A recent viewer’s comment saying she was appalled by our inflicting pain on our horses with a hot branding iron caught me by surprise, because that’s not what we do. We use the pain-free method of freeze branding, and I am happy to explain the process and the reasons I believe it to be in our horses’ best interests.
Livestock brands have been with us since ancient times. They can be very important in protecting your horses and identifying them as belonging to you. While there are a number of ways to mark ownership of a horse, branding, especially freeze branding, is by far the most effective. Freeze branding leaves a permanent, easily visible mark on the horse. If a horse is stolen or has escaped in Montana’s backcountry, freeze brands can be seen and identified from afar—from over a mile with the use of binoculars. Hot brands often fade with time and are much less visible. Tattoos and microchips cannot be seen at all from a distance, and in the case of microchips, special equipment is needed to verify them.
Theft of horses is much more common than many suspect. Horses are rarely kept behind locked gates, are often in pastures far away from their human owners, and are trained to be led and handled by humans. Reports of stolen horses in the US exceed 55,000 per year, and that is generally thought to be less than half of the actual numbers. Stolen horses are commonly transported to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico. However, transport of horses across national borders requires livestock brand inspection papers, and therein lies the safety aspect of a visible brand. Horses with brands cannot be sold at auction or taken across the US borders without the proper brand inspection papers.
Brands can also be very helpful in reuniting a horse with their owner should they become separated in Montana’s backcountry. This also is not an uncommon occurrence, and has happened to Dunrovin horses. Let me tell you the story!
About fifteen years ago, I took my young son and his friends on a multiple-day trip deep into the Sapphire Mountains to mine for . . . you guessed it, sapphires! We had a great four days of digging and sluicing along a creek about 18 miles in from where I had parked our horse trailer. It was me, my son, his friends, and another friend of mine who had the mining claim. Well, I let our three horses off of their high line in the morning to graze. Now I know that you should never leave horses to graze freely for more than about 20 minutes or their minds start to wander. I had left the horses off each morning for the previous four mornings, but on this morning I got caught up in starting to pack for home. Yup, you guessed it again. I got distracted and waited about five minutes too late, so when I went to gather them, they ran off, FAST. In moments they were out of sight. Well, to make a long story short, my friend and I lined up the young boys with strict instructions to stay in camp playing games while we went walking and tracking. It took us several hours, but we did manage to find and retrieve the three horses.
Boy, did I learn a lesson. And boy, was I glad that my horses all had brands. Had I not found them that day, I certainly would have spent the rest of the summer looking for them. But had some other backcountry user found them, they would have known exactly how to reunite them with me. Simply go to the nearest stockyards to find a brand inspector and look in the brand books, and voila, here I am!
By the way, the boys found lots of sapphires and had a wonderful and very memorable trip. They still kid me about losing the horses.
Brands are registered with the departments of livestock of each state and recorded in the brand books. The brand is essentially a legal document. It is specific to the type of livestock and placement on the animal. Our brand is a right-shoulder equine brand (horses and donkeys). The brand is described as a “lazy D” with a “hanging R.” It is meant to convey the two words that have been combined to form Dunrovin—Done Roving. Wikipedia gives an excellent account of brands and their terminology.
Freeze brands are applied to the horse with a cold iron. The best metal for a freeze brand is brass. First the horse’s hair is shaved where the brand will be applied, then the iron is frozen by immersing it in dry ice or liquid nitrogen. The brand is applied to the horse’s shaved skin with even pressure for a short period of time—more time if the horse is very light colored. The brand freezes the hair follicles, and the length of time the brand is applied under pressure determines whether the hair grows back as white (on a dark-colored horse, for example) or not at all (on a light-colored horse) to leave a dark line for the brand. My vet always gives the horse a local anesthetic before applying the freeze brand. The horses have absolutely no discomfort before, during, or after freeze branding.
Below are photos taken while branding Chinook. As you can see, he shows no discomfort at all with the process.
These photo of Chinook were taken within a month of his being branded. You can still see that the hair has been shaved and that the hairs under the brand are growing out white.
The truth is that I love my brand. It is a simple, clean symbol. I love seeing it on my horses as it pleases me to have that signature denote the we are all in this together. It takes time, effort, and money to design and register a brand, so many horse owners do not have them. Several of my friends who have a single horse has asked me to affix my brand on their horses so they too can enjoy the protection that it affords. I always agree. I am happy to be a go-between for their horses should they be lost or stolen.
Here is Chinook staying in a back country corral provided by the Lolo National Forest at their facility near Holland Lake, Montana. The trail starting at Holland Lake goes into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area for hundreds of miles. These are exactly the type of circumstances when horses can easily be lost or stolen; and brands can play a very important role in keeping them safe. Thieves avoid stealing horses with a brand because they understand that they will not be able to sell them easily.
Lady Lonza’s brand comes through as a dark line against her tawny champagne coat.