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The Importance of Horse Identification

By: Dr. Philip Johnson

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If you had to prove that the horse in another person's pasture or trailer belonged to you, could you? What if that other person had a bill of sale or a registration certificate for a horse with the same markings and characteristics as yours? Could you prove, beyond a doubt, that this horse belonged to you? Even if you have registered your horse, only color, markings, age and sex are used to identify a horse on these papers, and the physical description could match many other horses.

Horse theft is much more common than generally recognized. It's fairly easy to steal a horse. Horses are often kept in fields and barns that are a considerable distance from the watchful eye of the owner or trainer. In fact, horses are often found in small paddocks along country lanes in remote locations. It's uncommon for horses to be secured behind locked gates. Furthermore, thieves often require little assistance or equipment to gain the trust of the horse, catch him up and get him loaded onto a trailer. Unfortunately, slaughterhouses and sale barns often do not make sure that a horse presented to them hasn't been stolen.

Without specific information pertaining to the identification of your horse, it's almost impossible for law enforcement officials to locate and return your animal. Also, you may be called upon to prove your horse's breed registration and proof of parentage. In all cases, you must be prepared to provide positive identification of your horse.

Methods for Positive Identification

  • ID Certificates

    The traditional method for identification involves the completion of an ID certificate by a veterinarian. ID certificates incorporate a line drawing of your horse viewed from different sides. Your veterinarian will draw the identifying marks onto the line diagram and then describe the same markings in a written section adjacent to the diagram. Various characteristics of individual horses are used for this purpose, which include color, "whorls" (spiral arrangements of hair, like a cowlick), scars or blemishes. At least six whorls can typically be identified in most horses and their specific location is characteristic of each horse. Your veterinarian will also provide information pertaining to the age, sex and breed of the horse. High quality, recent photographs and video recordings are also excellent adjuncts to your records and can aid police authorities should your horse be stolen.

  • Branding

    If you've ever seen an old western movie, you probably have an idea of what branding is. Branding involves the application of a characteristic mark, symbol, or sequence of characters onto the skin of horses that serves as a permanent identification mark. The most common sites are under the mane, where the brand is less prominent, and on the hind quarters, where the brand is quite visible to deter theft. The end result is an indelible and characteristic mark.

    Hot iron branding was commonly used on cattle ranches in the past and is still used in some places today. A hot iron is applied directly to the skin and the affected area is permanently and characteristically scarred.

    "Freeze" branding has been used since the 1960s and is more humane than hot iron branding. With this method cold iron probes, coded to imprint an indelible mark or number, are chilled in liquid nitrogen and applied to the skin. The extremely cold temperature causes damage to the skin that results in failure of hair growth or causes new hair to grow in white. On horses where hair is already white, the freeze brand is applied longer so that the hair will not grow back at all and the resulting mark appears similar to that obtained by a hot iron brand.

  • Lip Tattoo

    Race horse organizations, such as the Jockey Club Thoroughbred Breed Registry, require that all thoroughbred race horses are identified using a lip tattoo. Lip tattoos are applied to the gum of the inside of the upper lip and are encoded with numbers and a letter which represent both the individual horse and the year of birth (A = 1971, B = 1972, and so on. For younger horses, A = 1997, B = 1998). Before applying the tattoo, the individual performing the service matches the certificate of registration by The Jockey Club with the horse. Other breeds require parentage verification prior to lip tattoo application. Lip tattoos wear well for approximately four to five years and fade over time.

  • Electronic Microchip

    Electronic ID (EID) is considered high-tech branding and is computer compatible. A tiny microchip, laser etched with a unique alpha numeric code, is implanted in the nuchal ligament (along the crest of the neck) and read with a radio frequency scanner. The injection procedure is performed by a licensed veterinarian. The chip cannot be easily seen and does not lead to any significant tissue irritation. The information contained on the chip (a number code) is specific for an individual horse and can be obtained by using a special radio-frequency scanner. EID is difficult to remove surgically without extreme trauma to the nuchal ligament and possible death of the horse. It is best used in conjunction with a brand.

  • DNA Testing

    Some breed registries offer DNA testing to facilitate identification and/or proof of parentage for individual horses. DNA is the molecular basis of genetic inheritance and each individual's DNA complement is different. The advantage is that DNA tests don't necessarily require someone to draw and ship blood to a laboratory. DNA can be extracted from any tissue like mane and tail hairs or nasal swabs. DNA samples don't have to be handled as carefully as with current blood typing and can be performed on animals that are deceased.

    Other Identification Methods

  • Horse Registration Program

    Some states offer a horse registration program in which identification data pertaining to individual horses can be logged and stored. In those states, the details can generally be found at the state's livestock department. Alternatively, for those states without such a registration program, all identification data may be logged and stored with the local county records clerk.

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