Written by: Teresa Pitman

Find out what forms of permanent horse identification are used, which are safe and which are most effective.

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Dave Landry photo

You can easily pick your horse out of a group – you know his markings and his way of moving. But, if he was stolen from the pasture or had to be rescued during a disaster, would you be able to identify him and prove he’s yours? This is a question horse owners have sought to answer for hundreds of years, and today we have new possibilities, based, in part, on newer technologies and world-wide changes in government requirements.

Some options are more popular than others. A 2010 survey by Equine Canada found that while eight per cent of Canadian horse owners had passports and 74 per cent had registration papers for their horses, a large portion also relied on more permanent means of identification. According to the results, approximately 19 per cent had their horses branded, 10 per cent had them tattooed and 11 per cent had microchips implanted. Here, we investigate the procedures involved with each type of identification, and their physical effects on horses.

Branding

Hot branding is generally done with a steel rod applied to the horse’s skin for several seconds. The result is a permanent mark in the custom shape of the iron. While hot branding has been used for hundreds of years, recent research shows that it causes a significant amount of pain.

In 2009, Dr. CasperLindegaard , of Denmark, conducted a study comparing horses who were branded with those who were microchipped. “This was necessary,” he said, “because there was discussion about banning branding in Denmark, where horses are often branded to identify the breed, plus three digits. “Lindegaard said the study found that “branding is painful and produces a necrotizing (flesh-eating) burn wound, with hypersensitivity lasting at least seven days.”

Dr. Christine Aurich, of Austria, who conducted a 2011 study, explained that, some of the German have been concerned that without brands, the values of their horses would decrease, especially if the horses were imported to other countries. “The breed registries claim that microchip implantation is more painful and stressful for foals than hot iron branding,” she said. “However, our research showed that microchip implantation does not cause significant stress. In addition, there is a long-term response to hot iron branding showing ongoing pain.”

Both Lindegaard and Aurich pointed out another issue with branding: legibility. Aurich said that while some like brands because they are readily visible and readable by anyone, studies have shown that often they are not clear. “We looked at brands on 300 horses and had three separate people read them,” she said, adding that the breed brand was correctly identified only 85 per cent of the time, and the numbers could only be ready correctly 40 per cent of the time.

Freeze branding, on the other hand, uses extreme cold to create the mark on the horse’s skin. The hair is clipped in the area to be branded and drenched with methyl hydrate. Then a copper iron, which has been immersed in liquid nitrogen, is pressed against the skin, for about 20 seconds. The hair turns white as a result. While this has not been compared to hot branding in studies with horses, a 1997 study at the University of Saskatchewan found that both hot and freeze branding caused acute pain in cattle for the first 90 minutes after the branding was done, but the hot branding caused a more intense and longer-lasting response.

Tattooing

Tattooing is required for racing horses; the tattoo is checked prior to the horse being allowed to go to the starting gate. To apply the tattoo, the horse’s lip is turned inside-out and clamped in a metal vice, which has the effect of somewhat numbing the area. The unique number and letter identification assigned to the horse is then applied with a needle-like device and permanent ink.

Fran Okihiro, spokesperson for the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society, pointed out that as horses get older, their tattoos often become difficult to read; horses with mottled skin on their lips can also make the tattoo less legible.

Dr. Terry Whiting, manager of Animal Health and Welfare, Manitoba Agriculture and Food, said for race horses, an ID system that lasts five years is probably okay for the purpose intended. He pointed out that while there are no studies assessing pain caused by tattoos, “it is hard to believe that tattooing is no painful. It is not like human tattooing where a hyperfine needle is used through thousands of oscillations to deposit ink. The process uses a tool to drive large gage solid spikes into the lip, and then try to fill the resulting holes with ink against the flow of blood.” The horse’s upper lip is quite sensitive, he added, as horse owners may notice if they accidentally bump it and notice how the horse jerks back.

Microchipping

Microchipping is the newest form of horse identification, first used in the 1980s. When horses are microchipped, a small RF ID (Radio Frequency Identification Device) is implanted using a needle in the nuchal ligament in the horse’s neck. The chip is enclosed in a glass vial about the size of a grain of rice. It is programmed with a unique number that can be read using a special scanner. As mentioned, research has shown that this is not especially stressful for the horse. It has become a requirement in most European countries for horses foaled there or imported into the country.

Dr. Edward Kendall, chair of Equine Canada’s Equine ID Committee, said that microchips do have some problems. The chips themselves may move from the implant site and be impossible to find (Aurich described this as an urban myth and said it will not happen if the chip is properly implanted). Chips may also become damaged or simply stop working. As well, over a horse’s 20-year (or more) lifespan, the standard technology for the scanners may change, meaning the chip implanted two decades earlier becomes unreadable. “What will be required is that multiple chips are implanted,” said Kendall. Lindegaard disagrees, pointing out that microchips have been used in millions of dogs and cats with very few problems.

What does your horse need?

The choice you make for your horse depends on your circumstances. Different breed registries have their own requirements. Nicole Toren of the Canadian Arabian Horse Registry, for example, said, “When a foal is registered, we require parental verification by DNA testing. We also have the horse’s markings and whorls drawn on a diagram that is part of the registration.” In the past, she added, Arabian owners used to freeze brand their horses, and some Arabians imported from Poland and Russia arrive with freeze branding.

Unless they are planning to race, Thoroughbreds do not require any form of identification other than registration papers recording their markings, said Okihiro. Other breeds who race, such as Quarter Horses, must also be tattooed. Linda Bedard, of Standardbred Canada, said Standardbreds must have both DNA testing and freeze branding. “The freeze brand is a good visual identification and the DNA tests prove the parentage of the horse,” she explained.

Identification regulations

Regardless of their horses’ breed or sport, all Canadian horse owners will soon be dealing with new identification requirements, Kendall said. “The government has indicated that regulations will be forthcoming, and we are discussing the nature of the regulations now. Essentially, they will require identification for the horse to leave the farm of birth, and recording of the horse’s presence at events with other horses (such as horse shows). Also required will be the recording of certain medications, change of ownership and permanent relocation, including exportation and similar items.”

If the horse has a microchip, brand or tattoo, these will be recorded on the document, but Kendall considers the description of the horse’s markings to be the primary identification.

Kendall and Equine Canada have been working on CanEQUID, an electronic identification system for horses. Each horse will be assigned a unique number that is his or hers for life, and the information Kendall noted will be added to the horse’s record in a database. “There are advantages in keeping good records, this system encourages that,” he said. “The main advantages will be in risk management and enhanced security. Breeders will be able to track the performance of their horses throughout their various careers; the industry will be able to look at broad trends; and we’ll have accurate information on exports and events. It will help if there is a disease outbreak.”

These records will also fit the requirements of the Equine Information Document (EID) launched by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 2010. Horses to be slaughtered for human consumption are required to have an EID giving a six-month documented history of drug and vaccine use. (Horsemeat is Canada’s top red meat export to Europe, bringing in $110,000,000 in 2008.)

Kendall said it’s not yet clear what the cost to the average horse owner will be, partly because the government’s requirements for the database have not yet gelled. “We are exploring several models, but the goal is to ensure a positive benefit to producers and owners,” he said. “For those who do little with their horses, there will be little impact – essentially, a small cost for identification. For those who are active in various aspects of the industry, there may be additional requirements, but these will be offset by proportionately greater benefits.”