Pros and cons of identify your horses; different systems to use
Horse identification is extremely important, according to Monty McInturff, DVM, managing partner at the Tennessee Equine Hospital, who explained the various types of horse identification systems for owners to consider.
“Equine identification is a topic that seems very simple, but it’s actually very complex,” he said. “If you ask ten horse owners why they should identify their horses, their priorities might be very different. A rancher might use a simple brand to identify his horse on the range. The race trainer will quickly tell you the lip tattoo is a great way to identify the horse, his age and the owner. The breeder may use multiple ways such as a brand or a DNA sample. The horse owner might have papers with a corresponding photo for the state official to examine.”
Identification methods include: branding – both fire and freeze, lip tattoo, microchip, DNA analysis, pictures – both hand-drawn and digital, and a new one – the iris picture.
“Branding originates from the Spanish conquistadors who needed to have markers for their animals on the open range in the New World, and it’s still used in areas of open range,” he explained. “To brand, a symbol is made of iron, which is heated and applied to the shoulder or the rump. The skin is burnt and scarred, leaving a mark. A few seconds is all that is needed to scar that area for the horse. The benefits of this identification method is it’s a low-cost method, but it can be difficult to read if done wrong. Of course, there is some pain involved, and if applied too long, it can cause lameness in the horse. Hot brands are only specific to a specific area or region as many places don’t have brand registries.”
A newer method is freeze-branding, which is primarily used by breed registries. The brand is applied to clipped and clean skin by a brass or copper symbol that is cooled in liquid nitrogen. Pigment-producing cells, called melanocytes, are killed, and the dark skin turns white and hair grows back white.
“Freeze-branding is another low-cost method that acts as a logo for the ranch brand,” he said. “The drawbacks are freeze-branding can be painful, stressful and invasive, while being hard to read over time in some cases.”
Another form of identification is the lip tattoo.
“Lip tattoos are very respected in most cases and are required by most racing jurisdictions,” McInturff said. “Registries don’t require these tattoos unless a horse is qualified to race. Ink is applied to the upper lip with pins in the shapes of symbols and letters per breed requirements. The benefits help to know the horse is qualified for competition. The drawbacks are that the tattoos often fade, and not all horses in the registry are required to have one. It can also be stressful to apply.”
A microchip is often used by veterinarians for local identification, as well as by some international agencies as a source of permanent identification.
“To insert the microchip, the skin is prepped and a needle is placed deep into the skin at the neck crest,” he explained. “Little restraint is needed for this permanent form of identification. The problem is there isn’t a universal reader for that chip, and it’s not broadly adapted as there is no central data base.”
Another – more permanent – option is DNA analysis.
“DNA doesn’t change, so this method is precise and accurate for life,” he said. “It takes little restraint, pain or stress; however, it can be expensive and time-consuming. One of the issues is if the parents hasn’t been registered, then it can be difficult to confirm the DNA of that foal.”
A hand-drawn or digital picture is a method that is more traditional and very common among all horse owners.
“The old style has a hand-written picture of the horse, which is conducted each year,” he said. “Another way is the digital image. These papers are required for state-to-state transportation, shows, sales and events, as well as breed registrations. It’s very easy to do, with the assistance of a veterinarian. This is a non-invasive method that establishes ownership. However, these papers can be easily altered, and the papers may not always remain with the horse. Also, horses can change color or markings over time, which can create an invalid identifier.”
One of the newest forms of identification is iris scanning technology.
“A picture of the iris is taken for individual identification and record-keeping for the specific horse,” he said. “This newly-introduced tool uses a camera to capture the image of each eye. The iris scan is tied to horse records and veterinary-management software. With so many options, I hope the industry will come up with a universal standard to identify horses, but until then, I hope owners will start to apply techniques that work for them to better identify their animals.”
Identification is crucial for biosecurity and regulatory risks, natural disasters, fairness in competition, retrieval after theft and medical record management. Knowing who owns the horse and what that individual wants for that horse is an important reason to have an accurate horse identification system in place.