Methods of Permanent Identification for Horses

Kathleen A Lockhart

There are many different methods used to identify horses. There are pros and cons to each method, depending on ease of application, durability of identification, visibility of identification, and the amount of pain the application procedure causes. Before you choose an identification method, you should consider what you want to accomplish:

  1. Identification in the event of natural disaster, for example a hurricane or tornado.
  2. Prevent theft or to assist finding a stolen horse.
  3. Compliance with requirements of a breed association for breeding, showing, or racing.
  4. Establishment of parentage.

 Also, you must consider exactly how permanent a result a particular method produces. Some common procedures produce easily altered results or results that fade over time, so may not provide much help if your horse is stolen. Some procedures require the use of special equipment to “read” the identification. “Low-tech” forms of identification, such as drawings and photographs, are useful, as whirls in the coat, coat color, and scars are sometimes harder to alter and are more visible.

Photographs and Drawings

Photos should be in color and taken from both sides and front and back. The photographer should make an attempt to capture on film whirls and cowlicks and their locations, size, and direction of whirl. It is important to show freeze brands, hot brands, markings such as blazes, spots, socks or stockings, eye color ( if unusual), and scars and blemishes. Drawings of distinctive scars and markings should be made from many angles.

 The disadvantage of this technique is that many of these aspects of identification can be altered, though sometimes not without difficulty. Horse hair, just like human hair, can be dyed to disguise the markings. The quicker the photographs can be disseminated in ads and posters, the more likely it will be that someone will match the horse to the photograph.

DNA Testing and Blood Typing

 A veterinarian must take hair or blood samples and send them to a lab for processing. These methods are most useful in establishing parentage (requires samples from the horse’s parents for comparison).

Implanted Microchips

 Microchips with identifying information can be implanted (and later read by) a veterinarian to establish permanent identification. The process is not painful. This cannot be altered. It is most useful in determining identification of stolen horses that arrive at stock yards (some sales facilities routinely scan horses to detect these microchips) or horses caught in natural disasters.

 Lip Tattooing, Hot Branding, and Freeze Branding

 These are common methods of identification. They produce brands that are relatively permanent, but some ( lip tattooing) fade with time, and hot brands (which involve heating a brand hot enough to destroy hair follicles where it is applied) and freeze brands can be altered. All are visible. While hot branding and lip tattooing cause discomfort, freeze branding does not. Many breed organizations use this method, applying the brand (metal chilled in liquid nitrogen) underneath the mane. This leaves a white brand, or if the horse is a grey, a pink brand-the color of the skin underneath the hair. Freeze brands don’t change much over time, but hot brands can be distorted by hair growing over them and they are not as visible on light-colored horses. Lip tattoos fade over time, but even older ex- race horses usually have a brand clear enough to permit identification. These methods of identification may be among the most useful in identifying horses caught in natural disasters and stolen.


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