Identification, Please!

Learn why accurate horse identification is so important and how to choose the best option for your horse.
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Imagine yourself in these scenarios:  

You quickly evacuated your horse in a fast-moving wildfire, but when you were ready to take him home you discovered shelter-barn personnel don’t know where he is.

You sold your home-bred horse with a clause stating that you’d take him back when he was ready to retire, but now he’s disappeared.

You purchased a high-dollar show horse with three socks and a blaze from a big-time breeder across the country—but the horse that arrived at your barn had only a star and snip.

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Losing track of your horse would be heartbreaking. Taking delivery on the wrong horse—or dealing with a cross-country conundrum involving big bucks—would be time-consuming, stressful, and potentially expensive.

How do you avoid finding yourself in such a quandary? Ensure that your horse, as well as any horse you purchase, is positively identified. If your horse carries positive identification, there’s a much better chance that you’ll be successfully reunited with him if you’re ever separated, no matter what the reason. And with positive, no-fail ID, you’ll know that the horse you bought was the horse you got.

If you’re like most horse owners, you begrudgingly accept requirements for brands, microchips, or other forms of identification called for by breed registries or competition rules. But you don’t really see what the fuss is all about. You know what your horse looks like, and you have the papers to prove it.

However, there’s more to positive ID than meets the eye. Here, I’ll explain how positive ID can help you in your equine pursuits, as well as avert (or quickly resolve) a problem. Then I’ll give you several horse-identification options (hot branding, freeze branding, lip tattooing, and microchipping), including the pros and cons of each one.

Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to take the proper steps to positively identify your horse, which could potentially save his life.

How ID Helps

Here are five situations in which positive ID can help you in your equine pursuits, as well as avert (or quickly resolve) a problem.

Showing/breeding. Registration papers may be required for your show horse to participate in breed-recognized competitions or be eligible for awards. Pedigrees listed on registration papers help breeders choose mares and stallions for breeding programs and ensure that the resulting offspring will be eligible for registration.

Buying/selling. Papers that document age and pedigree can be important parts of sales agreements. But how can you prove that a horse is the same one listed on the registration papers? Solid-colored horses with no markings especially pose a challenge. Some form of positive ID is the only way to reliably link your horse to the papers presented to you.

True story: A client once dropped off a horse for boarding at my farm and left me his registration papers. When I called to confirm his age prior to a medical procedure, she told me, “Oh, I’m not really even sure that’s the right horse. When I bought him, the seller told me she had a number of chestnut geldings and wasn’t sure which one she’d sold to me.” Sound crazy? Perhaps. But this type of mix-up is also more common than you might think.

Emergency evacuation. In a natural disaster, safe barn space fills up quickly. Your carefully laid emergency-evacuation plans could fall apart fast as you concentrate on saving your horse’s life—and your own. During large-scale evacuations, your horse can easily end up in a shelter barn (or worse).

Cases in point: In 2017, more than 500 horses were evacuated to California’s Sonoma County Fairgrounds in response to wildfires. A hundred or more horses sought refuge at Sam Houston Race Park during Hurricane Harvey. Three hundred individuals/facilities offered aid along the East Coast in the wake of Hurricane Irma. And in some cases, horse owners were forced to simply turn their horses loose.

In the midst of mass confusion, horses with some form of positive ID had a much better chance of being reunited with their owners than those that did not. If your horse is ever displaced by a natural disaster, such as a wildfire, hurricane, or earthquake, you’ll rest easier if he has positive ID. It’s also advisable to use a livestock crayon to write your contact information onto your horse’s coat, braid a luggage tag into his mane, or affix a neck band holding all relevant information. 

Protection from theft/slaughter. Imagine coming home at feeding time and discovering that your horse is missing. Now imagine learning that he’d been loaded into a trailer in broad daylight while you were at work by a man your neighbor assumed was a friend of yours. Think it can’t happen? Think again. Although it’s hard to find accurate statistics due to lack of reporting of these types of nonviolent crimes, estimates by rescue organizations say as many as 40,000 horses are stolen every year in the United States.

As if that isn’t scary enough, if your horse is stolen, there’s a good chance he could end up on a slaughter truck to Canada or Mexico. Positive ID not only helps deter horse theft in some cases, but also can be critical for recovery—especially if your horse ends up in an auction yard on his way to a slaughterhouse.

Outbreak control. When a serious infectious disease, such as the neurological form of equine herpesvirus, strikes a barn, one key factor in controlling its spread is to identify exposed horses. And if that disease strikes at a big event where a lot of horses are coming in and out, quickly tracking movement becomes especially difficult. If the majority of horses have positive ID that’s been recorded (such as a microchip), it becomes much easier to track those horses down. Wouldn’t you feel better knowing right away if your horse had been exposed? Not only would it help you take the steps necessary to protect your own horse, it also would result in faster quarantine and reduced exposure of other horses, thereby helping limit the scope of any outbreak.

Horse-ID Options

Now let’s take a look at the identification options available for your horse, including the pros and cons of each one.

Hot Branding

What it is: Hot branding creates a permanent mark on the horse by burning the skin with heated metal, also known as a branding iron. Hot branding is the oldest known form of horse identification. The practice dates back to ancient times when the marks chosen were believed to ward off evil spirits. In modern times, hot brands most commonly identify specific owners, ranches, or breed registries.

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Pros: Hot branding is inexpensive, permanent, and visible. Proponents believe that the visible nature of a brand helps deter theft.

Cons: Hot branding causes painful third-degree burns and tissue damage. These effects raise welfare concerns and has even led to banning of the practice in such countries as Denmark, Germany, Scotland, and The Netherlands. There are also anecdotal reports of chronic, low-grade lameness associated with the tissue damage that occurs.

Although brands are visible, the marks aren’t always clear enough to be accurately decoded. In a study done of 248 branded horses in competition and 28 euthanized horses, breed symbols were correctly identified in 84 percent of horses, while double-digit numbers were identified in only 40 percent. The authors concluded that hot brands are an unreliable method for identification.

Freeze Branding

What it is: Freeze branding creates a permanent mark on the horse by applying a branding iron that has been chilled in liquid nitrogen or alcohol and dry ice. The brand is applied for 7 to 10 seconds to dark-colored horses, which damages the pigment-producing hair cells resulting in white hair growth. On light-colored horses, the brand is applied for 12 to 15 seconds, which destroys the hair cells completely.

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Pros: Like hot branding, freeze branding creates a permanent, visible mark. Freeze branding is less painful for the horse and causes less tissue damage than hot branding. A freeze brand is usually more legible and has better detail than a hot brand, making it a more reliable form of identification.

Cons: The equipment required to freeze brand is more expensive and difficult to set up than that required for a hot brand. Although less painful than hot branding, freeze branding still causes some pain and distress, leading to welfare concerns.

Lip Tattoo

What it is: A lip tattoo is a series of letters and numbers that are applied to the inside of the horse’s upper lip using a series of inked “perforating plates,” that is, plates with multiple needles dipped in ink. Lip tattoos were introduced in 1947 by the Thoroughbred Racing Protection Bureau and are still required by the Jockey Club prior to entry in a race. Other associations that accept lip tattoos for identification include the American Quarter Horse Association, the Appaloosa Horse Club, and the Arabian Horse Association.

Pros: Lip tattoos are inexpensive and easy to apply, although the tattooing process takes longer than either type of branding. Lip tattoos cause very little discomfort for the horse.

Cons: A lip tattoo isn’t readily visible and can be difficult to read, especially if a horse is resistant to handling. Lip tattoos fade over time; after 4 to 5 years, they may become illegible.

Microchip

What it is: A microchip is an electronic device that’s inserted via a needle into the nuchal ligament that runs along the top of a horse’s neck. This tiny device, about the size of a grain of rice, contains a unique code that emits a radio-frequency signal that can be read by a handheld scanning device. Microchips have been used in horses for years, but problems, such as lack of standardization and widespread misconceptions about their use, resulted in resistance from horse owners in the United States. However, in recent years, international standardization and better education have led to greater acceptance. Many breed registries and competitive organizations now require microchips, including the International Equestrian Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI), the governing body for all international horse sports.

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Pros: Microchipping is simple, quick, and painless. The process isn’t much different for the horse than being vaccinated; only the most needle-phobic horse is likely to require sedation. The identification provided is unalterable and specific to each individual horse. Scanning the horse for a microchip is also simple and takes only seconds to complete. You can register your horse’s microchip number with a breed registry or other organization; most companies that manufacture microchips also offer a registration service where your horse’s information can be stored.

Cons: Opponents to microchips in horses argue that chips will migrate in the tissues, but studies have demonstrated that this doesn’t actually occur. Others claim a microchip can be surgically removed—a process that would be very difficult (if not impossible) to perform. Critics also cite high cost as a hurdle to horse owners, but in reality the cost of a microchip and placement is typically less than $100.

The one actual disadvantage of a microchip compared with other forms of identification is its lack of visibility. The only way to know if horse has a chip is with a scanner. If your horse is microchipped and living in a barn, consider placing a sign on his stall door stating, “This horse has been microchipped,” as a potential theft deterrent.

Although standardization is improving with the widespread use of chips, pay attention to chip type; make sure it’s a 15-digit International Standards Organization (ISO) compliant chip, meaning that it operates at a frequency of 134.2 kHz and can be read by a universal scanner. As microchip use becomes more widely used and accepted, any remaining problems with standardization are likely to be overcome. ↔ 

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