Teaching riding and working with horses in a different country was an interesting experience – I still haven’t untangled the mysteries of “hunt seat equitation” and why on earth Americans seem to teach people to jump in a constant light seat, any light which can be shed on that is welcome! But I learned far more than how people are taught to ride in a different culture (and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to referring to rising trot as “post trot”) – my experience also offered insight into how horses are kept a little differently.
As summer camps are just that, places where children go for a few weeks over the summer, they recruit mostly seasonal staff, and that includes the horses. The horses provided to the camp I work at are owned by a dealer who is based a couple of hours away, and she apparently supplies horses to many other camps. We are supposedly one of her biggest clients (last year we had 25 horses from her, this year it’s due to be a few more – when I was choosing camps to interview with, some took as few as six horses for the summer!), but in my head I still picture that she must have an enormous farm with hundreds of horses running around throughout the autumn, winter and spring.
Because the horses don’t belong to the camp, we have no idea about their history. The kids constantly ask us how old the horses are – this is a huge fascination for them – but of course we just don’t know. We can make guesses based on how long a horse has been coming to camp (last year our two most frequent fliers were with us for their tenth summers), but checking teeth is far from one of my strong points, plus I’d guess that the horses are all in the mid-range age bracket which means it’s impossible to determine anyway.
One of the things which does make the horses stand out – other than their markings and personalities – is something which I hadn’t experienced before: they all have brands on their hindquarters, and although there are similarities in some, there are only a couple who match identically. I was aware that branding existed, but associated it more with cattle prior to last summer. I also thought that, in the US, brand markings related more to letters and perhaps numbers, rather than symbols. In actual fact, across the 25 horses I worked with, there were many symbols to be found, from sombreros and arrows to wiggly lines and what I thought of as a crown until one camper announced that he’d always considered it to be a pretzel, because the horse who sported it was particularly greedy.
The brand marks bestowed upon the horses, probably when they were young by their original owners fascinated me. I regard them as being another little secret that these magnificent creatures keep from us, and imagined what their first homes might have looked like. I’ve done a little more research recently and have found out how to de-code some of the symbols – the direction of letters or inclusion of serifs, for example, are shorthand codes to indicate the name of the farm – but others remain a mystery. My assumption has always been that surely the horses who sport a sombrero have at some point lived somewhere like New Mexico or Texas, but we’ll never know for certain.
Branding is actually an ancient practice, and despite the invention of alternatives such as lip tattooing, freeze marking and equine passports, it’s still fairly common in the US. My research into the ideologies around branding have taught me that it’s generally used for proof of ownership, and that in certain States, brands are carefully registered and regulated. Go back in history and all sorts of shady practices were used by rustlers or neighbours, such as surgeries to alter a horse’s brand mark in order to “prove” that it was theirs! It does seem like it’s becoming increasingly possible to trace the origins of a contemporary brand via online directories, but sadly these seem to be services one must pay for, and although I’m intrigued, I won’t be going that far! I’ll be sticking to my romantic tendencies and making up idealistic stories about each horse and how they were born on a large farm and spent their youth as part of a giant herd.
Whilst I don’t have a problem with branding as a means of identification, I have come across people who do. During the four visiting weekends last summer, I spent a lot of time interacting with parents of children I’d been teaching. Many conversations didn’t relate at all to horses, but some would ask about the animals and, on more than one occasion, their brand marks were a topic for discussion. And more than once, a parent expressed their horror at the practice, labelling it as “barbaric” or “an eyesore”. Whenever any kind of conversation sounded like it was going to get controversial, I’d bite my tongue (an unusual thing for me to do!) and these times were no exception, meaning I’ve listened to more than one rant about branding.
Freeze marking is common in the UK, and is regarded as being far more humane, as it’s less painful. Freeze marks also tend to be far clearer – branding takes a good degree of skill and, as I can relate from my own observations, brands can come out more than a little warped and difficult to read, which I guess depends on how the process is done and how the horse develops. But I still don’t regard branding as cruel: my understanding is that it’s done when horses are young, hopefully meaning that they don’t remember the process. In addition, it seems to for the vast majority only be performed once – anyone who knows horses will tell you that, unless it’s an extreme event, horses learn by repetition and consistency. If they were branded as often as they were shod, for example, they would remember and recognise it. But, as with gelding, it only tends to happen once, so it shouldn’t be a huge issue.
If the horses could talk, I’d ask them where they come from and what their marking means, but as they can’t, I’ll just have to keep guessing.
If any readers have any greater knowledge on horse branding, please get in touch! And does your horse have any man-made identifiers?