Equine Identification

With natural disasters, horse thefts and fears of slaughterhouse errors broadcasted across the news and the Internet, having reliable equine identification is increasingly important.

We all agree that permanent horse ID does two things: It proves who your horse is, and it proves that you are the owner. The best method is foolproof, low-cost, widely accepted and used, and non-invasive.

PHOTO IDS. The simplest form of equine ID is a complete set of photos. That means front, back, both sides, in winter fuzziness and summer shed out. If you body clip your horse, take photos both before and after. While photos don’t prove who your horse is or if you own him, they are essential for lost-and-found posters to spread everywhere if your horse goes missing.

BRANDS. Permanent forms of identification include hot branding. Just like the name implies, it’s burning a pattern into your horse, generally on a flank or on the neck under the mane. Hair grows in white or may never grow back. The plus is that it’s impossible to remove and difficult to tamper with. it’s also easy to spot from a distance. The big drawback is pain. it’s not pretty either.

Freeze branding was popular for a while. The results are similar to a hot brand but less painful for the horse. Again, it’s permanent but not aesthetic. You may need to clip the hair around it to keep it visible, especially in the winter months.

Most freeze brand markings use a set system for individual horse ID. The brand is generally up under the mane and gives specific information about that horse. The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) uses this system for its horses and burros.

Standardized brands start with a letter for the breed of horse or its state or origin. Then come two numbers to represent the year of birth, followed by either the horse’s registration number or an assigned number. Kryo-Kinetics Associates keeps records of these brands. With this system, horses can be entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

Note: Your farrier can burn a brand into your horse’s hoof, too, but it’s easily tampered with and not permanent, as the hoof grows out. Don’t bother with that one.


 Tattooing the inside of the upper lip is the staple of the horse racing industry.? Judging by the reaction of horses to a lip tattoo, it’s believed that it isn’t painful, and they’re generally not sedated.

While some tattoos may fade, our own Thoroughbred mare had a clear tattoo to the day she died at 30 plus years of age. Because of its location, a tattoo might be missed, especially, for example, on a nervous horse at an auction.

A tattoo can also be difficult to read in that location (to help, dry the upper lip with a cloth and use a small flashlight, angling it in different directions to get the best view).

Racing organizations, like The Jockey Club (Thoroughbreds), Appaloosa Horse Club, U.S. Trotting Association (Standardbreds) and the American Quarter Horse Association, normally use lip tattoos for identification,

If you purchase a horse with a lip tattoo, you can contact the registry for information about the horse. For Thoroughbreds, the tattoos start with a letter (the letter represent the year the horse was born) followed by four or five unique numbers. Usually racing Quarter Horses have tattoos with four of five numbers, followed by a letter. Arabians and Appaloosas are numbers (end of the registration number).

NATURAL IDS. Some registries have used photos of the chestnuts, aka night eyes, as identification. These are the horny type growths above the carpus (often called knee) in the front leg and are often also found near the hock on the rear legs. Drawbacks are that the outer layers can peel or be pulled off, potentially changing the appearance.

Cowlicks or trichoglyphs can be used, too. These often appear on the neck or the head. Some registries, like Morgan and Thoroughbred, will record cowlicks.

THE EYE-D. The newest high-tech horse identification technique involves an iris scan that looks at the patterns of the iris in your horse’s eye. Because no two equine irises are alike, the iris scan results are considered even stronger than a human fingerprint.

An infrared photo is taken once a horse is over 10 to 12 months of age. The horse must stand absolutely still for an accurate image. The image is then processed through computer software to make up the ID. The horse then receives a 15-digit alpha-numeric code, which is termed the horse’s “eyeD.”

The scan must be performed by a veterinarian who has purchased the eyeD camera. The resulting permanent digital photo, called the “eyePrint,” is stored online, along with information about the horse, including owner, breed, veterinary records and so on, in a database called “eyeSync.”

The system has major pluses in that 1) Iris scans are unique and permanent and 2) The procedure is non-invasive. However, as with all new technology, it lacks a widespread adoption.


DNA testing is definitive. While we tend to think of doing DNA testing via blood samples, this can be done with some plucked hairs. Pull gently to keep the hair bulb intact for plenty of material to test. This is most commonly done for paternity testing, not for individual ID, as it takes a while for the sample to be sent to a lab, tested and the results returned. It certainly wouldn’t help at an auction! The Jockey Club and American Quarter Horse Association require DNA testing on all foals they register.

DNA testing is unique but expensive and time-consuming. it’s an inarguable identifier, but it can’t be verified at a distance or quickly.

MICROCHIPS. Microchipping is the most common way to permanently identify animals, especially dogs. Despite much noise to the contrary, no associations have been shown between microchips and cancer. A small, rice-sized chip encased in a nonreactive coating is injected into the nuchal ligament on your horse (under the mane). Theoretically, a microchip could be removed, but this would require surgery and leave a small scar.

Each microchip has a unique number that can be scanned and read back to ID the individual horse. There are national databases with scanning IDs and the main players all work together to assure immediate results. Most animal control officers, veterinary clinics, slaughterhouses, auctions and other places that might check equine ids now have universal scanners (at a cost of usually under $400) that can read nearly all chips.

Microchips provide permanent id, are aesthetic but can’t be noticed at a distance and do require a scanner. Some states are moving to require microchips for horse identification for things like Coggins testing and to assist in returning horses after natural disasters.

A microchip with no backup info won’t verify who your horse is or if you own him, so if you choose to microchip expect to pay the microchip company, in addition to the veterinarian, to be placed on their database. These fees are small in the overall picture of horse ownership, but they can be critical.

Among the companies handling equine microchips are AKC CAR (Companion Animal Recovery), MicroChip ID Equine and AVID (American Veterinary Identification Devices). There are many more, and you’ll want to discuss the alternatives with your veterinarian.

However, if your horse is competing in Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) disciplines, be sure you get the right chip. The FEI requires you to have your horse microchipped (new rule as of 1-1-2013), and the microchip must be compatible with ISO 11784 and IS) 11785. These are 134.2-kHz microchips, such as Bayer ResQ and HomeAgain/Digital Angel.

At this time, the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) has not implemented a similar requirement, although it would stand to reason that this may be forthcoming. Prior to implanting a new microchip, all horses should first be scanned for existing microchips.


We recommend microchipping. It’s relatively painless and the number can be obtained and researched in minutes. More Equine ID Information.

That said, keep an eye on the development of eyeD. Its main drawback right now is the lack of widespread adoption and use.

Article by Contributing Veterinary Editor Deb Eldredge DVM.

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