Last Chance Ranch brands its horses on the shoulder to allow observers to easily identify those that have wrongly been sent to auction. Credit Jackie Burke.
There are lots of potential tragedies that can strike a horse that has been rescued from near-starvation and abuse, but one of the most devastating is the possibility that the horse could wind up at an auction where so-called “kill buyers” are buying up horses to take to Canadian abattoirs.
Most horse rescue groups do everything they can to protect the animals in their care; the ultimate goal is to rehabilitate horses and get them adopted by people who will protect and care for them. Adopters are almost always required to sign contracts that ensure the horse they adopt will not go to auction. The contracts usually guarantee the rescue organizations first right of refusal in the event that adopters can no longer care for the horse, or no longer want the horse. Thus, a horse once rescued should never face the uncertainty of an auction again.
Sometimes, though, people who adopt horses from rescue groups—for any number of reasons—don’t fulfill the contracts they sign. Instead, they try to sell the horses at auction, leaving the horses vulnerable to the possibility of a long, terrible trip and death at the abattoirs.
Kelly Smith of Omega Horse Rescue in Airville, PA says that she started freeze branding the horses she rescues in order to provide one more line of defense for the horse. “We do it for verification for our purposes. It’s our logo.” She says that if someone were to see a horse that came from her rescue at an auction, they would notify her.
Last Chance Ranch, a Quakertown rescue organization, has been freeze branding their horses since 2005. Jackie Burke says that the branding is an effective safety net. “We had one instance of a pony that went through auction,” she says. The people who adopted the pony as a show prospect, Burke says, “kind of outgrew her,” and instead of contacting Last Chance Ranch, the owners dropped the pony at the auction. “Several people at the auction—as well as the auction house—contacted us. We had to buy the pony back, since someone had bought her at the auction.” She reiterates, though, that “The horses actually have to come back to us.” Even when adopters violate the contract, it’s unlikely many rescue groups have the money and resources to sue those adopters.
Burke says that their protocol for ensuring the safety of the horses that have been adopted includes at least one annual contact per year. And the adopters are also required to provide signed verification each year that a veterinarian has checked the horse. They currently have 320 horses they’re tracking.
With Freeze Branding, Horses Don’t Feel the Burn
According to Dr. Eva Conant of Cornell University’s Department of Animal Science, freeze branding is a permanent marking for identification, similar to hot branding. She replied to several questions about the process via email.
“With freeze branding, the iron is submerged in liquid nitrogen until the iron is -300 degrees F, then applied to the skin (after clipping and prepping with alcohol) and held there for between 7-15 seconds depending on the metal used for the brand, the age of the horse and the color of the horse.” She says that within a few minutes the skin where the brand was pressed will begin to swell a bit. Over time, the skin will slough off, and the hair generally grows back white.
She said that freeze branding is an effective identification process. “In the Northeast it is most commonly seen on the neck of Standardbreds who have had some training for the track.” Because it’s more obvious than the lip tattoo done on Thoroughbred racehorses, it’s generally more readable. “The Thoroughbred lip tattoo can be difficult to read due to fading or pigment of the mucosa of the upper lip,” she explained. “Lip tattoos can also be manipulated to change the numbers, whereas while you need to know the key to read a Standardbred freeze brand, they are far less susceptible to manipulation/falsification.”
Freeze branding was developed in Washington State, and has been in use since 1966. Studies have concluded that freeze branding is less painful than hot branding; as freeze branding only affects the pigment in the hair follicles. Hot branding destroys the hair follicles and leaves the skin scarred; hair does not grow back. Researchers used several measurements on cattle that were branded with hot irons versus cold irons. They measured the heart rates, and the amount of cortisol and epinephrine in the blood of animals that were being branded. Increased heart rate and increased concentrations of cortisol and epinephrine were indicative of pain and discomfort, along with the animals’ resistance and attempts to move away from the brands. Animals that were branded with hot irons exhibited more of the clinical signs of pain than those treated with the freeze brand.
The branding iron is applied for less than 20 seconds, and although it may cause discomfort, there are likely far more painful and invasive procedures that horses endure. The branding is aimed at protecting the horse, much as a veterinary procedure such as scoping or drawing blood.
Microchips Also Effective
Smith, of Omega Horse Rescue, says that freeze branding is not the only effective means of tracking the horses she rescues. “We do encourage microchipping,” she says, but it’s not as practical as a freeze brand. “You’d have to have a scanner on hand; it would be almost impossible to go into a pen of a hundred horses and run a scanner.” She said that some rescue groups had thought about devising a national brand, but “we decided to do our own thing.” One group in Texas uses a brand that looks like a hazardous waste symbol, which Smith says she would never consider. Last Chance Ranch uses their LCR logo.