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Standard identification in the horse industry remains a question

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The horse industry needs to agree on an identification standard that can be used to individually identify horses in the United States, according to a Tennessee veterinarian. 

Monty McInturff, DVM, presented a webinar on “Equine Identification – Traditional Methods and New Technology,” where he addressed the current methods horses in the U.S. are identified. 

“We need to find the techniques that are best for our horse and will serve it,” he said of  finding a standard identification method that can be used across the country.

Multiple options

Currently, horses can be identified through hot iron or freeze branding, lip tattoos, microchips, DNA analysis, the hand-drawn or digital pictures that are on the Coggins test papers or an iris scan. None of these methods are a standard identification for the horse industry but rather a personal or business choice. 

No matter which method of identification is used, McInturff encouraged owners to select some form of identification. 

Since events like Sept. 11, biosecurity risks have increased, he said. There are also regulatory risks where definitive identification may be needed, such as anthrax outbreaks or other health risks. 

“We need to be able to properly identify these animals and who they belong to,” the veterinarian said. 

McInturff explained identification can also be important in cases of a natural disaster like flooding or fire, fairness in horse competitions to ensure the proper horse and owner are competing in an event, medical record management, retrieving lost and stolen animals or identifying animals destined for the processing plant.


Branding is the most common form of identification used by ranchers who want to identify their horse out on the range. Hot branding is used in western states to denote ranch ownership and in areas where horses still free range with other horses and livestock. 

For ranchers, it is an easy way to determine which horses belong to them, but it doesn’t identify a specific horse. 

McInturff cautioned that care must be taken when applying hot or freeze brands to horses. Brands are typically applied to the hip or shoulder. 

“Producers want to be very careful when applying a brand. If the horse jumps, the brand can become disfigured and hard to read,” he explained. 

If a hot brand is held to the horse for too long, it can also injure the muscle and cause lameness, he added. 

Freeze brands

Freeze branding was perfected in the 1960s by a veterinarian at Washington State University. 

Freeze brands can be applied with a brass or copper symbol that is cooled in liquid nitrogen or an alcohol bath using dry ice. 

In this process, McInturff said the brand is cooled to -320 degrees Fahrenheit and applied for 15 seconds if using liquid nitrogen and 45 seconds if using alcohol and dry ice. The area to be branded is clipped and thoroughly cleaned with alcohol before the brand is applied.

When an animal is freeze branded, the skin is burned, and the melanocytes, which produce pigment, are killed. Usually, in light pigmented horses, the hair doesn’t grow back, McInturff said. In dark pigmented horses, the dark skin will turn white, and the hair grows back white.

Lip tattoo

“The lip tattoo is very well respected in many breed registries,” McInturff said. “Lip tattoos can be made up of symbols, numbers or characters that has meaning to the breed registry.”

“The tattoo number is also recorded on the breed papers,” he added.

McInturff said he likes lip tattoos because they are a way to individually identify a particular horse by registration or ownership. The tattoo can also be used to qualify a horse for competition, such as in the Thoroughbred industry where tattoos are generally used to qualify horses for racing, he explained.

However, like branding, tattoos need to be applied carefully because they are nearly impossible to redo. 

“They need to be applied correctly, so they are readable,” McInturff said.


The most widely used method of horse identification is a hand-drawn or digital picture of the horse noting its coloring, markings and scars. This identification is typically noted on the Coggins test papers that owners are required to carry with them when they travel with their horse. 

“Most shows and interstate travel require a Coggins test,” McInturff said. 

The problem with this form of identification, McInturff said, is that it is easily altered and can be switched. 

“It is not real precise for that individual,” he said. 

The horse can also change color or markings over time, he added.

Technology is also increasingly impacting the way that horses are identified. For more on horse identification, read next week’s Roundup.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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