Livestock animals, specifically horses, do not exactly have an ID card in their pocket or wear a collar like smaller domestic pets do (yes, one could argue that a name can be added to a halter). It is important for owners who have large farm animals to be able to identify their animals or identify another animal that may show up on their property (it happens more often than you might expect).
First, let’s start with the “why.” There are multiple reasons why horses must have a form of permanent identification: identifying competition/sport horses (racing, showing, etc.), breeding, displacement due to natural disasters, or even theft. The information on an equine identity may include the person to whom the horse is registered, breed, date of birth, and any special markings/coloring.
Next is the big “how.” Equine identification by hot branding goes back centuries. Hot branding is often associated with cattle; however, it has been greatly used on cowboys’ horses, too. Branding is a hot iron that is placed directly onto the animal, generally on the rear or shoulder, leaving a painful and permanent scar. The same letter(s) or shape would be use on all the livestock belonging to one farm. While this practice is still used, it has substantially decreased.
Another type is freeze branding, also known in the industry as a tattoo. This can be confused with hot branding; however, it is relatively painless process. Instead of a scar, it kills the pigment in the hair follicles. This happens when a copper stamp is cooled in liquid nitrogen or dry ice and then placed along the neck of the horse or on the rear. The advantage of this type of ID is that it is easy to see and read. The freeze brand can be also be a shape, letter(s), or a combination of digits.
In my barn stands the most beautiful standardbred; Nora is a retired racehorse who now lives a cushy life full of treats and daily hugs. The day we brought her to our house, the transporter was able to confirm her freeze brand tattoo when she was picked up from the selling barn. The selling barn was large, with many animals, and this gave me the peace of mind that I was receiving the correct horse.
Lip tattoos are also used for identification. According to the US Department of Agriculture, lip tattoos were originally introduced by the US Army in the late 1800s, but today they are generally associated with, but not limited to, thoroughbred racehorses. The tattoo is placed on the inside, upper lip of the horse in a process similar to tattooing people: “Ink is applied to the upper lip with pins in the shapes of symbols and letters per breed requirements” (https://www.tsln.com/news/pros-and-cons-of-identify-your-horses-different-systems-to-use/). Although lip tattoos are initially easy to read, they will wear off in 4–5 years.
The newest form of equine identification is microchipping, just like cats and dogs. The chip is placed in the neck of the horse and can be found with a microchip reader. The US Trotting Association website states, “The biothermal microchip uses a radio-frequency identification implant that does not have a battery or transmit a signal.” This is the preferred form of horse IDs today, due the expanding technology, and it is the least invasive to the animal.
Some equine sports require microchips. For example, thoroughbred horses, who are registered through the Jockey Club, must be microchipped if they were born in 2017 or later. The US Trotting Association (USTA), for standardbred racehorses, will be requiring all racing horses to be microchipped by 2022. The United States Equestrian Federation with the United States Hunter Jumper Association started requiring microchip identification of all its member horses on December 1, 2017. There are many more organizations who require horses to be identified with microchips.
In spring 2021, we welcomed the newest addition to our farm, a filly (female) from my retired racehorse, Nora. This new baby—American Marvel—received her microchip on May 17. The process was quick, taking about one second.
The ID technician used a syringe to insert the chip, which is about the size of a grain of rice, into the neck. According to the HomeAgain website’s FAQ, “The HomeAgain® standard size microchips have the Bio-Bond™ patented anti–migration feature to help ensure the chip stays where it's implanted.” The ID tech recorded our filly’s identifying information to add her registered chip number into the USTA system. Her future is in the harness racing industry, just as her mom’s was, so she will be scanned regularly to confirm her identification and participate in races.
Clearly, technology is continuously evolving, and methods of equine identification have taken great strides over the decades and even centuries. It is important to take advantage of technology here, whether an owner has horses for simple trail riding or is planning on participating in the Kentucky Derby, to be sure that horses can be identified in some way. And who knows what the future holds, maybe someone will create facial recognition or hoofprint biometrics for horses—wouldn’t that be wild?