National Pet ID Week – Equine Style

This week is National Pet ID Week so this is an excellent opportunity for us to cover horse identification!

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the need for identifying horses stems back many many years as a way to establish law and order.  People needed a way to prove their horse was in fact theirs when a horse got loose or was stolen.


To get started, the first thing that can be done is to take and keep accurate descriptions of your horse with photographs.  These descriptions cover all the markings in detail.  For example, Blade’s star is not circular, so it is described as “irregular diagonal star at eye level, pointed to left on top.”  The descriptions will also describe the cowlicks the horse has as well as scars or brands.

Current photographs are always useful to have on hand as well.  Too bad we don’t all love our horses and take more pictures of them than our own family….

Many organizations, however, simply don’t go by these descriptions alone.  It is too easy for look-a-likes or doctored photos to raise questions.

DNA Registration

Some organizations prefer to have horses DNA-typed.  This helps to pinpoint genetic disparities as well as provide proof that this horse is in fact the one in question.  The Jockey club began enforcing a rule that a a foal’s parents must have been DNA-typed in order to be registered. DNA has benefits beyond identification, of course.  From preventing negative heritable conditions to development of effective medications or vaccines.

DNA testing can be quite foolproof and in fact has assisted Unbridled Thoroughbred Foundation in identifying several unknown kill-pen thoroughbreds like VaiVia and Zeno Bay.  There is one major caveat to this method of identification, however; TIME.  Getting a DNA test requires time to collect samples and send them to a lab.  Assuming the DNA on file hasn’t degraded and the sample provided adequate amounts with no contamination it will take time to sequence and compare the DNA.  Most people and many organizations prefer to have a more immediate identification method.

So now what?

This is the point where we dive into the various ways we “mark” horses in order to accurately identify “who’s who.”


One of the oldest methods of identification of livestock.  Branding reminds me of the Wild West,” with old salty cowboys.  Brands are still very present today, especially on ranches where the brands help provide proof of horse and cattle ownership.

Branding is done by heating an iron (in the desired pattern) to a high enough temperature and literally burning the horse.  It only takes 2-3 seconds and will cause 3rd degree burns.  Once the wounds heal the brand will be on the horse forever.

In branding typically you see a design that is related to a specific farm and does not vary between individual animals.  The brands can often develop it’s own reputation for generations.   In the links section at the bottom I’ve included some great sites to learn more about reading brands (like Bar A, flying P, or Lazy K<—WHAT?  Click the links below to learn more!).

For probably obvious reasons I am not the biggest fan of branding.  I would never want to cause pain to my animals especially when other options are becoming available.  Brands are not for me, but I don’t judge those who use them.  In fact there is no proof that other methods are less painful; one study revealed similar behavioral pain responses to micro-chipping (I didn’t look into the study to evaluate it’s methods).  In reality, these horses get branded and within two minutes they are grazing happily.

On the subject of branding I came across this video below.  The video demonstrates the process of branding but is also an eye-opening example of how branding can be overused and made downright abusive.  I had not known until very recently that Exmoor ponies could be branded up to five times in their life.  THIS is a branding practice I will eagerly condemn!  I cannot seem to find any articles indicating new policies since 2013, but this is certainly a subject that will be on my radar from now on.  That said, if you find or know more about this please contact me here!


Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management (Flickr)

Freeze branding or freeze-marking has become a very popular practice.  Many breeds use the freeze mark to identify their individual horses.  Mustangs and Standardbreds furnish their marks on the neck.  In New Zealand thoroughbreds also used to get a freeze brand but that is being replaced by the microchip.  This year (2019) Standardbreds will also be tossing the freeze brand for the more subtle microchip.

Though freeze brands can be anywhere on the body and incorporate various digits or logos, the breed specific brands often follow what is called the Alpha Angle System.  Below is a fantastic graphic demonstrating how to make sense of the brand.

Freeze branding is performed similarly to hot iron branding.  With this method however, more attention is given to site preparation.  The area to be branded is often shaved and washed with rubbing alcohol to remove oils and make for a neater brand.  The branding iron is chilled in liquid nitrogen or dry ice/alcohol, ideally to -300°F.  The brand is applied to the skin and held for 8-45 seconds.

The timing of these methods vary greatly based on the materials, the horse, and the goal.  Less time is needed for darker horses than lighter horses.  Less time is needed if liquid nitrogen is used.  Less time is needed if the goal is a brand with white hair.  The cold destroys the pigment of the hair follicle.  When the brand is held longer the hair growth follicle will also get destroyed resulting in a bald brand.

The video below demonstrates how a horse is branded using the freeze-marking methods.

Lip Tattoo: 

The Jockey Club began the use of Lip tattoos in the early 1900s.  Lip tattoos are checked before races to ensure the right horse is racing rather than a look alike.   The tattoo format follows a very simple method.  The first digit is a letter corresponding to the year the horse was born.  The letter is followed by 5 numbers that are unique to the horse.

As youngsters the thoroughbreds get their upper lip tattoo.  A handler sometimes backs the horse into the corner of it’s stall to prevent it from moving.  He then uses a device to hold the lip up and flat so the tattoo technician can apply the ink.  Each digit has a stamp, the stamp is dipped in ink and pressed firmly into the lip tissue.  When the full tattoo is complete the ink is wiped away, a photo is taken, and the horse continues it’s day.

The issue with these tattoos is they fade.  People also can and have adulterated the lip tattoos by gouging off the numbers before dumping their horses into the kill-pen.  This is another method of identification that is going to the wayside as 2019 rings in the era of microchipping.

There may be more administrative interventions now, but for a while Facebook’s OTTB Connect group site was riddled with people asking for help reading tattoos.  The tattoos can often be very difficult to read.  To start getting a CLEAR photo of under the horse’s lip can be a challenge on it’s own.  The next step is to alter the photo’s brightness and contrast levels to help highlight the shape of the digits.


The best you can hope for is to start with the age (the letter) and decipher a few of the digits.  From there you can sort through the list of matching horse descriptions.

Blade is my first horse, and I have dreams someday of getting my first tattoo that includes his tattoo number.  It took me a long time but I managed to figure out his lip number.  He was born in 2008 so the letter is L…then 16950.  So L16950.

I was amazed when I was able to find the numbers for the older boys!  I know they are both 21 years old, born in 1998.  The letter that year was B (each consecutive year is the next letter in the alphabet).  I’ve included some of the photos I captured alongside the changes I made to read the tattoo.

BLADE: L16950

ZENO BAY: B07120

VAIVIA: B43918



Microchipping has taken the forefront of today’s animal identification.  Dogs, cats, and horses.

Microchips are placed two inches below the crest and centered between the horse’s poll and withers.  It is a straightforward implantation and allows the horse to be scanned quickly and easily without any permanent physical marks being made.

The issue with microchips, however, is the immediate read.  These work well if the horse is close and the reader is handy.  In some situations, however, a microchip reader may not be available or the horse may not be up close.

In my research I have also learned about the potential for iris scanning.  The iris in the eye is as unique as our fingerprints.  For this reason iris scanning has been developed and proven very accurate and effective.  The only thing that could potentially change the iris is an eye injury.

The biggest disadvantage here is the cost.  The technology required for this is much more expensive than the microchip, which is why we see the microchip rising to the spotlight.

I’ve included a list of links to sites and articles I found to be very useful and informative.  I hope you’ll take some time to take a look at a few.


Lip Tattoos:

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