This brings us to our discussion this week - how do you permanently identify a horse? Humans have photo IDs, social security numbers, fingerprinting... but what about horses? (Hoof-printing isn't exactly going to do it!) There are several ways to permanently identify a horse:
1. Tattooing or Freezebranding
2. Digital Coggins
3. Blood/DNA Typing
5. Iris scanning
Freeze branding is similar to tattooing. In Standardbred racing, a letter and numbers are used in the same way, but the brand is usually placed on the neck under the mane. The intense cold kills the pigment-producing cells which leaves an area that differs in color from the surrounding tissues. Outside of racing, many farms will register a freeze-brand pattern that identifies horses (or cattle) as belonging to that particular farm. Some breeds (warmbloods in particular) also have a specific brand to identify a horse as belonging to that breed registry. While a farm- or breed-brand can be helpful in identifying a horse, it's not individually specific. Freeze brands can also become less easily read over time.
Horse blood contains 16 common antigens and proteins. This is akin to the A-B-O blood types in humans. This means that there are over 125 billion different combinations of these proteins that can result. By analyzing the blood and determining the blood type, horses can be identified. Currently, this process is typically used to determine blood donors and it has been replaced by DNA typing. Given that either of these tests takes 3 weeks to get results, they are not typically an efficient means of identification for horse owners. DNA typing is much more useful to prove lineage, and is sometimes used in breed registration.
Iris scanning works like fingerprinting. No two irises are alike, even in clones. A specialized camera takes a picture of the unique features of the iris of each eye and then an identification code is applied. The pictures are uploaded to a database and stored along with pedigree registrations and medical information. Just like with microchips, the horse is added to a national registry to aid in recovery. The added benefits will be the addition of coggins and health certificates in the future. While they have been working on this for the last 10 years, the technology is still in its infancy and we are unsure of the applications in the future.
So what is the best system for your horse? Before you decide, there's something to keep in mind. Recently the USDA announced the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). This is voluntary program intended to identify animals and record their movements for the purpose of disease management and control, otherwise know as animal disease traceability. Since this is mainly directed at livestock, the USDA has appointed an Equine Species Working Group to review the NAIS and help adapt it to the equine industry. Basically, the government is asking for people to permanently identify their horse in such a way that they can be easily traced if any disease outbreaks occur. For the time being, "permanent ID" refers to either a digital Coggins or electronic ID (microchip).
Permanently identifying your horse is very important. Not only is it a security blanket if he/she is lost or stolen, but it also aids in tracking disease outbreaks. If you routinely move your horse off the farm for competitions, shows or just recreation, you may want to consider more types of identification than just a Coggins.