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Equine identification options continue to change with increased technology

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“Equine identification is changing,” says UW Equine Specialist Jenny Ingwerson. “These identification methods may start with horses, but I foresee it trickling across species.”

Ingwerson notes that while the U.S. currently does not set many standards for equine identification today, the European Union (EU) is leading the charge, and she adds, “What happens there often determines a lot about what we do here.”

Equine ID is a burgeoning topic, Ingwerson continues, noting that the focus on the issue stems from animal behavior and welfare. 

“Behavior and welfare drive the need and want for everything that goes into equine identification,” she says. “We have to look at both sides of the issue – from the welfare side and the production perspective.”

Types of identification

Four primary types of identification are seen in horses – freeze branding, fire branding, lip tattoos and microchipping. 

“Brands are easy to see, and they deter theft,” Ingwerson explains. “With some registrations, especially in Thoroughbreds, the brand is specific to the breed. That can help to identify horses as they come into the sporting horse competitions.”

Lip tattoos are also used, particularly for racehorses. 

“Lip tattoos are really hard to read,” she says. “How many horses let us pull down their lip to read a tattoo? But the racing associations require them for competition.”

While lip tattoos are used, Ingwerson notes that they are relatively minor as far as scale for equine identification.

Fire branding

Fire branding has been used for many years to identify animals, Ingwerson says, noting that the process destroys the hair follicle when a hot branding iron is applied to the skin. 

“When we fire brand, the brand is put on for three to five seconds, where the horse experiences extreme heat and discomfort,” she says. “Some welfare organizations are concerned about the pain inflicted with fire branding.”

Ingwerson also notes that several countries, including Scotland, Denmark and Germany, have banned fire branding.

Other disadvantages to fire branding include the potential for brands to be skewed if an animal moves during the process or is very young when it is branded. 

“In a recent veterinary journal article, a study was published on reading brands,” Ingwerson explains. “In 2013, we saw, out of 248 horses evaluated at an equestrian championship event, 60 percent of the time, the three people reading the brands could not accurately identify it.”

Freeze brands

“Freeze branding is becoming more commonly used around the world,” she continued. 

“The cold iron destroys the pigments of the hair-producing follicles, so the hair grows back white,” Ingwerson explains. “Typically, we shave the hair, apply alcohol and then apply the brand. It does present some human hazards when handling the liquid nitrogen or dry ice that the iron sits in.”

Disadvantages of freeze branding can be similar to those from fire branding. 

For example, on light-colored horses, freeze brands are very difficult to read. 

At the same time, Ingwerson notes that many people argue that freeze branding is less painful to horses. 

“I have been trying to find some actual data to evaluate the two methods of branding, and it isn’t out there,” she says. “I’d like to see some research trials before we determine which is less painful.”

Using technology

Microchipping is a newer form of identification for horses, says Ingwerson. 

“Microchips provide a unique ID for each horse,” she says. “They do require a scanner to read.”

Microchips are commonly used in companion animals in the U.S.

“Each microchip is registered within a company, and they are supposed to be administered by a veterinarian,” she explains. “In the horse, the chip is inserted at the nuchal ligament approximately one-half inch below the mane.”

Ingwerson also mentions that microchips are inserted intramuscularly to avoid movement of the chip. Additionally, BioBond holds the chip in place.

She notes that chips have the option available to store data and record biological information, as well as provide identification. For example, one particular chip can read the temperature of the horse at the insertion site.

Making comparisons

When looking at the difference between microchipping and branding, Ingwerson says, “They have done research studies with microchips compared to fire branding in Australia, the EU and the U.S. From their measurements, they saw that there was no difference in cortisol and heart rate variability between microchipping and fire branding.”

Similar stress levels resulted for horses between each procedure. 

Some differences between the methods include inflammation at the microchip insertion point or necrotizing of skin for branding. 

Animal passports

In the EU, beginning in 2009, all horses were required to have a passport with a microchip included. 

“Horses are required to obtain a passport within six months of birth or by Dec. 31 of the year they were born,” Ingwerson comments. “This passport is lifelong.”

The passport includes a medication log and may also include secondary identification information, though that is not required. 

“All medicines that horse receives are recorded,” she explains. “Because the EU has regulations on what drugs horses can receive and still be accepted into slaughter, they track it carefully.”

Without a passport, horses are not allowed into the food chain. 

Additionally, Ingwerson mentioned that the passport provides the opportunity for owners to select options that do not allow the horse to enter the food chain. Once that option is selected, it is applicable for the lifetime of the horse. 

“We’ve looked at what is happening in the EU and what is happening here,” says Ingwerson. “Identification is on everyone’s mind.”

Ingwerson presented at the 2014 Progressive Rancher Forum, held on Dec. 1 in Casper. 

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at  

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