Preparing for the Worst

Horses are delicate creatures. Despite their size and strength, they can be afflicted by a host of ailments. Their use in equestrian sports, their curious nature, and their boisterous social interactions can easily put them in injury-causing situations. As valuable animals, they can attract thieves.

Given these risks, more horse owners are choosing to protect their equine investments via insurance and permanent identification. While neither of these options can stop bad things from happening, they can help us recover the horse or pay for medical care.

Come Home Safe

Although many horse owners don't like to consider the possibility, there are any number of ways we can be separated from our horses and need help locating them and returning them home. While thieves and hurricanes seem a remote possibility to many of us, something as simple as a broken fence board can allow a horse to wander free.

Permanent identification options include traditional choices such as brands and tattoos, as well as microchips. The latter has come to the forefront over the last decade.

AVID (American Veterinary Identification Device) started using chips in horses during the 1980s. A focus on companion animal identification in the mid-1990s increased awareness of the technology for equines, and the number of horses chipped in the United States has climbed to nearly one million.

"Confidence in the technology and successful recovery stories in dogs are well known," says AVID Equine Vice President Jean Ann Mayhall. "Many horse owners have dogs that are chipped. They feel comfortable with the chip and think, 'Hey, if the chip works for my dog, it will work for my horse, too.' "

Mayhall cites standardization among companies in the microchip industry as further supporting the boost in usage. Chips from different companies can now be read using a universal scanner, and the injection site (within the nuchal ligament on the left side of the neck) is also used, leading to easier location of the chip.

Horse recovery networks have become available and are using microchip identification. These networks are private databases storing owner contact information along with horses' identification numbers. Once a missing horse is located and scanned, these networks can match the chip number with the owner's information.

As well as locating owners, national networks such as HORSEtrac (a member of the AVID Group) can also issue a missing horse alert that includes the horse's microchip number and a digital photograph to state brand inspectors, veterinarians, partner rescue groups, a theft awareness program called Stolen Horse International, and equine slaughterhouses.

"It is our goal to stop horse thieves before they strike, by making it hard for them to move or sell a microchipped horse," Mayhall says.

Because micrchips aren't visible, Mayhall suggests owners use a microchip along with a visible form of identification, such as a tattoo or brand, and they should post notification that their horses are microchipped to further dissuade would-be thieves.

Branding still has a strong following in the western United States. Although it is only required by law if the horse is run on open land, Terry Menlove, brand bureau chief with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, says that freeze branding has become a popular option for those wanting to identify riding horses.

"I've noticed an increase in branding in event horses (horses used for competition)," says Menlove. "It seems it's becoming more common--I think people are seeing these as valuable animals and they want to identify them permanently."

Lessons Learned

Hurricane Katrina provided yet another strong case for the need to identify horses using a permanent method. The state of Louisiana requires that all horses have a form of permanent identification, which is recorded on the horse's yearly Coggins test.

Bonnie Clark served as the Horse Unit Coordinator for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture's State Veterinarian's Office after Katrina. She had the responsibility of identifying the 364 horses brought to the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, La.

"The biggest problem was the number of gaited, grade, and Quarter Horse-type horses with similar markings," says Clark. In one case, two people claimed the same perlino stallion. With no markings, the horse's identity could only be verified by his microchip number, which his rightful owner had recorded.

"If nothing else, hopefully the nation will understand that you can alter a brand or a lip tattoo, but you can't alter a microchip," says Clark. "There's no way you can argue with it."

Proposed Requirements

A hot topic in equine identification, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) is a proposed federal requirement that all livestock in the United States have permanent identification and records of movement, with the goal of enhancing disease-tracking capabilities.

While the USDA categorizes horses as livestock, their place in NAIS hasn't yet been determined. The Equine Species Working Group--a coalition of more than 30 horse industry members including veterinarians, breed registries, horsemen's associations, and state agriculture departments--makes recommendations to an NAIS subcommittee, which reports to the Secretary of Agriculture's Advisory Committee on Foreign Animal and Poultry Diseases.

At this time, the Equine Species Working Group is supporting the horse industry's voluntary participation in NAIS, and it doesn't anticipate the program becoming mandatory unless the Secretary of Agriculture deems there is a foreign disease threat. Several states are working independently to register their horses and premises early.

For more information on NAIS and the Equine Species Working Group, see

Insurance--Protecting Your Assets

Along with the emotional burden, the costs associated equine illness, injury, and death can be a secondary blow. That's why more horse owners are choosing to protect their investments by insuring their horses.

"Insurance serves one purpose--to protect an investment," says Jim Lane, an equine insurance agent from Marysville, Ohio. "If the loss of a horse, business, home, etc., will cause any kind of financial hardship, it needs to be insured against. Some people choose to self-insure, but most of us don't have the resources to do this."

As well as protecting your assets, having insurance coverage can also help to make a difficult medical decision a little easier.

Pat LeBlanc, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVA, director of the Michigan State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, says that a basic colic surgery without complications will cost $4,000-$5,000.

"Normally, we require payment when the animal is discharged, but who has $5,000 sitting around?" asks LeBlanc. While LeBlanc's hospital offers CareCredit (a financing plan that structures payments on veterinary and medical bills), not all veterinary hospitals and clinics are able to do so.

Policies providing coverage for major medical procedures can significantly reduce the financial burden associated with providing the best care for your horse. Covered procedures can include diagnostics, treatment, surgery, and even medication if it's required to maintain the horse's health.

Lane says a policy providing mortality/theft coverage, combined with major medical endorsement, accounts for about 80% of all the policies he sells.

Trends within the larger scope of the equine industry also play a role in the type of policies owners choose. Lane sees a strong correlation between the type of policies and the caliber of horse needed in today's equine competition.

"I have been seeing an enormous increase of mortality and major medical policies," Lane says. "I think this is due to the fact that (middle class) people are finding ways to afford more expensive horses. To be competitive in any equine discipline, one needs more horse than was necessary 10 years ago."

But whether your horse costs $25,000 or $5,000, Lane says if your horse is a substantial investment, that investment is worth protecting.

Protecting Yourself

Lane has also seen a recent growth in customer's requests for liability coverage. A personal liability policy covers injury or damage caused by the covered horse, while a commercial policy covers farms, show grounds, and equine professionals such as trainers.

"Liability has become such a buzzword of late that a lot of my clients are making sure they are covered in the event of a lawsuit," Lane says.

In a society often described as "litigious," some equestrian organizations, including the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), provide automatic liability insurance to their members.

Provided through Equisure, this coverage kicks in as soon as a person becomes a competing member of the organization, providing up to $1 million in liability insurance for any horse-related accident, both on and off the show grounds. Equisure has been providing this type of coverage for the USEF for 15 years. Other breed and discipline organizations, including the Arabian Horse Association and the United States Polo Association, have also made group insurance a standard benefit of membership.

"It's nice to have that extra comfort level of coverage in case of a catastrophic event," says Scott Carling, assistant executive director of marketing and communications for the USEF. "Our members find it to be a valuable perk."

Take-Home Message

While there are no guarantees that identifying and insuring your horse will keep him safe, taking steps to protect your equine partner and investment can help your peace of mind.

About the Author

Erin Ryder

Erin Ryder is a former news editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.

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