Identity Crisis: Why Marking Your Horse Is Still Important

Many of us have childhood memories of our mothers putting our mittens on strings, writing our names on our tack and grooming equipment before heading off to a show, or monogramming a horse’s sheet so you know which one was yours. And while we all still have orphaned sheets and horse blankets in our tack rooms, the indelible marker method works pretty well. But what about your horse—is it still necessary to be able to identify your horse? And more importantly, can you prove that that horse really belongs to you?

Why ID?

Although still a hanging offense in some states—Western states in particular have a long memory for this sort of thing—horse theft in the U.S. is not as uncommon as you might think. The numbers of horses stolen within the United States each year range from 40,000–55,000; however, for every horse reported stolen, it is assumed that 1–2 thefts occur that go unreported. What’s worse is that this is a growing problem for both horses and cattle. And if these numbers don’t scare you, factor in the number of horses that go missing due to natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, or a downed fence that lets horses and cattle alike roam free. While theft is a common means for a horse to go missing, it is by no means the only culprit.

The History of the Brand

When most of us think about marking a horse, branding is generally the first thing that comes to mind and has long been the most common means of identifying animals and marking ownership. Egyptians branded the royal herds, and evidence of these early round-ups can be seen in wall paintings of ancient tombs going back as far as BC 2780. When Cortés arrived in Mexico in the early part of the 16th century, he marked his Spanish horses with three Latin crosses. Not even one hundred years later, Coronado pushed into the southern reaches of the United States with branded cattle. By the time the great Texas cattle drives began in the years just prior to the Civil War, branding and reading brands had developed into a Western art form.

Mark Your Territory

Why has so much effort and ingenuity been put into marking animals for well over 4,000 years? Not only does branding prove ownership, but it also deters theft. Let’s look at the different options available for marking your horse.

Hot-Iron Branding

When most of us think of branding, we think of mugging down a calf while eating a fair amount of dust. Two people hold while one brands. It’s a rather traumatic experience for the calves, but for most of us, it’s a day of hard work but good times spent with family, friends, and neighbors. The principles of hot-iron branding have remained the same since the Egyptians with the exception that fires to heat the brands most likely come from a propane tank instead of some old fence posts. The iron is heated in the fire, and once hot, it is applied directly to the horse’s skin. Thanks to the wonders of modern pharmaceuticals, using a sedative or analgesic can minimize any pain experienced by the horse.

Hot-iron branding is the most commonly performed type of identification for cattle, but definitely less so for horses. Why? We cringe at the thought of hurting a horse, and hot branding iron seems like it would do just that. I spent some time talking about brands with Pete Olsen, a Montana State District Brand Inspector. With 26 years of experience, Olsen has a long memory for brands as well as a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. And of all of the identification methods available to horse owners, he still prefers the old-fashioned, hot-iron brand for the simple reason that if you “put a good brand on the horse, it will be recognized. A clear, visible brand is a ‘return to sender’ mark on a lost cow or horse.”

Freeze Branding

A popular alternative to hot-iron branding is freeze branding. Freeze branding is just what it says it is—instead of red-hot branding irons, super-cold branding irons are cooled in liquid nitrogen or dry ice and alcohol and then applied to the horse’s skin. The melanocytes, cells that produce the hair’s color pigment, are killed, causing white or colorless hair to grow in at the brand site. Freeze branding is especially popular with horse owners because the brands stand out on the horse and, we hope, a super-cold iron is not as painful as a hot iron.

Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 1.23.14 PM
Freeze-branded hip—notice the white hair grown in at the brand site

If you have a light-colored horse such as a grey, buckskin, palomino, or a roan, freeze brands are generally not a good option as an identification mark. The horses’ coats are simply too light to provide the necessary contrast between the coat color and the white hair at the brand site.

The New Age of Branding

In recent years, branding has taken on a new life as a vanity plate or an advertisement for a ranch. If a horse walks into a pen with that certain brand, we all sit up a bit straighter and expect to see something special. On the East Coast, where the majority of states do not require brands, many ranches or breeding facilities have taken to branding their horses simply for marketing purposes. While these brands are often not registered, these brands easily identify the ranch or facility from which these horses originate. Bell Performance Horses uses the “bell” brand on the horses the operation owns because the brand is easily identified with the ranch. Other easily recognized brands include the Babcock Ranch’s chevron or Greg Ward’s running GW.

Brands are also used to indicate bloodlines. The historic Four Sixes Ranch in Texas, 1993 winner of AQHA’s Best Remuda Award, brands its horses to indicate ranch lineage, year foaled, and sire or dam. In certain instances, foals with similar markings are born. In these specific cases, as an additional method of ensuring proper identification, those foals will also be microchipped. The Four Sixes registers about 85–100 foals per year, so they need to be certain which foal is which.

There are different categories of livestock brands, and reading brands can be a voyeuristic peek into a ranch owner’s state of mind. Livestock brands fall into four different categories: humorous (walking “S”), sentimental (the Diamond Ring Ranch), illustrative (bell), and risqué (dragging “A”). Brands under the heading of humorous or risqué can often be found in old bars and bathrooms, and part of the fun of brands is reading them as they are meant to be read.

Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 1.23.24 PM
Risqué brand—the ever-popular “Too Lazy to Pee”

Altered State

It’s not unheard of, even as we move into an age of nanotechnology, to find “doctored” brands. According to Pete Olsen, freeze brands are especially susceptible to alteration, although hot brands can be modified as well. Even worse, it’s not always easy to tell when brands have been changed.

Whether you are hot branding or freeze branding, keep in mind the following pointers:

  • If you’ve never branded a horse before, find a person with lots of branding experience to help you. Not only will you learn how to brand, the chances of you injuring the horse or getting injured yourself are greatly reduced.
  • When applying a brand, minimize the discomfort for the horse by using a sedative or analgesic. Talk to your veterinarian about possible recommendations.
  • Properly applied brands are applied to the skin, not through the skin.
  • If the brand doesn’t “take” or appear clearly, you will need to rebrand the horse. Apply steady pressure long enough for the branding iron to leave a clear, readable mark.
  • A brand grows with the colt to which it was applied. As the colt grows, so will the brand.
  • Both hot branding and freeze branding produce thermal injuries, so some healing time is necessary with either type of brand. Be prepared to see some skin welting at a freeze-brand site.
  • Hot brands are not considered to be legal until the brand begins to peel. Freeze brands are not considered to be legal until the white or colorless hair grows in at the brand site.

Freeze Marks

Before we get any further, let me just say this: freeze marks are not freeze brands. About the only thing that freeze marks have in common with a freeze brand is that both are cold, very cold. But while an entire horse or cattle herd can be marked with a freeze brand, no two freeze marks are alike. Freeze marks denote the horse as an individual by using a combination of nine capital letters and numbers, incorporating individual elements that are characteristic of that horse.

Freeze marks were developed by Washington State University veterinarian Dr. Keith Farrell in the 1960s. The Bureau of Land Management has been using freeze marks since 1978 to mark each horse as an individual. Freeze marks can be somewhat of a challenge to read, especially on horses sporting winter coats. These symbols are protected by copyright, and owners of horses bearing this mark will receive cards describing the symbols as well as identifying marks on the horse.

Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 1.23.33 PM
Horse with freeze-marked neck—notice the combination of letters and numbers, marking the horse as an individual. This particular horse was from the Pryor Mountains and adopted through the Bureau of Land Management’s wild mustang adoption program.


Microchipping a horse as a means of identification is the new kid on the block. Like freeze marks, microchips can be compared to a person with a Social Security number or your truck’s vehicle identification number. Each person (or vehicle) is assigned only one, and no two are alike. Two microchips dominate the equine implant market, the AVID® Microchip and the Schering-Plough HomeAgain® Microchip Identification System. Of the two, AVID has specifically addressed the possibly usage of its microchip in horses.

Keep in mind that inserting the microchip is only half the job. Each chip comes with paperwork that must be filled out and returned to the manufacturer in order to register that specific chip number to that horse. You will also supply information about the horse as well as contact information for the owner of record in case the horse does go missing.

Some benefits of the microchip? Any licensed large-animal veterinarian can implant the microchip, and you don’t need to worry about a possible infection of the brand site. But there are some drawbacks to microchipping to consider. The chip can migrate—just because it was implanted at a certain site doesn’t mean it will stay at that site. The microchip scanner could malfunction, causing the chip to go unread. Whereas a brand can act as a homing beacon for a lost or stolen horse, a microchip can only do so if the identification number can be read.

In the US, microchips are most commonly used for companion animals, namely dogs and cats. However, outbreaks of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (more commonly known as BSE or Mad Cow disease) and Foot and Mouth disease in Europe and an isolated instance of BSE in Washington state and Canada have made front-page news around the world. Rising concerns about disease control and food safety here in the US and abroad have identified the possible need for a national identification system for livestock. Undoubtedly, many horse owners have received a torrent of email about the United States Animal Identification Plan (USAIP), mandatory microchipping by 2006, and how it impacts their horse. For now, mandatory identification deals more with food animals, i.e., cattle, pigs, and sheep. Should the governing bodies of the different breed associations deem it necessary, room has been left within the plan itself to accommodate equine microchipping.

The mandatory identification topic arose at the October 2003 American Horse Council meeting in Washington, D.C., and the discussion continued at the United States Equestrian Federation meeting in mid-January. For now, most breed associations, including AQHA, are taking the “wait and see” stance about the possibility of mandatory microchipping for horses. The equine industry needs more information, and above all, mandatory microchipping must be safe, affordable, and effective. For more information about the USAIP and how its potential effects on the horse industry, please go to and read the most recent press releases regarding this issue.


It is not uncommon for racehorses to extend their careers as either a performance horse or in the rodeo arena, so don’t be surprised if you come across a horse that has a numeric tattoo applied to its upper lip. Tattoos aren’t just a fashionable accessory for racehorses—it really acts as a definitive form of identification. A horse cannot start in a sanctioned AQHA or Jockey Club race without a tattoo. Registration papers are necessary, but the tattoos are also important as the horse cannot start in a sanctioned AQHA or Jockey Club race without a tattoo.

Approximately 27,000 new Thoroughbreds are tattooed each year. The tattoo number is added to the horse’s registration papers, thereby entering its permanent record. AQHA and Jockey Club both sanction individuals to apply tattoos. Racetracks then hire those individuals to perform tattooing at the track. For more information about AQHA’s policies regarding tattoos as well as a listing of individuals who can apply tattoos, please go to

Inspecting the Brand

Don’t forget about brand inspections—even if your horse doesn’t have a brand, most Western states still require a brand inspection to cross county and state lines. There are three different types of brand inspections: trip permits (from point A to point B, such as a sale, public auction, or out-of-state destinations); annual permits allow travel only within the state for an entire year; and permanent/lifetime brand inspections allow travel within the US as long as ownership of the horse does not change. For example, let’s say that you have an annual brand inspection for your horse but need to cross into a neighboring state for a cutting futurity. In this instance, you will need to get a trip permit from your local brand inspector. However, if you see a lot of interstate travel in your near future, it would be easier and more economical to get a permanent or lifetime brand inspection. Remember, states may have different laws regarding travel and brand inspections, so check before you load your horse in the trailer and head on down the road. You will be held liable if you are found to be without a proper brand inspection.

To find your local district brand inspector, check with the Department of Livestock, Department of Agriculture, or Stockgrowers Association for your individual state. Although some veterinarians are licensed to write a brand inspection, this is not always the case. A couple of helpful things to remember:

  • Brand inspections are not health certificates, and health certificates are not brand inspections!
  • Even if your horse is “slick” and does not have a brand, you will still need a brand inspection if you live in a brand state or are traveling to or through a brand state.
  • When buying a horse, check that the bill of sale identifies the horse and depicts any brands or marks on that horse. Verify that these same marks also appear on the horse’s registration papers. Don’t lose the bill of sale or the registration papers as you’ll need them when applying for a brand inspection.

The Paper Chase

If you hadn’t guessed by now, performance horses require a LOT of paperwork. Breed associations such as AQHA or APHA issue registration papers and numbers for every registered horse. Hot brands, freeze brands, freeze marks, and microchips also require either an additional permit, registration certificate, or laminated card. If you’re thinking that all of this is some recycling waiting to happen, think again. What you really have is an opportunity to get organized. Here are some ideas to get your paperwork in order—and keep it that way:

  1. Gather all breed registration papers, brand inspections (current and expired), and Interstate Certificate of Veterinary Inspection (ICVI) or health certificates (current and expired). After sorting, you should have one stack per horse.
  2. Scan all paperwork for each animal, saving it to a thumb or flashdrive.
  3. Add current paperwork to the drive. As a brand inspection or health certificate expires, don’t throw it out. Instead, move expired paperwork to a file cabinet or drawer to keep a paper trail. Again, use one folder per horse. This paper trail can be yet another way to prove ownership over a period of time.
  4. Make copies of this information and store it in a different, secure location like a fireproof cabinet, safety deposit box, or a spare flash drive.

Preventing Theft

Like much of life, preventing the theft of your horse has as much to do with common sense as anything

  • Be a good steward of your livestock. Aim to do a visual check at least once per day of all of your livestock, either with your own eyes or those of someone you trust. By simply keeping an eye on your horses, you reduce the chances that horse thieves get a head start on their getaway, or more likely, that your horses haven’t had a nasty encounter with the fence.
  • Use two or more identification methods to mark your horse definitively. At least one of these identification methods should be a brand or mark that is clearly visible from a distance.
  • Record identification markings with state and national registries, if applicable. If you have a horse that is unregistered, the United States Equestrian Federation provides an equine identification chart is clear and easy to use. To download these forms, go to
  • Take detailed photographs of your horse showing these identification marks. These photos should include close-ups of particularly identifying marks such as blazes, hair whorls, chestnuts, and scars.
  • Keep registration papers, all brand inspections (even out of date), and veterinary records in a secure, fireproof location. A long and detailed paper trail could be pivotal in proving ownership or finding a stolen horse. Detailed records should include the type of identification mark, location of that mark, and if possible, the individual responsible for applying that identification mark.

After a Disaster

We can all think of any number of horrible things that could happen—wildfires, blizzards, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, or someone making off with your horse in the dead of night. But while you (hopefully) have rational and logical thinking on your side, your horse doesn’t. What can you do to help keep your horse safe in the event that the worst really does happen?

  • Use any two of the above-mentioned identification methods to clearly mark your horse. Again, make sure those identifying marks are recorded with the appropriate registries. Keep detailed, accurate records of those marks and identification methods readily available to prove ownership.
  • Have accurate, up-to-date photos of all of your horses. Make sure that those photos clearly document any identifying brand marks within the photos.

Who Can You Call?

You’ll need a current copy of the yellow pages handy because you’ll probably need to make several phone calls in order to find your missing horse. Good places to start include state brand offices, livestock auction yards, surrounding veterinary clinics, equine facilities, racetracks, fairgrounds, the humane society, the sheriff’s office, tack shops, and feed stores. And never underestimate the power of talking to other horse owners.

While there are several options to consider for marking your horse, new technology is not always the best method. The most important reason to mark your horse is so that someone else can identify that horse as belonging to you and get them back to you as soon as possible.


  • American Quarter Horse Association.
  • AVID Equine ID.
  • Collector, Stephen. Law of the Range: Portraits of Old-Time Brand Inspectors. Livingston: Clark City Press, 1991.
  • Donald, J. Amelita. Horse Theft Prevention Handbook. Lexington: The Blood Horse, Inc., 1999.
  • Duncan, Susan. “Microchip Identification of Horses.”
  • Four Sixes Ranch.
  • Schering-Plough Home Again ID.
  • United States Equestrian Federation.
  • Wolfenstine, Manfred R. The Manual of Brands and Marks. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.

Specials thanks to Pete Olsen, Montana State District Brand Inspector and Dr. Tom Linfield, Montana State Veterinarian. This article was originally published in Performance Horse in 2005.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Great article — thank you for taking the time to gather all the info :)) Dawn


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s