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. Dr. Monty McInturff, DVM, recently presented a webinar on "Equine Identification - Traditional Methods and New Technology" where he addressed the current methods about how 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 nationwide.
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 encourages owners to select some form of identification. Since events like 9-11, 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 horses out on the range. Hot branding is used in western states to denote ranch ownership, and in areas where horses still range free 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. "You 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 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 should be 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.
"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.
Microchips are generally for local identification of a horse by a veterinarian, and can be a permanent form of identification for show purposes. "It is also used by some international agencies as a source of permanent identification," McInturff said. "Microchipping is very respected and well known in the equine industry."
The chip, which is inserted by a veterinarian, is usually placed under the skin in the mid-cervical area near the crest in the neck, McInturff explained. The chip contains data like ownership, age of horse, breed and color. Some chips are readable and can contain additional information like health records. "The problem with chips is that many require a certain reader," McInturff said. "If the horse was chipped in Texas and moved to Tennessee and I don't have the reader they had, then the chip can't be used, and the information on the chip can't be retrieved," he added.
DNA analysis is used by breed registries to verify parentages upon registration of young horses. DNA is analyzed from hair roots taken from the mane or tail, or blood samples taken by a veterinarian or owner and sent to a lab. Although DNA is very precise, McInturff said, it can't be determined that day. "Also, if one of the parents is not registered, it can't be used to identify a foal," he 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 intrastate 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.
The newest technology in horse identification is iris scanning, which is similar to a human fingerprint, McInturff said. "A picture of the iris is taken, and that picture is mapped by an infrared camera. That mapping of the iris is given an alphanumeric number that is placed in the database. That database can be held locally or nationally," he said.
"What is unique about this process is that number is specific to that horse's eye and that horse. Each horse has two permanent identifying markers at all times - a left eye and a right eye," he continued. "So, when you are doing an iris scan, scan the left and the right eye." He also recommends taking a digital photo of the horse to pair with the iris scan identification.
McInturff said the information is taken from the capture camera and put into a local database that he uses to help manage the horse's medical records. "The iris scan has an accuracy greater than 99 percent, which is more accurate than a human fingerprint."
While the technology is still relatively new, McInturff can see more uses for it in the future. "It could help the show industry manage a horse's show records," he said. "On a national level, this technology could be used for show officials, and regulatory officials - the possibilities are endless," he said.
As more cameras become available on the market, McInturff said this could become a very reliable way to identify horses, and information from the scan can be stored securely in a central database.