Horse Branding 101: Methods, Uses, & Safety

Why and How Horses Are Branded

Horse Branding Practices: Everything You Need To Know

You probably know branding is a common practice in raising cattle, but did you know horses are often branded, too? Branding a horse serves many purposes, and there is more than one method that can be utilized. 

How and why are horses branded? Branding has been used to identify livestock for thousands of years, and the Spanish explorers brought the practice to North America in the 1500s. Horses are branded to prevent theft, settle disagreements over ownership, identify breeds, and set a specific breeding program apart. The most common horse branding methods include fire (or electric) branding and freeze branding.

Keep reading to learn more about the reasons behind the practice, the different methods of branding, and whether or not it’s even safe for horses

Is Branding Safe For Horses?

Branding is generally considered to be safe for horses, though I definitely advise calling in professional (or experienced) help if it’s your first time performing the procedure, regardless of which method you use.

In addition to the horse’s safety, one consideration to keep in mind is the safety of the humans involved. Branders have been known to be kicked or otherwise seriously injured by a horse that was not properly prepared beforehand. 

Some horse owners choose to have a vet come out and provide sedation before branding. This is a popular option among owners with only a couple of horses but it works for larger herds as well.

Some ranchers choose to bring in their (un-handled) yearlings and get everything done at once after the vet sedates them – branding, gelding, and any dental work that needs to be done.

This reduces stress on the horse and allows the foal-human relationship to start off on the right foot (if not sedated, it will be even harder to get those young horses in next time).

Why Are Horses Branded?

There are many reasons that make permanently identifying a horse useful. These reasons revolve around two central themes – recognizing stolen or lost horses and identifying a specific breed or bloodline.

Branding To Prevent Horse Theft

Horses have historically been branded to deter theft. You may assume that horse theft is a problem of the past, but there are still a startling number of horses illegally taken from their owners – some estimate that thousands are stolen in the United States every year.

Without a means of identification, it is unlikely the fates of these horses will ever be learned and even more unlikely that they will ever be recovered. 

It isn’t just elite or expensive horses that find themselves horse-napped, either – though it is hard to hear, there are many countries where horses are slaughtered and used for their meat (the sad fate of “kill pen” horses). Some thieves steal horses simply to make quick money from these buyers.

Branding To Prevent Lost Horses

Losing your horse is a terrifying prospect. Horses escape paddocks, take off on the trails after losing their riders, and break free from their handlers. Horses are strong and smart, and some of them don’t like being confined.

As hard as we work to make sure our fences are secure, and our horses are well-trained, the possibility of losing your horse is not as slim as most of us think. Branding your horse can prevent misidentification issues, increasing the likelihood that you will be reunited with your lost horse.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine had to evacuate from her home as a wildfire loomed over her property. She had very little time to make arrangements but was able to load her horses in her trailer and bring them to the county fairgrounds, where they were to be temporarily housed.

She was not the only one who needed a place for her horses to stay – before long, the temporary accommodations were filled to the brim with horses and other livestock.

Evacuations can occur for a number of reasons, and having a horse that is branded can ensure that your horse goes home with you at the end of the day, and not with someone else.

Horse Branding Can Identify Specific Breeds

One of the most popular reasons for branding is to identify breeds, registries, and specific bloodlines. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to breed-specific branding. For example, Mustangs are freeze branded on the left side of the neck to identify individuals that have been rounded up.

Quarter Horses are branded to identify the specific ranch from which they were bred, using a variety of different methods. Dutch Warmbloods are branded with a breed-specific brand depicting a crest-like lion. Thoroughbreds are identified in a different manner entirely – through the use of lip tattoos. The methods and type of brand used on a horse will depend on the breed, registry, and bloodline.

Other Reasons For Branding Horses

These are the most common, but not the only, reasons for branding. Other reasons may include settlement over ownership disputes (particularly in large herds where mingling can occur between neighboring ranches), providing proof of the transfer of ownership, and identifying specific characteristics of a horse (for example, foal year and gender).

Methods Of Branding Horses

There is more to horse branding than the hot iron that you see depicted in movies and on television. There are a couple of different methods that are used today, each with particular advantages and disadvantages.

Freeze Brands

Freeze branding is considered to be the most commonly used method of horse branding today. It is the opposite of traditional fire branding in that it uses extreme cold, as opposed to heat, through either liquid nitrogen or dry ice.

In this method, the brand must be applied for approximately 8-15 seconds – a shorter brand time will permanently affect the pigment of the hair follicles, turning the hair under the brand white. A longer brand time will prevent the hair from growing back at all. Both forms of freeze branding are performed, depending on the look that is desired.

The reason for the popularity of freeze branding is due to the belief that it is significantly less painful than hot branding. That said, it is also more complicated and requires additional tools and resources. If you are interested in freeze branding, I would recommend finding someone experienced with the process who can walk you through it.

Hot Brands

There are two methods of using heat for branding: fire and electricity. A fire or hot brand is what you usually see in Western movies or media. It is the process of heating a brand over a flame.

Contrary to what you see in the movies, the brand should actually not be red-hot when applying (instead, it should be the color of plain old metal). If it is red, it is too hot and can cause injury and scarring to the horse.

An electric brand is a brand that is heated as it is plugged into an outlet. Electric branding is commonly used when a rancher has only a handful of horses to brand, as it is convenient and easy to heat, but does not stay as hot as a fire brand will.

Hot branding does cause more pain, however because the hide of a horse is so much thinner than that of cattle, a fire brand only needs to be held to the horse’s skin for a couple of seconds.

This means that it is usually over before the horse even realizes what is happening. Branding with heat is also less complicated and requires fewer pieces of equipment.

How Are Horses Prepared For Branding?

One task that is important regardless of the branding method you are using is clipping the hair. It will take more time, leading to more discomfort for the horse, if the hair is left unclipped.

It can also affect the outcome of the brand and how it looks. To do this, you will want to clip a square that is larger than the brand itself. Not only does this make the process cleaner, it also gives you a “template” on which to place the brand when you are ready.

There is also something you can do to help your horse stay calm (and, therefore, safer). After securing the horse, most ranchers will touch the horse on the branding spot with an unheated (or unchilled) brand until the horse is accustomed to the feel and stops flinching.

Once the horse seems to be comfortable with this touch, you will then apply the “real” brand. By the time the horse notices that it feels differently than the last time, the process will be finished.

The Cold (or Hot) Reality Of Branding Horses

Branding is unpleasant for the horse – there is no way around that. But so are a lot of other things to which we must subject our livestock when being good stewards of our animals, like castrating, vaccinating, and medicating.

If you decide to brand your horse, or if you have no choice but to brand for registration or legal purposes, there are things that you can do to make the process easier on your horse. Limit the stress to the animal, get them used to the pressure of the iron before officially branding, and let them get on with their day.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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