Freeze Branding for Identification

A "humane form" of permanent identification.

Branding of livestock traces all the way back the to the Middle Ages, when animals were identified by marks burned into their skins with a fiery stick. The practice gained impetus in the New World when Spanish landowners developed large herds of cattle that roamed across Mexico and eventually moved northward into what is now Texas.

Those were the days of open range, when cattle from many owners were intermingled. Branding them with a hot iron was the method of choice for determining ownership. It is a system that is still in vogue today in the West for horses and cattle, and up-to-date brand papers are a must when traveling from state to state, or even from county to county, within a Western state with horses or other livestock.

However, it was learned very early on that there were serious differences involved when branding cattle as compared to branding horses. To put it simply, a cow has a thicker, tougher hide than a horse. Thus, a hot brand might be held in place for up to 10 seconds to leave a lasting scar on a cow or steer. However, if the same were done to a horse, the brand very well might burn into the muscle. With horses, a hot brand is applied for only a second or more in order to do leave a lasting mark, but not impart damage to deeper tissues and muscles.

Freeze Branding

Then along came freeze branding and the "burning" concerns were alleviated. Instead of burning the flesh, freeze branding, as the name implies, makes use of intense cold, produced either by liquid nitrogen or a combination of alcohol and dry ice. The intense cold kills the pigment-producing cells, called melanocytes, leaving an area of pigment-free skin. On dark-colored animals, the hair grows back white, and on white animals an area with no hair generally is the result.

The procedure was developed back in the mid 1960s at Washington State University by Keith Farrell, DVM, and his wife, Pat. They also came up with the Alpha Angle System of identification that early on was adopted by the Arabian Horse Registry. The freeze brand was applied to a shaved area on the animal's neck with a series of symbols that proclaimed the animal's birth date and registration number. Freeze branding soon spread, and today it is used to apply an owner's registered brand to multiple parts of the body.

Some horse owners have a veterinarian do the freeze branding, and others do it themselves.

How It's Done

Gunda Gamble, DVM, a Riverton, Wyo., veterinarian, explains the procedure. First, she says, one approach is to use a combination of 99% isopropyl alcohol and dry ice rather than liquid nitrogen, because liquid nitrogen must be stored in a special container. Either way, the goal is to reach a temperature of about -320ºF. The branding iron is submerged in the liquid, which also contains about a pound of dry ice when the alcohol-dry ice approach is utilized. An advantage of nitrogen is that it reaches the desired temperature more rapidly than does the alcohol-dry ice combination. Normally, the branding iron will reach the desired temperature in five minutes when nitrogen is involved, but it might take up to 30 minutes with the alcohol-dry ice combination.

Not just any branding iron will do. Brass is generally the metal of choice for the branding iron because it retains the frigid temperature. Copper also can be used.

While the iron is chilling, Gamble says, the area to be branded should be clipped and wiped down with alcohol. Normally, she says, she will sedate the horse somewhat so that it stands quietly when the iron is applied. Care must be taken that the horse is not overly sedated, or it will sway from side to side and might even lie down.

When all is ready, the branding iron is placed on the skin. It should have full contact with the skin to allow a consistent connection along all borders, but it should not be pressed vigorously against the skin, Gamble says, or the brand will smear. The iron should be held in place for 45 seconds, then removed. When liquid nitrogen is used, she says, the iron should be held in place only for 15-20 seconds due to the intensity of the cold.

Initially, the frozen skin is indented, then it thaws to leave a welt, which likely will remain for 15 to 30 minutes. The length of time between branding and the appearance of white hair varies. It can take up to two months for new hair growth, according to Gamble.

Take-Home Message

Studies in cattle have shown that freeze branding causes less pain than hot branding, and, according to Gamble, freeze branding is a humane form of equine identification. If you have questions, ask your veterinarian or county extension agent, or work with someone experienced in freeze branding.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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