Beginning January 1, 2019, the Canadian Standardbred registry, Standardbred Canada, moved away from identifying registered horses by freeze branding and implemented the system of microchipping instead. There are many benefits to microchipping, but as these horses are now reaching racing age – a lot of major issues are coming to light and there is an extreme push by racing members and the concerned general public alike, to bring back freeze branding as mandatory alongside the chip.
The harness racing community shares, and should share, a common goal to put the welfare and wellbeing of these horses above all else in the industry. After all, these horses are the reason the industry can exist. These horses deserve a thriving future, even when their racing days are completed. Racing is always under the microscope for ensuring animal welfare is at the forefront, and by making the freeze branding a continued necessity, alongside the addition of the microchip, this would 100% ensure that these horses have every opportunity for the potential at a safe future. We will look at aftercare funding in another post so for this purpose, we are focusing only on the identification aspect.
Let’s talk microchipping first, because I believe it’s an essential need for the future of the industry. Microchipping enables improved tracking of animal disease for the welfare of the horse, easy identification for importing and exporting overseas and maximum verification recovery in the event of the animal being lost or going across a border. It also allows for a backup if a freeze brand become illegible or is tampered with and eliminates the need for re-branding.
The downside to microchips is that they are known to move within the body. Which means, they may be hard to find if they have moved from the original implantation site on the upper left side of the neck, under the mane in the nuchal ligament. They are invisible and cannot be seen under the skin, so trying to find one if it’s moved, becomes a “where’s Waldo” chase with a scanner. The other major downside is that there are many livestock auctions that will not allow chip scanners into their facilities. This is changing as microchips become more common across all livestock; however, it is still not always safe for people to try scanning horses standing tightly packed in loose pens. It becomes a dangerous position for a human trying to find a horse with a microchip implanted.
I found this quote in a letter written in December 2021 at HarnessLink by Trish Soulsby and it gives some great additional information that I couldn't have worded better myself – “While chips offer us a degree of ease in identifying horses at the racetrack and provide a temperature of the horse, which may be useful to a trainer, or a veterinarian, it is not foolproof. It is not a GPS tracker for your horse. You won’t be able to follow the chip to find his/her real time location. The microchip itself stores only a fifteen-digit identification number, that is registered in a database. The chip identifies the horse and connects it with the owner and other pertinent information. Failing to register the chip, update your contact info, or transfer records, basically renders the chip useless. It is not a failsafe that your horse will never end up in a bad situation. Slaughterhouses and auctions do not routinely scan for microchips, and neither will horse thieves.” (Link to article: https://harnesslink.com/usa/letter-dont-do-away-with-freeze-branding/)
Now on to the freeze branding. I have yet to find any real “reason” that doing away with the freeze branding is necessary. There are downsides to the brand – they can be altered; they may become hard to read as a horse grows or receives an injury that mars the area where the brand is. But very rarely can you look at a Standardbred with a brand, even if their winter coat makes the brand illegible, and NOT see the brand in some form. This ability to look at a horse using just your own eyesight, allows many to spot a Standardbred from a distance, or even in a crowded feed lot.
When someone gets a Standardbred, even if they are not super knowledgeable with the breed, they can shave the brand area, take a photo and send that brand to someone who IS knowledgeable. That person can quickly pull up the basic information on the horse and get a history of that horse in some form. With no more brands, means no more “quick lookups”. It means that many people out there will lose that ability to learn quick the information about their horse.
Racing industry itself aside, these brands become a source of pride. A source of information and a conversation starter. For those who have adopted an off the track Standardbred, they can proudly share the information that they know about their horse with anyone who asks what the numbers on their neck mean. For those who get a horse with a brand and even though they may not be knowledgeable about racing, they know that their horse is a Standardbred and I guarantee they will find someone to help them search information as I mentioned above.
These brands are a life saver for these horses. Many of them are still being discarded in auction yards when they are no longer useful – and I don’t mean by the racing industry. I mean the droves of them that go on to the working life of an Amish buggy horse. When they are done that life, they are simply sent to auction and a new “model” is picked up to continue on the job. Guess who is there to buy those discarded horses at the auction? The meat man.
These horses, no matter how long they’ve been away from the track, do not deserve to have their lives ended in a slaughter house. That is not what they were bred for, it is not what their grooms spent hours doting on them each and every day to make them feel their best planned for them, and it is not what their owners and trainers saw when they put their time and money and effort into getting that horse to the races.
Microchipping is NOT bad. It is an asset.
But the freeze brand has so many more properties in the welfare, the aftercare, and the lives of these horses. We are begging the industry to PLEASE do not do away with the freeze brands. Please go back and make them mandatory alongside the microchip. Give these horses a fighting chance when their racing days are over.
This industry is under a microscope for welfare and aftercare.
This is the opportunity to MAKE the welfare and aftercare of the animal a priority.
We’ve had freeze brands for the last 20 or so years.
Why not continue that AND evolve?
Please put equine welfare ahead of the almighty dollar.
We hope the right people will hear our pleas and make this change.