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Horse Branding – The Complete Guide

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Horse branding allows horse owners to easily identify and prove ownership of their horses.

Horse branding is using an iron tool to permanently ‘mark’ a horse with a specific ranch’s identifying symbol.

This is especially beneficial in cases of possible theft, during natural disasters, and at equine events.

Horse brands are registered with state or local livestock brand registries so that a ranch’s specific brand is on file and easy to trace.

This makes it a snap for them to determine to which ranch a branded horse belongs.

Brands cannot be removed because they permanently alter the horse’s hair or skin.

Livestock brand stamp in the fire

With some farms having hundreds of horses on their property, branding is a way of displaying a permanent proof of ownership.

Horse brands not only help horse owners, but they help other equestrians as well. It lets others easily know what ranch a horse they see at an event comes from.

Horse branding also helps ranch owners establish reputable horse lines that are easy to recognize.

Methods of Branding

There are two similar, yet distinctly different forms of branding called freeze branding and hot branding.

The concept and goal are the same, but the results differ.

Freeze Branding

Freeze branding involves using a branding iron that is chilled in an extremely cold cooling agent to freeze a brand into a horse’s coat.

Freezing agents can either be a dry ice and alcohol combination or liquid nitrogen.

Freeze branding results in either a loss of pigment or a loss of hair in the shape of the brand, depending on the amount of time it is pressed against the horse.

A shorter application of a freeze brand will cause a color discoloration but no hair loss.

This would have to be done in a darker colored area of the horse’s body because it destroys the pigment of the affected hair, creating a white area of hair in the shape of the brand.

The other option is to apply the freeze brand longer to permanently freeze off and essentially destroy the growth follicles in the hair.

Livestock brand on horseback with cold liquid nitrogen technique

This results in complete hair loss in the shape of the brand. (source)

5 Basics Steps for Applying a Freeze Brand

Freeze branding can be done by experienced branders or by veterinarians. These are the basic steps for how the process works.

  1. Prepare the area on your horse that you want to brand. Wipe off any excess dirt and clip a square shape in the selected area.

    The area clipped should be double or three times as big as your brand.
  2. Cool the branding iron in the dry ice or liquid nitrogen.

    This takes anywhere from 30 seconds to up to a minute.
  3. Clean the clipped area with alcohol and then smooth a significant amount of alcohol to the area.

    This removes oil and creates a barrier that assists in the freezing application.
  4. Press the chilled branding iron to the area, making sure it is placed correctly.

    Make sure your brand is right side up. Remember, this is permanent, so you want to do it right the first time.

    There are no do overs in horse branding.
  5. Use a timer if needed to correctly time the brand application.

If you are only wanting color discoloration, 7 seconds will work. This is best for dark colored horses.

For permanent hair removal with freeze branding, 12 seconds is ideal. You should not exceed 12 seconds.

Remember, you may need to do the latter for lighter colored horses. (source)

What to Expect

Almost immediately, you will see a clear indentation in the pattern of the brand that you used.

After about 10 minutes or less, the branded area will swell. It will stay swollen for around a week.

When the swelling subsides, you may not see the brand at all, but have no fear.

After a month, you will notice the top layer of skin shedding off in the branded area.

If you branded for a shorter time to only create discoloration, you will see white hair going in the branded area after about 2 months. (source)

Hot Brand

Often referred to as fire branding, hot branding involves heating a branding iron to the point that it burns the horse’s hair follicles and skin where it is applied.

Two branding irons heating in a burner

It destroys the hair and sometimes creates a scar in the shape of the brand.

The iron can be heated by fire or electronically, but the result is the same: The hair will never grow again in the specific area that was hot branded.

It is important to know that branding horses is different than hot branding other livestock.

Horses have thinner skin than other farm animals like cattle, so the actual branding time is shorter for horses.

The brand should not be placed on horses for more than a couple seconds, less for darker colored horses and with stainless steel branding irons.

Branding a horse for too long can result in severe burns and infections, as well as unneeded pain for the horse. (source)

5 Basics Steps for Applying a Hot Brand

  1. Clean the area before branding but make sure it is completely dry.

    Hot irons should never be applied to a wet coat.
  2. Place the branding iron onto a bed of hot coals or simply turn it on if it is electric.

    Do not heat irons in the actual flames of the fire.
  3. Make sure the iron is hot enough but not too hot.

    The brand should not be red hot. Instead, it should be a grey ash color. Black means it is still too cold.
  4. Make sure the horse is properly restrained.

    Hot branding does generate some pain to the horse, so they may flinch, jump, or move a little when they feel it.
  5. Gently press the hot iron to the horse to apply the brand for just 1 to 2 seconds!

Hot branding horses is different than other livestock.

Their skin is thinner and too much pressure can cause a severe burn instead of simply destroying the hair.

Is Branding Cruel? Does It Hurt the Horse?

Horses branding, when done correctly, is not cruel.

Many people argue that horse branding, especially hot branding, is cruel because it causes severe pain and burns.

The pain a horse endures during hot branding should be minimal as the brand is only on their skin for a couple seconds.

A freeze-branded mustang wearing a cowbell patiently waits on the line of a pack string

It can get dangerous and painful for horses if an inexperienced brander applies a hot brand too long and causes severe burns.

Freeze branding is considered pain-free for horses and can be performed by a veterinarian for added assurance.

Freeze branding is gaining popularity because it only destroys the hair pigment or follicle, but it does not actually burn the skin.

It is more cruel to not brand a horse at all in some areas because unbranded stolen horses are extremely difficult to track down.     

Brand Locations – Best Place to Put the Brand

Most horse owners place brands on their horses in certain, easy to spot areas on the horse’s body.

Either shoulder or hip tends to be the most popular locations on horses that are branded.

The point of branding is to make owner identification easier, so they should not be hard to find.

Check with your state’s branding regulations to see if brands must be put in certain areas on horses to be registered.

Some people opt to brand in the rib area, on the neck under the horse’s mane, or on the horse’s jaw.

Those branding areas are not common and may not be recognized in your state.

How to Design a Horse Freeze Brand

It is important to design a brand that is easily recognizable.

Many brands include a letter or two letters that are placed in a circle, diamond, or square, or placed beside slash marks, crosses, or other symbols.

They are simple, yet unique to the ranch they represent.

You will want to work with a custom branding iron maker to create the perfect brand for your herd.

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Make sure the brand meets state livestock brand registry requirements.

    Each state is different and may have regulations on the size, location, and other requirements of livestock brands.
  • Take the horse’s age into consideration.

    Brands will grow along with a young horse, so you should compensate for their potential growth.
  • Custom brands make take a couple weeks to design and then another week to ship.

    Do not expect a speedy turn around for custom designed branding irons. There is a lot that goes into the work and it cannot be rushed.
  • Custom brands typically cannot be altered after they are made.

    You should be 100% sure that the design you send to a branding iron company is the one you want.

    Once a custom iron is created, there is little that can be altered. Most irons would have to be completely redone if the design is changed.

Where to Buy a Custom Freeze Branding Iron

Livestock brand on horseback with cold liquid nitrogen technique

If you live in the right area, you may know of a local company that designs branding irons.

Consult with your equestrian contacts to see if there is one near you.

If you cannot find one in your area, do not be discouraged. There are plenty of companies that allow you to order custom branding irons online.

Here are just a few:

L & H Branding Irons
Long View Ranch
Pittsburg Foundry

What Age Can You Freeze Brand a Horse?

There is no specific age for when a horse can be freeze branded. A horse of any age can be safely freeze branded.

Freeze branding does not burn the skin, therefore there is little chance of infection or even pain for the horse. (source)

Can You Put Your Brand on a Horse That is Already Branded?

Yes, you can put a brand on a horse that already has a brand.

You will want to make sure that you register your brand and add it to your horse’s registration markings.

Have the brand placed in a different area of the horse’s body than the existing one.

Only add a brand if you plan on keeping the horse for the foreseen future.  

Can a Brand Be Removed?

An existing brand cannot be removed from a horse after it is put on.

Once it is there, it is always there.

That is the reason for branding in the first place. The brand cannot be removed by someone who stole the horse and wants to keep it hidden.

Final Thoughts

Horse branding is one of the best ways to prove ownership of your horse.

Branding is not only ideal for cases of theft, but also extremely beneficial during natural disasters.

Horse branding is not a cruel practice if done right but freeze branding does offer a pain-free experience for the horse.

With the right tools and the right help, you can get your custom-designed brand on your horses.