Horses are part of an ever growing industry, with over 600,000 horses in the UK, 1.4 million riders and 5 million people with an active interest in the equine industry*. Most people acquire a horse out of choice, so if you make this decision you should think carefully before going ahead. A horse needs lots of love and care, including regular worming, vaccinations and dental care. Owning a horse is time consuming and can be costly; not only will you will need to consider where you will keep your horse, you must also consider the ongoing costs of owning a horse which include accommodation, bedding, feed and healthcare.

In the unlikely event that your horse goes missing it is going to be very difficult for anyone to know who it belongs to, unless your horse carries some form of permanent identification. It is wise to get your horse microchipped or freezemarked, this will avoid heartache in the long run, should your horse go missing or is stolen.

Horses are herd animals, and thrive on being together with other horses. Don’t forget that your horse will need somewhere to graze, a stable for warmth in the winter time, a constant supply of water, feeding daily and regular exercise. It can cost hundreds of pounds a month to care for a horse, including accommodation, food, veterinary care and insurance; there will be other costs, including buying tack and rugs and extra livery charges when you go on holiday.

Horses can live into their thirties, over this time your horse will need lots of care and attention. Being able to provide all of this will ensure you and your horse make the most of your time together.

* Research conducted in 2004 by the Henley Centre for DEFRA and the British Horse Industry Confederation.

Identification - keeping your horse safe

Owning a horse is a big responsibility and just like any pet, they soon become part of the family and it would be terrible if they got lost or stolen. Without positive identification your chances of finding a missing horse or pony are slim, within a very short period of time, your horse could be hundreds of miles away from home. There are various ways you can have your horse permanently identified, to help prevent theft and to assist in the search for horses that are lost or stolen.

What are my options?

Before selecting a method of identification, think about the criteria that best fit your situation. All methods have strengths and weaknesses. For you, the owner, permanent identification is positive proof of ownership. For the horse, benefits include: breed registration, parentage verification, disease control, insurance purposes, transfer of ownership, record keeping, and theft prevention.

Your options include:

  • Freezemarking - this is one of the most popular methods of identification and proof of ownership. There is a national register where all horses that are freezemarked are recorded by their four character number, individual details and owner information. All the information that is kept on this register is available to police forces across the country, to help them trace lost or stolen horses.
    Freezemarking involves the placing of a super-chilled iron/marker to a clipped area on the left side of the saddlepatch or occasionally on the shoulder in light-coloured horses or horses from Australia and New Zealand - the horse feels no pain whatsoever. The process kills the pigment in the hair which subsequently grows back white. If your horse is already light in colour, then the iron/marker is usually held on for a longer period of time leaving the area permanently bald. Your horse is now recognisable not only to you but to other people who may come into contact with your horse if it is stolen, eg traders, auctioneers and the police. It is, however, important to keep the area that is freezemarked clipped, as long coats make them difficult and sometimes impossible to read. Freezemarks can also be tampered with or disguised.
  • Hot branding - this is probably the oldest method of identification. A hot iron/marker is used, and unlike freezemarking, the hair does not grow back at all. This is still practised on some native pony breeds, eg New Forest ponies and also warmbloods and other breed from mainland Europe. Each breed has its own distinctive brand plus an identification mark.
  • Hoof branding - this identifies a horse to a specific address. A pair of branding irons need to be purchased as the process needs to be repeated two or three times each year. The branding irons are marked with the Post Code of the area the horse is kept in. They are then used, as and when necessary, by the farrier to hot brand the Post Code onto the horse's hooves. The area code is branded onto the left hoof and the local code on the right hoof, so that the full Post Code can be read from left to right when facing the horse. The front and back hooves are usually branded alternately as the hooves grow.
  • Lip tattoos - these are placed on the inside of the upper lip. Lip tattoos, unlike human tattoos only last for 4-5 years as they gradually fade over time. This method is widely practised in the USA, especially in Thoroughbreds.
  • Microchipping - a horse is microchipped in the same way as a dog or cat. Microchips are small tubes about the size of a grain of rice. They are injected under the skin at the base of the neck with a wide-bore needle. A scanner passed over the horse's body sends out a magnetic field which picks up a 15 letter code imprinted on the chip. This code shows up automatically on a screen and the owner can be identified from this code and be contacted via the computer database. This unique number and details about your horse/pony will be stored as a permanent record on the microchip database. You will also have to fill in a registration form. Your horse will also get a passport, this contains the unique number and other important information about your horse/pony. Once your horse is registered you will also receive a certificate of authenticity. All horses registered with the British Harness Racing Club, several breed societies and all Thoroughbred foals born from 1999 onwards are microchipped. In England regulations now make it a legal requirement for every horse, pony and donkey to be microchipped and have a valid UK passport, with all details stored on a Central Equine Database (CED). You can contact your vet for more information about getting your horse microchipped.
  • Identification forms - an Identification of Horses form can be used to record various aspects of your horse's conformation, appearance and individual markings. Use the diagram to mark any peculiar marks, scars, whorls, etc. Take colour photographs of your horse in its winter and summer coats from all angles taking particular attention to any of the distinctive marks your horse may have that would be particularly useful in his identification. If you are unsure, your vet will be happy to see your horse and fill out a form for you. Identification forms are used in Jockey Club and FEI passports, and in vaccination certificates, insurance forms and pre-purchase reports.

Are these the only options?

No - There are various other means of identification, but they are usually used in addition to other forms of identification. Blood typing and DNA testing can also be done if any of the other methods have failed in identifying a horse/pony.

What other precautions can I take to prevent loss/theft?

Consider the following:

  • Set up a Horsewatch in your area. If people are generally aware of the safety of horses, they are more likely to keep an eye out for any suspicious activities.
  • Keep your field/stable/yard secure at all times. Make sure fencing is in good condition. Use secure locks and alarms if possible - you can even get field alarms. Security lights are also a useful deterrent.
  • Make sure you check up on your horse regularly, at least twice a day.
  • Vary your times so that a thief cannot be sure when you will turn up next.
  • If your horse is grass-kept dont leave a headcollar on your horse or by the gate, this will only make life easier for a would-be thief.

What should I do if the worst happens?

If your horse is stolen you should notify your nearest police station immediately and tell them all you can about the loss or theft, giving them details of any identification your horse may have. If your horse is kept at a livery yard, let the owners know what has happened and contact your Horsewatch organisation if you have one in your area. If your horse had some form of permanent identification make sure you contact the company your horse is registered with, they will then contact all likely places of disposal for you. You must also contact your insurance company and inform them of the loss or theft.

Once you have done this you can then contact everyone who lives nearby, someone might have heard or seen something suspicious. Tell all of your horsey friends - news travels fast, this may protect other horses from thieves in your area. If the news gets round to the right people, it may reach someone who has heard or knows something about your horse.