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Horse Facts and Tips
First Posted: Aug 13, 2009
Apr 5, 2011


Livestock Branding

Livestock branding is any technique for marking livestock so as to identify the owner. Originally, livestock branding only referred to a hot brand for large stock, though the term is now also used to refer to other alternative techniques such as freeze branding. Other forms of livestock identification include inner lip or ear tattoos, earmarking, ear tagging, and RFID tagging with a type of micro chip. The semi-permanent paint markings used to identify sheep are called a paint or color brand. In the American west, branding evolved into a complex marking system still in use today.


The act of marking livestock with fire-heated marks to identify ownership has origins in Ancient times, with use dating back to the Ancient Egyptians. In English Lexicon, the word brand originally meant anything hot or burning, such as a firebrand, a burning stick. By the European Middle Ages it commonly identified the process of burning a mark into stock animals with thick hides, such as cattle, so as to identify ownership under animus revertendi. The practice became particularly widespread in nations with large cattle grazing regions, such as Spain.

These European customs were imported to the Americas and were further refined by the vaquero tradition in what today is the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. In the American West, a branding iron consisted of an iron rod with a simple symbol or mark which cowboys heated in a fire. After the branding iron turned red-hot, the cowboy pressed the branding iron against the hide of the cow. The unique brand meant that cattle owned by multiple ranches could then graze freely together on the open range. Cowboys could then separate the cattle at round-up time for driving to market.

From the Americas, many cattle branding traditions and techniques spread to Australia, where a distinct set of traditions and techniques developed. Livestock branding has been practiced in Australia since 1866, but it was not until 1897 that each owner had to register his brand. These fire and paint brands could not then be duplicated legally.

Modern Usage

Free-range or open range grazing is less common today than in the past. However, branding still has its uses. The main purpose is in proving ownership of lost or stolen animals. Many western US states have strict laws regarding brands, including brand registration and required brand inspections. In many cases, a brand on an animal is considered prima facie proof of ownership.

In the hides and leather industry, brands are treated as a defect, and can diminish the value of the hide. This industry has a number of traditional terms relating to the type of brand on a hide. Colorado Branded (slang Collie) refers to placement of a brand on the side of an animal, although this does not necessarily indicate the animal is from Colorado. Butt branded refers to a hide which has had a brand placed on the portion of the skin covering the rump area of the animal. Clean skin is the term used to describe an animal without a brand. Native refers to a skin without a brand.

Methods of Branding

The traditional cowboy or stockman captured and secured an animal for branding by roping it, laying it over on the ground, tying its legs together, and applying a branding iron that had been heated in a fire. Modern ranch practice has moved toward use of chutes where animals can be run into a confined area and safely secured while the brand is applied. Two types of restraint are the cattle crush or squeeze chute (for larger cattle), which may close on either side of a standing animal, or a branding cradle, where calves are caught in a cradle which is rotated so that the animal is lying on its side.

Bronco branding is an old method of catching cattle on Top End cattle stations for branding in Australia. A heavy horse, usually with some draught horse bloodlines and typically fitted with a horse collar, is used to rope the selected calf. The calf is then pulled up to several sloping topped panels and a post constructed for the purpose in the centre of the yard, to be branded there. With the advent of portable cradles this method of branding has been mostly phased out on stations. However there are now quite a few bronco branding competitions at rodeos and camp drafting days, etc.

Some ranches still heat branding irons in a wood or coal fire, others use an electric branding iron or electric sources to heat a traditional iron. Gas fired branding iron heaters are very popular in Australia as iron temperatures can be regulated and there is not the heat of a nearby fire. Regardless of heating method, the iron is only applied for the amount of time needed to remove all hair and create a permanent mark. Branding irons are applied for a longer period of time to cattle than to horses, due to the differing thickness of the skin. If a brand is applied too long, it can damage the skin too deeply, thus requiring treatment for potential infection and longer-term healing. Stock that are wet when branded may result in the smudging of the brand. Brand identification may be difficult on long haired animals and may necessitate clipping of the area in order to view the brand.

Horses may also be branded on their hooves, but this is not a permanent mark and needs to be re-done about every six months. Merino rams and bulls are sometimes fire branded on their horns for permanent individual identification.

Temporary Branding

Temporary branding is achieved by heat branding lightly, so that the hair is burned but the skin is not damaged. Because this persists only until the animal sheds its hair, it is not considered a properly applied brand.

Freeze Branding

An excellent link on freeze branding

A white marking on the crest of a horse's neck is created by freeze branding. This form of marking for identification is nearly painless. In contrast to traditional hot-iron branding, freeze branding uses a branding iron that has been chilled with a coolant such as dry ice or liquid nitrogen. Rather than burning a scar into the animal, a freeze brand damages the pigment-producing hair cells, causing the animal's hair to grow white where the brand has been applied. To apply a freeze brand, the hair coat of the animal is shaved so that the bare skin is exposed, then the frozen iron is applied to the bare area for a period of time that varies with both the species of animal and the color of its hair coat: Shorter times are used on dark colored animals, simply causing the hair follicles to lose all color and regrow as white hairs. Longer times are needed on animals with white hair coats, as the brand is applied long enough to permanently stop the hair from growing in the branded area and only skin remains.

Freeze brands cause less damage to the animal's hide than hot iron brands, are less painful, and can be more visible. Horses are frequently freeze-branded. Also, freeze branding is slower, more expensive, less predictable (more care is required in application to assure desired results) When the horse grows a long hair coat, the freeze brand is still visible, but its details are not always clear. Thus, is it sometimes necessary to shave or closely trim the hair so that a sharper image of a freeze brand can be viewed.

An animal that is going to have a freeze brand applied will need to have the hair shaved off of the branding site. Hair is an excellent insulator and needs to be removed so that the extreme cold of the freeze branding iron can be applied directly to the skin. Then the freeze branding iron, made of metal such as brass or copper that retains a cold temperature, is submerged into the coolant. Immediately before the freeze branding iron is ready to be applied the animal's skin is rubbed, squirted, or sprayed with a generous amount of 99% alcohol, then the freeze branding iron is removed from the coolant and held onto the skin with firm pressure for several seconds. The exact amount of time will vary according to the kind of animal, the thickness of its skin, the type of metal the branding iron is made of, the type of coolant being used, and other factors.

Immediately after the freeze branding iron is removed from the skin an indented outline of the brand will be visible. Within seconds, however, the outline will disappear and within several minutes after that the brand outline will reappear as swollen, puffy skin. Once the swelling subsides, for a short time, the brand will be difficult or impossible to see, but in a few days, the branded skin will begin to flake, and within three to four weeks, the brand will begin to take on its permanent appearance.

Horse Branding Regulations

In Australia all Arabian, Part Bred Arabians, Australian Stock Horses, Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds and the 9 pony breeds registered in the Australian Pony Stud Book must be branded with an owner brand on the near (left) shoulder and an individual foaling drop number (in relation to the other foals) over the foaling year number on the off shoulder. In Queensland these three brands may be placed on the near shoulder in the above order. Stock Horse and Quarter Horse classification brands are placed on the hind quarters by the classifiers.

Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds in Australia and New Zealand are freeze branded. Standardbred brands are in the form of the Alpha Angle Branding System, which the United States also uses.

In the United States, branding of horses is not generally mandated by the government, however, there are a few exceptions: Captured Mustangs made available for adoption by the BLM are freeze-branded on the neck, usually with the Alpha Angle Branding System or with numbers, for identification. Horses that test positive for Equine Infectious Anemia that are quarantined for life rather than euthanized will be freeze branded for permanent identification. Race horses of any breed are usually required by state racing commissions to have a lip tattoo in order to be identified at the track. Some breed associations have at times offered freeze branding as either a requirement for registration or simply as an optional benefit to members, and individual horse owners may choose branding as a means by which to permanently identify their animals. Currently, the issue of whether to mandate horses be micro chipped under the National Animal Identification System is generating considerable controversy in the United States.

Lip tattoo

Symbols and Terminology in Branding

Branding Iron

Most brands in the United States are capital letters, numerals, other symbols (such as a slash, circle, half circle, cross, and bar), and combinations thereof. Brands of this type have a specialized language for "calling" the brand. Some owners prefer to use simple pictures; these brands are called using a short description of the picture. Brands are called left to right, top to bottom, and outside in.

Letters and numerals can appear upright, reversed, or turned 90 degrees so that the character appears to be lying down or lazy. Terms used are:

  • Upright symbols are called normally.
  • "Crazy" reversed symbols, e.g., "Crazy K."
  • "Lazy" symbols turned 90 degrees, e.g., "Lazy 5."
  • "Flying" a letter that starts and ends with a long serif or horizontal line.
  • "Rocking" a letter set on top of a quarter circle.
  • There can also be certain combinations such as with two lines (e.g., "double flying" then the letter).

Combinations of symbols can be made with each symbol distinct, or:

  • "Connected" with symbols touching, ().
  • "Combined or conjoined" symbols are partially overlaid.
  • "Hanging" symbols are touching, but arranged top to bottom.

A Note

Horses have extremely sensitive skin. They can feel a tiny insect on their skin. We all know not to pat a horse but rather to stroke a horse because they are so sensitive to touch. It should also be noted that the horse's hide is not as tough as cow hide. Just think how this relates to hot branding. Senses of the Horse

For More Information:

Extension - Identification Other Than Color Markings
Horse Identification

Horse Facts and Tips