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Tattoo or Brand My Horse?

16 August 2011 No Comment

Tattoo or Brand My Horse?
Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

Question
My daughter has a sorrel gelding. He was fairly expensive, and it was suggested to us that we tattoo or brand him. My daughter does not really want him branded. What other ways of identifying are available? And where can we begin to look for such services?
Thank you, John Henderson

Answer
Hi John, If your daughter does not wish to use a visible brand on her horse, the two other options that I can think of are either a lip tattoo or the insertion of a microchip.

A lip tattoo would be applied on the inside of the upper lip and would consist of a series of letters and/or numbers. Tattooing kits are available through vet supply catalogs and can either be applied by a veterinarian or by the horse owner. The downside regarding lip tattoos are that they are not visible, they can fade with age, they can be altered and many times they are not readable due to mottling on the horses lip.

Microchips are tiny implants that are usually put under the skin on the horse’s neck. There are several microchip manufacturers. Because of this, if a horse is stolen that carries a microchip that was manufactured by Company A and the particular slaughterhouse that they end up at has a scanner manufactured by Company B, this horses microchip will not be read by that particular scanner. Universal readers/scanners have been promised for a number of years, but until such time that they are made available, far too many horses may never be recovered because their chips weren’t read. There is also the problem of possible duplication of the identifying numbers on the chip depending on who has inserted it. A few other problems are that microchips can be removed and microchips can also be implanted by anyone with the money to buy the chip set-up. This is a great for someone wishing to identify their own animals – but a horse thief can also implant a microchip very easily as well. Microchips have been known to migrate to other parts of the horse’s body from where they were originally implanted and we really don’t know what the long term health effects of microchips might be. The microchip is no deterrent to horse theft in my opinion because there is no visible mark that the thief would see.

The technique of choice for me for deterring theft or recovering a stolen horse is a freeze mark or “brand”. I would never subject a horse of mine to a “hot” brand such as what are put on cattle and many ranch horses. It is painful when applied and is also easily alterable or destroyed. Freeze marks on the other hand are recognized internationally and are human readable, needing no equipment to be read. A freeze mark can be easily deciphered by anyone with a few minutes of instruction. Besides being painless and indestructible, it is readily visible, can’t be destroyed or changed, and is inexpensive and easy to apply using one or two irons.

Here’s how the freeze mark is applied: the iron is placed in liquid nitrogen until it reaches a cold minus-320 degrees fahrenheit. The horse’s hair is clipped as close to the skin as possible with standard clippers. The area to be marked is then thoroughly washed with alcohol and then the iron is held to the skin of dark-colored horses for 10-20 seconds and to the skin of light-colored horses for 40-50 seconds. After 30-60 days, the hair on the dark-colored horses grows back white and on light-colored horses, the hide turns dark.

Several breed associations now keep records in their databases of horses that have freeze marks or brands. There are also a few different companies with well-trained technicians that apply freeze marks. The applied freeze mark numbers are then kept in the company’s databases with a complete description of the horse, the owners information, the horses stabling location, etc.

Most veterinarians can also apply a freeze mark using their iron affixed with various numbers or symbols. Or, the owner can check with their states branch of the Department of Agriculture and then design their own unique iron that for a small fee is registered as their brand in the particular state in which they live. A competent welder can make the iron following the owners diagram and then for a small fee their veterinarian can apply the freeze mark.

The freeze marks applied to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Mustangs are always applied up high on the left side of the horse’s neck. Most freeze marks applied by a veterinarian or by the companies in the business of applying freeze marks put them on the left or right side of the horse’s neck. I have however seen freeze marks on horses shoulders and hips too.

I am not much in favor of non-visible marks or microchips because I feel that the whole purpose of identifying marks on most horses is so that we can hopefully deter theft in the first place. Or, if the horse is stolen, we will hopefully have a much better chance of recovering our horse. In many incidents of theft, unmarked horses are taken while obviously freeze marked horses are left in the pasture. If a horse does get stolen and ends up at a sale or a slaughterhouse, by having a visible mark or brand, flyers can be sent out to many different locations where someone may see your horse. If your horse does end up at a slaughterhouse, you better believe that the employees at the slaughterhouse will not take the time or make the effort to go around lifting up horses lips in the feed pens looking for tattoos. If that slaughterhouse has a scanner, the owner of a horse with a microchip had better hope that it is the correct scanner to read their horse’s microchip. Nope, if I’m going to go to the expense and trouble of having some means of identification placed on or in my horse, it would definitely be a freeze mark which does not have to be large and unsightly, but does need to be visible. As far as I’m concerned, if a small visible identifying mark on my horses neck, or elsewhere on their body, will prevent theft or will aid in the recovery of my horse, that makes the most sense to me. That’s why I am in the process of having an iron made even as I write this!

Sincerely,

Laura Phelps-Bell

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