The current view of the British Veterinary Association and of the British Equine Veterinary Association is that Hot Branding properly carried out is less stressful and more humane than Freeze Branding.
To many people, the use of the word freeze implies a degree of anaesthesia or pain control, this is certainly not the case. The word freeze indicates the temperature at which the procedure is carried out. Freezing of the tissues causes greater damage to the deeper structures in the skin than a hot brand would do. It damages not only the surface layers of epithelium in the epidermis but also the deeper layers in the dermis. These deeper layers include the hair follicles, hence the hair turns white. The greater damage done to the deep layers of skin, closer to sensory nerve endings, causes more pain.
The Exmoor Pony Society hot brands a star high on the shoulder to identify the pony as an Exmoor, below this is branded a herd number of up to three digits. The use of three digits makes it very difficult to avoid the shoulder joint and the elbow joint, especially in a small foal of only 5 to 6 months old. On the lower gluteal region an individual number of up to three digits is branded. Hot branding of New Forest and other breeds is somewhat different in that the brand distinguishes the pony as belonging to a particular owner not necessarily with an individual herd book number.
Hot branding is a far from perfect technique for individual recognition. Even when the correct numbers are properly applied the end result can be very variable. Most brands are done on foals about 6 months old, by the time the animals are adult many brands are unreadable.
I have carried out trials with veterinary students on Exmoor and elsewhere. Trying to identify herd and individual numbers without reference to the numbers recorded in the stud book, we found only about 60% of brands were readable in summer coats, considerably less in winter coats. In the month of October, I have witnessed registered mares with foals presented for inspection, when nobody present could identify evidence of any type of brand or mark let alone ascertain what the marks or numbers were.
Microchipping is now acknowledged to be the most acceptable form of permanent identification available. The microchip is no larger than a grain of rice, it is inserted through a hypodermic needle as in any injection, and it is totally inert and non-allergenic.
The microchip has many advantages over branding for individual identification. The insertion of the chip is rapid, less painful, less stressful, and with a lower risk of secondary problems than hot branding. Breakdown of microchips is estimated at less than 1 in 100,000.
Some EPS members, several EPS inspectors and judges, Veterinary surgeon owners and myself have tried to promote the use of the microchip rather than hot branding by the EPS but have met with opposition. This has varied from one breeder stating he could not recognise his animals as individuals without the brands (he only had eight), through to a group saying “we have always branded, it is traditional”. After much prompting the EPS committee will not accept microchipping in the U.K. (“the chips may fall out”), and will only accept registrations from abroad where hot branding is illegal if a D.N.A. sample and profile of the pony is carried out at the owners expense.
I do not subscribe to the notion that animals should be subjected to hot branding to compensate for incompetent stockmanship or to satisfy tradition, nor that breeders not branding should be obliged to carry out expensive procedures regarded as unnecessary with a branding system which is comparatively useless for individual identification.
The majority of Exmoor ponies are no longer on the moor but are kept in small herds or individuals throughout the country, only about three herds on Exmoor are sufficiently large to justify any herd mark. I believe the way forwards is an unbiased assessment of the readability of hot brands by persons unaware of what each brand should be, and an evaluation of the value of microchipping as a humane and suitable alternative.
Another problem encountered with hot branding of Exmoor ponies is the immediate after treatment of the brand. Some EPS office bearers, inspectors and owners feel obliged to apply an ointment or some salve to the fresh brand, frequently this is udder cream for treatment of warts on cows udders.
As a Veterinary surgeon I have warned against this practice, especially with udder cream. Yet at a branding in October 2000 my advice was deliberately ignored and great show was made of rubbing udder cream over fresh brands, covering the lesion not only with the cream but with dandruff, skin debris and dirt. The individual demonstrating his ignorance not only of how burns should be treated but also lack of hygiene and of the pharmacology of udder cream which contains a keratolytic to remove warts and dead skin.
Small high temperature burns, such as brands, are best treated by being left alone, the burned epithelium of the brand itself being the most sterile and effective dressing. The application of a keratolytic removes this protective layer and exposes to the atmosphere the raw sensitive granulation tissue beneath, not only increasing pain but also greatly increasing the chance of secondary infection.
Written by Alex.N.Copland