and a possible fate worse than death. Take very clear photos of him: front, back, and each side. If he has dimples or cowlicks or scars - any identifying marks at all - take close-up photos of those. Then try to protect him from being lost or stolen in the first place, by putting a clear, obvious, identifying mark on his body - and at this point, that means "brand him". Give thieves a reason to leave your horse in your field; give helpful people a way to reunite you with your horse after a natural disaster; give law enforcement authorities the leverage they need to say "Excuse me, Sir, but I need to have a look at one of the horses on your trailer."

Microchips are the best possible way of collecting a lot of information about the precise identity of a particular horse, and I'm all in favour of micro-chipping horses. But micro-chips are not VISIBLE, and don't serve as a deterrent if someone is driving slowly by your pasture, counting horses and deciding which ones to come back and collect later that night. If micro-chipped horses and branded horses are in the field together, you may come out the next morning and find that only the branded horses are still in the field. If micro-chipped horses and branded horses end up at a sale, the branded horse can be identified, but the micro-chipped one may be sold several times without any of its new purchasers having any idea that the micro-chip is there. That's one reason that so many registries use branding to identify horses according to their parentage and performance, even if they also use micro-chips.

I think that the ideal method of identifing horses - both as a deterrent and as a precise, specific form of identification - would be the combination of a micro-chip and a small but very visible freeze-brand. Perhaps someone in the States can come up with a specific, instantly-identifiable mark that could be freeze-branded on the horse at the same time that the micro-chip was inserted, and that would signify "Hello world, look at me, I'm a brand, and I'm here to tell you that this horse has been micro-chipped - scan him!"

I'm sorry if you were upset by the description, but you shouldn't be surprised by my explaining the process of freeze-branding. That was what the questioner had asked about, and I wanted to give her an accurate explanation of the way freeze-branding works. The length of time the iron is held in contact with the horse depends on several factors including the time of year, the location, and the age, breed, and colour of the horse, but yes, it IS held a little longer when the aim is to destroy the hair follicles (as it would be also in hot-branding) instead of to destroy only those cells within the follicles that add pigment to the hair shaft.

So many horses are stolen every year, in every country, that something has to be done to diminish this problem. Quite apart from the unhappiness of the owners who miss their horses and worry about their fates, it's important to look at the situation from the horses' point of view. Being branded causes pain briefly, but the alternative can be a lot worse. A horse that is stolen and "sold down the river" may have a very sad and painful life for many years... so until we manage to invent something better than branding, it seems like a reasonable tradeoff.

If you think about it, you'll realize that we do a lot of things to our horses that cause them pain - sometimes for a moment (e.g., vaccinations), sometimes for much longer than a moment (poor shoeing, saddles that don't fit, ulcer-causing diets and confinement, etc.) In the case of the processes of vaccinating and branding, I feel that the brief pain they cause is infinitely preferable to the possible consequences of NOT vaccinating or branding. (Incidentally, I realize that you didn't care for the description of the branding process, but a description of the tissue damage that is often caused by routine vaccinations would be far more sick-making.)

Here's something that will interest you: In the few scientific studies that have been conducted on the subject of pain and stress from branding, the results have been surprising - yes, it hurts for a moment, but the stress caused by branding is much less than the stress caused by restraint... and by transportation! So if a horse could talk, and was allowed to choose between being branded and being put in a trailer and hauled to a competition, or between being branded and being put into stocks and given any sort of medical treatment, or between being branded and having its teeth floated, it might very well say "I'll take the brand, please."

By the way, of course you are right about the Dutch, but truly, they HAVE to microchip all Friesians - can you imagine looking for a lost Friesian and trying to describe it? "Well, it's big... and it's all black, long mane, long tail, feathers...no, sorry, no markings..." When you have a small breed in which all individuals look alike AND are instantly identifiable as members of that breed, and a country in which scanning for micro-chips is the automatic default procedure during all transactions involving horses of that breed, micro-chipping for identification is much more practical. You'll note that the same concern - regarding positive visual identification - also applies to other breeds, such as the Norwegian Fjord.

Thanks for writing, Shirley, and I hope the concept of branding makes more sense to you now. It's not a perfect method, but it's effective.

I'm not in favour of hurting babies, but I see the value in using a small lancet to stick a baby's heel or finger and get a few drops of blood for a DNA sample. That sample might someday enable the child's parents to make one more tool available to law enforcement, and to help establish proof of the child's identity if it were to become lost or kidnapped. I'm not in favour of hurting horses, and I do endorse the use of micro-chips, but I also see the value in a highly visible marking that discourages thieves AND can serve to identify the animal if it goes missing for any reason. I also understand why breed societies find it useful to have a way to identify a horse according to its breeding and performance. Be patient - some day, a perfect method of visual horse identification may come along and replace branding. If a completely painless and equally effective new method is invented, I assure you that I'll be glad to encourage everyone to adopt it. ;-)

Jessica

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