In the 2002 animated movie Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, there is a scene when U.S. Army soldiers capture Spirit and attempt to incorporate him into the U.S. cavalry. You can watch the scene here: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
At the end of the scene, you can see the farrier attempting to use a hot "US" branding iron on Spirit. In 1853, the United States military started branding their horses on the left shoulder with the "US" mark showing the horses belonged to the United States government. In the mid 1880s, the branding was modified to include the number of the regiment below the company's letter on the left hip. When a horse was decommissioned, it was branded with a "C" for "condemned" on its right shoulder.
Tracking individual horses in the military had become an arduous task. Farriers relied on physical descriptions in their logs to track when each horse was last shod and their age. Can you imagine trying to track twenty bay horses with star markings or twenty chestnuts? As one can imagine, this method proved to be very inaccurate and disorganized.
Around the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865,) the Preston system was developed where a unique four-digit serial number was burned into the front hoof of each horse. The problem with hoof branding was farriers needed to re-brand the numbers every six months and sometimes the numbers would become illegible if the hoof wall was damaged. In 1912, the military started experimenting with lip tattoos placed on the inside upper lip for identification. By WWI, lip tattooing had replaced hoof branding.
Today in the United States, freeze branding has replaced hot iron branding as a permanent branding method. Freeze branding uses liquid nitrogen and alcohol to take the dark pigment out of the skin, making the skin white and the hair grow white. The only horses that are branded today by the U.S. Government are captured Mustangs set up for adoption and horses that are carriers of equine infectious anemia. The brand placed on Mustangs contains the registering organization (the U.S. Government), the year the horse was born, and then the serial number.
Mustang gelding adopted out by the Bureau of Land Management (USA). You can see its freeze brand on the left side of its neck near the mane's crest. Photo by Ealdgyth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Hoof branding can still be done if owners wish to have their horses branded temporarily. Some horse owners have branded their zip codes on their horses' hooves if they are in a high risk danger area where they may need to evacuate quickly. Some horse clubs will also brand hooves for special memberships.
Lip tattoos are still used today on certain breeds and racehorses to match them with their registration papers which includes their full name, birth year, breed, owner, and history. It is also a way to help identify stolen horses.
Branding is starting to give way to micro-chipping. It's still very new in the equine world, but as people are becoming more familiar with it, I can imagine most registered horses being chipped in the near future.
Horse Owners - do any of you have a branded horse?
I am Amy. I love movies, TV, and horses. I grew up with horses and taught kids how to ride during my summer breaks from school. Now I am a country girl living in a city hoping to someday move back into a rural area and own a horse again.