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by Kim and Kari Baker


Mirror KB Equine Article Series

Missing Horse Identity Crisis
by Kim and Kari Baker

Can you accurately describe your horse, to anyone, whether or not they have any knowledge of horses? And even so, what makes your chestnut gelding stand out from the hundreds of other chestnut geldings in your community, let alone the country? Though the bygone days of "horse thievery is a hanging offense," is well behind us, horse theft still remains a very real concern for horse owners of today. However, theft isn't the only reason horses can turn up missing. Horses are often able to liberate themselves from their stables or pastures while natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes also give rise to a real chance your horse can become lost. What should you do if you find that your horse is missing?

First, immediately call your local law enforcement officers, both the local police and county sheriff, and fill out reports of the missing horse. Also notify veterinarians, brand inspectors, and farriers within your state and neighboring states. Inform everyone you know, your neighbors and friends, then put up posters in as many feed and tack shops as possible. Routinely check out all sales yards, horse auctions and slaughterhouses within a 200 - 500 mile radius for the next few weeks. The main object is to get your story told.

Unfortunately tracking lost or stolen horses can be difficult when reports are inaccurate or even incomplete. Therefore, all of the aforementioned steps are nearly useless without a detailed description of the missing horse. For this reason it's a good idea to create a complete signalment, or identification file, for each horse you own. Signalment, is one of the oldest identification methods for horses and is merely a drawing of the horse's markings on a body outline. For greater ease in denoting the exact location of markings and to insure a reliable representation of each horse, the drawing is divided into several sections showing the entire body, both right and left sides, the head and legs. Your outline should include the location of all hair whorls and any other distinguishing feature such as brands, tattoos, and scars - including saddle, girth, and harness marks or sores. It can also be helpful to add any health problems your horse may suffer from. Be sure to keep this information up to date by appending new scars and any change in the coat color or patterns. This is especially important for horses known for color changes, such as seen in the Appaloosa or greys.

To your identification file include a full written description of each horse, including the horse's sex and color. It might also be a good idea to insert a copy of your horse's registration papers, bills of sale or transfer-of-ownership papers. Providing photographs showing each side of your horse, all four views, can also aid in identification. Be sure to photograph your horse sporting a halter only and include close up shots of any unique identifying characteristics. A close up photograph of each of your horse's chestnuts is also advisable. Chestnuts are the horny growths located just above the knees and below the hocks on the inside of the horse's front and hind legs. Each chestnut is unique for every horse and are considered a rough match to that of the human fingerprint. Although they can be altered, it is very unlikely most thieves will take the extra time to surgically modify your horse's chestnuts.

horny chestnut - front leg~horny chestnut rear leg
(left) Chestnut - front leg (on right) Chestnut - rear leg

Visible Permanent Identification Methods

Brands, permanent marks or tattoos not only assist in the identification of a lost horse, thieves are less likely to steal horses that are exhibiting such marks. If the horse is stolen it will be easier to track and recover. For this reason you might consider permanently marking your horses by using one or more of the following methods.

hot brand Hot brands, though not used as widely as they were at one time, still remain an ever present mark of ownership on large outfits in the west. For these traditionalists the ritual of colt branding may be more than just a method of identifying ownership of livestock. It is an inherited custom of the west, a ritual that is not likely to be replaced all too soon. Too, there is a special pride enjoyed by any horseman that is lucky enough to be riding a horse marked with a well known brand, an extra ingredient lacking in many of the other forms of permanent horse identification.

Freeze mark on a white body coatFreeze marks, in contrast to hot branding, is a comparatively new form of permanent identification. It involves a relatively painless procedure developed by Beverly P. Farrell and Michael Mucha where the use of liquid nitrogen is employed to chill an iron to minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit. An iron, designed by Dr. Keith Farrell, involves the use of various right-angle symbols and is usually applied to the horse's neck. These symbols represent the breed registry it is affiliated with, the horse's date of birth and his registration number. When the chilled iron is applied to the hide of a dark coated horse for about eight seconds, the pigment producing cells are destroyed and new hair growth comes back in as white. On white or grey horses the iron can be applied for a longer period of time which will then stop all hair growth leaving a permanent bald mark, much like a hot brand does.

Freeze brand - initials~Freeze brand - emblemFreeze brands physically work the same way as a freeze mark. The only difference is that a freeze brand proclaims ownership of an animal by using a ranch or vanity iron. Like the traditional hot brand, freeze branding irons are generally created by using a combination of the letters of the alphabet along with digits and/or symbols. It should be mentioned that both hot brands and freeze brands should be recorded with the state and/or county clerk's office. Registering your personal brand will not only prevent others from using it, it will also assist law enforcement officers and brand inspectors to easily determine ownership of lost horses and speed up the process of filing theft reports.

faded lip tattooLip tattoos, were adapted in the mid 1940's for use in identifying race horses, primarily to prevent fraud and the number of ringers brought onto the tracks. The lip tattooing system patented by the Jockey Club in 1947 was made from a tattoo die head of chrome-plated brass containing an average of 300 high carbon steel needles and was modified from the earlier tattooing system used by the United States Army Remount Service.

Unfortunately all of the above permanent identification systems are not perfect. Though hot brands make a permanent scar, hair can eventually grow over the brand making accurate identification a challenging task. Freeze marks and brands can be hidden by hair dyes for short periods of time while lip tattoos will often eventually fade making positive identification difficult. Although each method can be altered to some degree, the fact that a horse carries an easily identifiable mark will deter the common criminal that is looking for a fast easy way to make a buck.

Covert Means of Identification

The use of Electronic ID (EID) was developed in the 1970's and is regarded by many as a high-tech form of branding. Though they are easily detected by low frequency radio signals, miniature microchips measuring eight hundredths of an inch in diameter and less than half an inch in length are imperceptible to the eye when implanted in the nuchal ligament area of the horse's neck. Electronic identification may very well surpass all the other forms of permanent identification when it is necessary to quickly and accurately identify individual animals, but unfortunately falls short in actually deterring theft when compared to other methods of permanent ID. However, if used in conjunction with a visible brand or mark, law enforcement agencies perceive EID as an effective instrument in quelling any doubt in the ownership of a horse.

Molecular biology, the science of DNA testing, also presents us with a very effective method of identification, though by and large it is presently used only by breed registries to prove genetic identity of breeding animals. Most horses have 64 chromosomes and within each of the 64 chromosomes is the genetic code that is responsible for producing the features and characteristics that are unique to every horse. While deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is an excellent and unalterable form of identification, it is not a realistic method for law enforcement or slaughter houses to use in identifying a stolen or lost horse due to the time and cost that is involved in testing.

All in all, while permanent identification marks maybe useful in deterring theft or retrieving lost animals it does not replace the owners viable responsibility to provide an accurate description of their animals. Most horse owners believe that they can provide an instant, precise description of their horses, but find that when actually faced with the task, it is much more difficult than they had anticipated. For this reason it's wise to take a few moments now to record a description of each horse that you own rather than wait until you step out to feed your horse one morning and find the stall door open and your horse missing.

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