Branding: A First Time Experience

When most hear the word branding, minds jump to old western scenes of roundups, aggressive men and women pinning helpless livestock to the ground and searing their flesh with a red hot iron. If you’re a true crime junkie like me, you might even think of the excruciating mutilation of psychiatric murderers imposed on their victims. No matter where your mind goes, a couple things are usually thought of as common ground: It’s brutal, it’s inhumane, it’s an outdated form of torture.

Credit to the Billings Gazette.

Credit to the Billings Gazette.

Or is it?

Breeding Posey came with a host of responsibilities. First and foremost, her guaranteed safety if something was to happen and there was no way around a forced sale. That meant going things by the book: breeding with value in mind, properly registering and getting her inspected, correct handling, and identification.

Thanks for showing off your best gaits at inspections, P. All the eye rolls.

Thanks for showing off your best gaits at inspections, P. All the eye rolls.

The sad truth owning horses, especially when they’re an extension of your heart and soul, is you will not always be able to protect them. We all joke about bubble wrapping, but what if the danger isn’t themselves? What if it’s something much more sinister?

According to various resources, around 40,000 thousand horses are stolen each year. Living in rural Texas doesn’t automatically mean the possibility of animal theft goes through the roof, but stranger things have definitely happened. Cattle and horse theft have been on the rise the past 10 years in more ranching areas of Texas, despite horse theft at one point being a capital offense.

Fun story: the only horsey person in my family was a great, great uncle who was a pretty prolific horse thief. He was farther north, thankfully!

Additionally, the area of Texas I live in is not too far from the border with Mexico. It only takes about five hours, or 300 miles, to get to the nearest border crossing (62,000 horses crossed the border in 2018, almost 2,000 more than 2017). This means a couple of things, like access to great Mexican food and margaritas. However, with horse slaughter illegal in the US, most horses who are tragedy bound go through southern border crossings to where horse slaughter is legal. Kill pens in the areas surrounding South Texas are often the last stop.

Now, this post isn’t about the merits or lack of in horse slaughter, the cycle of kill buyers and the money of those with big hearts, or a commentary on the state of the US’s lack of a legal way to manage this type of thing. That’s not for me to talk about right now. What this post is about is about owning horses within a particular set of circumstances and doing your due diligence to provide as many opportunities for a soft landing as possible in the wake of tragedy.

Now back to branding.

A quick note: all photos of brand above, well done or otherwise, were submitted to me online or taken myself.

The initial idea, while crass in hindsight illuminated by the modern zeitgeist, was for branding to signify as an identifier; a mark of ownership. Pretty self-explanatory. Unique brands developed, especially in large ranching areas, to reflect the family name or ranch name that livestock belonged too. In Europe, there is a far more developed system of branding to signify breed than in the states.

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One of my FAVORITE old graphics

If you’re in English disciplines, you may have heard one of the following myths about branding.

  • “You can ask for *insert nominal value here* more for a branded horse.”

  • “Americans will only import branded horses.”

  • “Judges score horses with brands higher than ones that are not branded, especially in hunters and dressage.”

Yes, I have heard every single one of those at one time or another. Those are 100% real. I’m sure that some people do this. As I once heard from a breeder, “it’s like buying a sports car - you’re paying for the brand - why would you buy a Mercedes without the ornament?” At at least in my limited experience, this is 100% false.

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What is true is that a truly visible brand can be a lifesaver. Most feedlots in the states are no required to scan for microchips, and honestly, even if they were, most horses are not microchipped. Now that certain registries are requiring them to be done at inspections and the USEF has mandated it for specific disciplines, we’re taking steps in the right direction as a sport. I plan on having both mares chipped when they get their passports. Until feedlots and the average horse owner advance to require chips and scanning for them, there have to be other options.

An example of USEF required chips for certain disciplines. The FEI also mandated microchipped upon application for a passport.

An example of USEF required chips for certain disciplines. The FEI also mandated microchipped upon application for a passport.

If you’re a bleeding heart, glutton for punishment like me, you’re likely to follow a couple of rescue/feedlot pages where horses are posted as a chance to get someone to bail them from the kill buyer. One of the things rescues and kill buys tend to post identifying features, such as OTTB tattoos and brands. It breaks my heart, but I’m usually looking for one thing: a brand on the left haunch of a Warmbloods registry. I’m not alone - many Warmbloods breeders do the same thing. In fact, someone noticed a half Trakehner brand on a grey in a kill pen a few years ago, posted it to the American Trakehner Association group, and within hours, the mare was bailed and reunited with her breeder who had lost her in some unfortunate situation. The mare had an elite pedigree. At the end of the day, if something was to happen and Posey was to vanish or fall into the wrong hands, the visible, distinctive antler brand of the Trakehner would be noticed by someone, and she would be picked up by someone who recognized and understands the history behind that brand. She would be safe.

This is the brand that saved a valuable and loved mare from slaughter.

This is the brand that saved a valuable and loved mare from slaughter.

“But, how could you do that to your foal?!” you’re probably asking. “Why didn’t you freeze brand?! Don’t you know that’s more humane??” Well, I didn’t take the decision lightly, and I did my research, which I will share with you.

Let’s start with the difference between freeze branding and hot branding. Liquid nitrogen/dry ice and alcohol versus heat. Freeze branding destroys the hair follicle’s ability to produce pigment, thus turning the hair white or if applied long enough, eliminate the ability to grow hair altogether. Contact time for freeze branding varies from 8-24 seconds, depending on the metal used for the brand, the color of the horse, and the size of the brand/location of the brand, and must be applied with 35-45 pounds of pressure to the area.

Hot branding, also known as fire branding, requires the heating of a brand in a forge, allowing it to cool down, and only requires a quick “kiss” of the brand on the haunch to leave the mark. Unlike cattle, whose hide is MUCH thicker than horses, hot branding takes less pressure and time. The heat, if applied too long, will sear the flesh and create a scar while also cauterizing the brand, leaving the branding area incapable of growing hair. If applied CORRECTLY, the brand will not eliminate hair growth nor produced a bumpy, bulbous, hairless scar. In fact, after about a month, hair begins to grow back as peach fuzz and can completely regrow hair, if not just a touch different shade.

Maddie’s BLM mustang, Batman, showing off his freeze brand, and Riley’s Holstein, Sienna, showing off her hot brand.

Maddie’s BLM mustang, Batman, showing off his freeze brand, and Riley’s Holstein, Sienna, showing off her hot brand.

There’s a wild controversy over hot branding and freeze branding, with freeze branding generally being deemed “the most humane.” In fact, the topic of hot branding has been largely debated in Europe by the breed societies. This was primarily due to the debate of microchipping verses branding at inspections and fueled by animal welfare activists. The argument is being microchipped is less painful than a hot brand. It’s a valid argument, even though electronic identification and its utilization have very inconsistent application and utilization. However, freeze branding, through many vet studies, has been found to produce the same amount of Cortisol in the bloodstream following freeze and hot branding. Post-freeze branding, there was also more inflammation and pain, most accurately associated with severe frostbite. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein Ph.D., a Canadian federal scientist with a specialty in farm animal behavior, health, and welfare, stated during a study of branding with cattle that “freeze branding should not be sold as a painless procedure because the aftermath is often worse than pain suffered with hot branding.”

But let’s talk about the actual restraint that is required for each for brand to be effectively and cleanly applied and the stress that the process causes.

In freeze branding, there is a lot more preparation necessary than with hot branding. The area being branded must be clipped, cleaned, and alcohol solution must be applied. Think about a young foal - they may not have been exposed to any of those things, then they have to be restrained while the freeze brand is applied for 6-12 seconds (liquid nitrogen) or 16-24 seconds (alcohol and dry ice). Sit down and do something uncomfortable for a solid 15 seconds. Not a quick count, but one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, A L L the way to 15 seconds. That’s plenty of time to develop panic in an uncomfortable, scary, and painful situation, especially for a young foal.

Sidebar. Branding foals is preferential in warmbloods because it is: 1) easier to do, and 2) the brand will grow with the horse and is more aesthetically pleasing. Some breed registries in the states do allow freeze branding, but it is not a widespread practice and there is no overarching rule for all registries

Melissa’s part Trakehner (Appaloosa/Trakehner), Rue, sporting his new American Trakehner Association part-bred brand. Rue was four when he was branded, had even less of a reaction than a foal. The only difference is that the brand will not grow with him like it would a foal. It will stay the same size.

Melissa’s part Trakehner (Appaloosa/Trakehner), Rue, sporting his new American Trakehner Association part-bred brand. Rue was four when he was branded, had even less of a reaction than a foal. The only difference is that the brand will not grow with him like it would a foal. It will stay the same size.

In hot branding, the brand is heated in the forge, then allowed to cool from a high temperature, walked over the foal standing with the dam, which is perfectly oblivious the what is about to happen and happily nursing or grazing. The brander smoothes the area to be branded with a hand, scratches or pats the foal, then gently touches the area to be branded with the iron for less than a second, and walks away. Now think of a time you have burned yourself in the kitchen. If you’re me, that’s any time I try to use an oven. You accidentally touch a hot pan, you look at what you’ve felt, and recoil as your brain begins to recognize the pain. The (I hesitate to say “great”) thing about hot branding is by the time the foal realizes something has happened, the brand has already been removed. No restraint necessary, no preparation, no extended pressure.

Let me tell you how seriously I took the idea of branding my foal. I’ve got what I like to call an “overactive guilty conscious” - I feel guilty or upset over doing anything wrong, actually wrong but even things that are otherwise morally upright. In law school, we have what’s called the Honor Code. I won’t attach it, but if you break Honor Code, and you are caught, either because you broke the code OR because you know of someone breaking the Code, you will be sanctioned. This includes honesty in attendance. Literally, this morning, I talked to my evidence professor, and he mentioned I had a spotless attendance record for his class. I laughed, sat back down, and realized he made a mistake. I did miss a class in January. Keeping that to myself made me spiral into anxiety-fueled terror dome, knowing how that could be inappropriately used, especially since we’re only allowed three absences over an entire semester. I went back to my professor and explained he had made a mistake and he was sort of flabbergasted that it bothered me so much, but I made him mark me absent for the day I missed.

So, take all those feelings and apply them to the most precious things in my life: my horses. I didn’t know how I could live with the traumatic experience of branding my perfect dream foal. How would she ever forgive me? What if it went wrong? None of the breeders I worked for branded, everyone was vehemently against it. I didn’t have any guidance. It was a decision I would have to make on my own, no external advice minus talking to Erin and my dad, and I would have to deal with the consequences of the action.

I turned to my good ol’ friend YouTube to help out. I watched a couple of videos of foals being branded and was pleasantly surprised at the easy, straightforward, and not traumatizing the procedure was. Most foals didn’t even seem to realize what had happened, no kicking or screaming, wide eyes, or panic. It was no more dramatic than a foal’s first round of shots. (see video 1, video 2, and video 3)

Then I learned out who would be conducting the branding for the registry. The new Trakehner breed director was in charge of inspections and branding. Back in Germany, he was an experienced, highly lauded equine veterinarian, certified in branding, and had branded THOUSANDS of horses. This was not some uneducated backyard bumpkin with a bonfire and crude shape on a stick, chewing tobacco and a red hot iron. In fact, branding was an incredibly bureaucratic, business-like process. All three brands (the full brand, the half brand, and the part-bred brand) were flown over from Germany with our breed director. There is extensive paperwork required, including signing by the owner/agent of the horse, the signature from the breed director, and a witness signature. All of this must be done before the brands are even put in the forge.

Both brands for Trakehner inspection (and the half Trakehner brand if it had been necessary) were brought over from the Trakehner Verband. This is how they looked after being in the forge and allowed to cool before using them.

Both brands for Trakehner inspection (and the half Trakehner brand if it had been necessary) were brought over from the Trakehner Verband. This is how they looked after being in the forge and allowed to cool before using them.

All of this being said, Posey’s branding was an extremely professional, low stress situation. I’ve seen far worse reactions of Joy' at the vet’s office. The best part about it was the lack of discomfort after the initial branding. The brand swelled minimally, was never sensitive to the touch, and healed impeccably. After my extensively positively experience, I would not think twice of doing it again on another foal.

We, as horse owners, put in so much love into our animals. Sometimes, that means making tough decisions to protect them in the long run. Safety comes first, and I certainly do not regret the decision. My horses’ welfare is of utmost importance to me, and I would happily do this again if I’m ever lucky enough to raise another foal. She wears her Elk antlers with pride!