Who is This Horse? Tattoos, Brands and the Future of Equine Identification

There are currently over 9 million horses in the United States. In an average year, somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 US horses are sold to slaughter, most passing through various auctions and feedlots along the way. A significant percentage of those horses come from some working segment of the horse industry: racing, showing, Amish horses, bucking stock, cast off breeding stock, and the list goes on. Most, by the time they reach the auctions and feedlots, the end of the line, have lost their identity and any knowledge about them that could increase their market value and consequently keep them from the slaughter house. Kill buyers receive piles of registration papers with the horses they buy which are simply tossed in the garbage. As the saying goes ‘you can’t ride papers.’ Though this is certainly true, being able to keep track of a horse’s identity and accomplishments is of huge value, to both their horse and horse owner.

Mustang with freeze brand used for military funerals.

Mustang with freeze brand used for military funerals.

Some breeds/disciples permanently mark their horses with brands and tattoos. In the case of Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds, these are unique to the individual horse allowing one to track all the data about that horse throughout their racing career, and sometimes further. American mustangs are freeze branded with a code that identifies the specific herd and year in which that horse was captured. PMU mares, during the Premarin industry’s heyday, were often branded with a collection of numbers that specified year of birth and sire. Some breeds, particularly European Warmbloods, go through an inspection process to determine their quality, and if approved for breeding, are branded with the logo for that breed. Similarly, large stock breeders in the American west have traditionally branded their horses with the farm/family/ranch’s logo. It is common in those same western states for ‘brand inspectors’ to oversee sales of stock to make sure stolen animals aren’t being sold. In some cities, such as New York, carriage horses have a ‘license plate’ number carved into their hoof. And finally, in recent years, advances in technology have led to use of micro-chipping, though it has yet to take off in the equestrian world.

Number carved into a carriage horse's hoof.

Number carved into a carriage horse’s hoof.

There are pros and cons to all of these methods for identification, and there will always be those unscrupulous characters that don’t want their animals to be identifiable. I believe, though, in making breeders and owners accountable for the animals they choose to bring into this world and keep for their benefit and pleasure, as the horses certainly don’t get a say in it. Some may see it as big government oversight or an infringement on their rights and privacy, but, while horses are indeed considered property in our society, they are still living beings. And every car on the road has a VIN number; every person (supposedly) has a Social Security Number. Why should there not be some means by which to identify, and retain, the personal identities of horses?

Ex-PMU mare with multiple freeze-brands.

Ex-PMU mare with multiple freeze-brands.

To be most effective, there really needs to be a consensus and a consistent means of ID chosen. With all the different industry organizations that is probably a pipe dream, unless federally mandated, but one can hope. Personally I think the best methods are freeze branding and micro-chipping. Lip tattoos notoriously fade and become illegible as the horse ages. Carved hoof tattoos will grow out with the hoof each year. Unlike hot brands which are extremely painful when applied, freeze brands are virtually painless, and mirco-chip insertion is little worse than a regular shot. The upside to freeze brands is that are highly visible and can be read without hands on the horse. They also don’t require a scanner the way micro-chips do. I feel a combination of the two would be best.

Thoroughbred lip tattoo.

Thoroughbred lip tattoo.

Some people claim that freeze brands are unsightly and disfigure a horse, making them less attractive for the showring. You know what? I consider slaughter unsightly and disfiguring to the horse, particularly as it results in them being dead. There are plenty of successful show horses with various brands. This is not a valid argument. What about cost? Currently the cost varies by location, availability of a technician, and need to purchase custom irons. However, if it becomes common practice across the horse industry, the cost will come down and more people, likely vets, can and will be trained to apply them. It already costs less than a set of papers from most registries. Not that I think horses shouldn’t be registered. I’m a huge advocate of registration, and am a particular fan of inspections. I just wholeheartedly disagree with breeding dozens and dozens of horses that have no skills and nothing going for them other than a famous stud eight generations back (yes I’m looking at you big Quarter Horse breeders).

Freeze brand on a Standardbred race horse.

Freeze brand on a Standardbred race horse.

No method will ever be perfect and fool proof, but I honestly believe permanent, individual IDs for all horses would significantly change the horse industry for the better. To be able to walk into an auction, write down the brand numbers of the horses in the killpen, and run them through one’s tablet right there (or hiding in the parking lot if necessary) finding out who each horse is would be invaluable. It would be invaluable for anyone buying a horse anywhere! Imagine, no more trying to match horses and markings to papers that can easily be lost, no more DNA sampling and petitioning breed registries to issue a new set of papers. One would only need to run a search on the brand to know exactly who the horse is. I hope this is the future. I see this as the future. I just don’t know how long it’s going to take us to get there.