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Branding in Horses

by Anja Huehmer
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A horse brand is a mark that is burned into the skin using a heated branding iron. Alternatively, a freeze branding can be carried out using a stamp tempered to minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit.

Why Are Horses Branded?

A brand serves, in particular with horses, but also with cattle, to mark the affiliation to a breed. It is therefore a marking that makes it directly recognizable for every observer which breed the horse is. Every horse breeding association therefore each has its own brand for differentiation, which often looks like a coat of arms and is specified in the breeding program.

What Is the Process of Branding?

A branding iron is used to burn the brand into the animal’s skin, which is heated to such a high temperature that it burns the skin on contact. Scar tissue forms over the burned parts of the skin, so that no fur can grow back, which makes the brand permanent. As an alternative to hot branding, freeze branding can also be considered. In this case, the iron is cooled down to minus 112 degrees using liquid nitrogen. On contact with the skin, the pigment-forming cells of the upper skin layer are destroyed. As a result, only uncolored, i.e. white fur can grow back at this point, which is retained as a brand. However, the most common method is still hot branding.

What Types of Brands Are There?

The breed brand of the different horse breeding associations is usually supplemented by a number brand to make the identification of the horse even easier. Furthermore, registration brands are common, which are carried out for example at mare performance tests or at the time of registration to a breeding register and are specified in the breeding program. Stud brandings are also common, which indicate the stud origin of the horse, or breeder brandings, where all horses of a breeder are marked with the same brand. In the case of a breed brand, the brand is usually burned into the horse’s left hindquarters. In stud branding, on the other hand, the right hindquarters are common. In registration branding it is commonly the side of the neck, while numbered brands are located in the saddle area.

Tradition and Controversy at The Same Time

The branding of horses has a long tradition as a method of identification and is used by all breeding associations to mark the breeding area of the horse. Regardless of whether the horse is used in equestrian sports or only for breeding, it receives such a mark as a foal. Long before there were any stud books or breeding registers as official documents, it was common practice to mark the breed or the owner of a horse in this way. For example, the branding method was already a proven technique among the Sumerians to enable the identification of stolen horses. Even in the Middle Ages, branding was common practice; for forgeries even the death penalty was imposed. This method proved to be helpful very often because it was not always possible to identify the horse unambiguously due to its individual appearance. In addition, many horse owners could not read or write and therefore needed a unique identification feature.

Today, microchips are also frequently used for identification purposes, which has led to an increasing controversy regarding animal welfare. In addition, the discussion was triggered by questions of animal disease control in connection with the animal traffic regulations. Some veterinarians and animal welfare activists plead for the abolition of branding, as it causes severe burns in foals. This leads to pain symptoms, distraction, and impaired suckling and playing behaviour in young horses. The burning is more painful than the implantation of a transponder chip and could be faulty, making the branding difficult to read in the long run. Advocates of branding, on the other hand, argue that mammalian skin is naturally prepared for injuries and that the long-term effects of chipping are not yet foreseeable. Unlike the chip, the brand would not cause inflammation, which remains in the horse as a foreign body for the rest of its life and may begin to migrate. The risk of complications is significantly higher with the microchip than with the proven marking methods. In addition, the foal recovers very quickly after the brief shock during the branding process.

Arguments For Branding

  • Foal recovers quickly after a short shock
  • Skin prepared for injuries due to evolution
  • Effects of the chip on physical and mental health of the horse are unknown
  • Implantation of chip can lead to complications, inflammation, etc. (also due to migration)
  • Branding is safe and unmistakable, directly visible to the naked eye
  • Brand also serves as a trademark for horses from Germany
  • Transponder has failure rates
  • Branding does not cause persistent pain

Arguments Against Branding

  • Causing severe burns, not compliant with animal welfare
  • more painful than implantation of a chip
  • Symptoms of pain
  • Disturbed and impaired suckling and play behaviour
  • Brand is faulty; characters may not be clearly legible



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