The debate about the use of hot iron branding for identifying horses is becoming as heated as the branding iron itself. Critics of the procedure maintain that it causes pain and stress, which is no longer acceptable since the advent of microchip technology.
Others point out that not everyone carries a microchip reader with them. At least brands are easy enough to read without special equipment. Or are they? Recent work suggests that hot iron branding is not as accurate a means of identification as its supporters claim.
Until recently, horses were generally branded but following concerns that the practice is unnecessarily cruel there has been a gradual switch towards the use of microchips. Branding has essentially been discontinued in the European Union, although it is still accepted in several countries. Breed registries claim that this traditional method is perfectly satisfactory and obviates the need for costly equipment. Typically, a brand will comprise a symbol to indicate the particular breed combined with a two-digit number to identify the individual animal.
Comparisons between the two methods for identifying horses have focused on how they are perceived by the animals: does either method cause more stress or more harm to the horse?
Surprisingly, however, no attention has been paid to the other side of the coin. There is no doubt that microchips can be unambiguously decoded, providing the necessary equipment is available, but how well can brand marks be read? The issue has now been examined by Jörg and Christine Aurich of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna.
According to the study, reported in the Veterinary Journal, three breed experts could only accurately identify the brands on less than half of the horses presented to them.
To assess the legibility of the markings, the researchers asked three experienced people to record the brands of 248 horses participating in an equestrian tournament in Germany.
All three experts were able to recognize the breed symbols on about 90% of the animals. For about 84% of the animals the symbol was recorded correctly by all three people.
However, reading the two-digit numbers proved more problematic. While each of the three readers correctly read the numbers on about half of the horses, the correct number was recorded by all three of them for less than 40% of the animals.
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