Branding: History & Today

By Arden Foster on February 25th, 2020

Branding and marking livestock has been a practice for a long time. According to an article by the Smithsonian, it is a tradition that goes back centuries and is in the history of many cultures [https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/decoding-the-range-the-secret-language-of-cattle-branding-45246620/].  They have been able to date branding all the way back to 2700 BC, the evidence coming from Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

In today’s world, branding livestock helps to protect them from thievery and/or cattle rustling, as well as  being a means of identification.. A common question is “Why aren’t ear tags enough?” Ear tagging livestock like cattle or goats is beneficial to help keep track of each animal’s number, but unfortunately, tags can get snagged on occasion, and pull out, being lost forever. Without brands, it would be difficult to ascertain to whom they belong.

The government helps regulate brands by keeping ranchers from duplicating brands within the same state, records of ownership, and brand inspectors. Before you can sell any livestock, you must have proof that it’s yours, and have an inspector come validate that. This is another way to protect ranchers from having their livestock stolen and turned around too quickly for prosecution.

Brands are read from top to bottom, and/or left to right.  There are a variety of characters that can be used to create a brand, differentiating them from each other.  Many are numbers and letters, often linked together to create a distinctive look. There are also symbols such as the quarter circle - often designating the letter or number above it as “rocking,” a hyphen, known as a “bar” or a  number or letter on its side, it is known as “lazy.”

There are a few different ways you can brand or mark livestock as yours, but the most common two are fire branding or hot branding and freeze branding. Most typically, cattle are fire branded, and horses are freeze branded although that is only relatively recently.  For years branding of any livestock was always hot.

Hot branding is exactly as it sounds. Iron is placed in a fire, and then when it is red hot, the brand is placed on the cow and basically scars the brand onto the hide.. It’s the most efficient way to brand livestock when there are many to brand. Big ranches have to brand hundreds at once sometimes, so efficiency is key!

Freeze branding is a bit more of a laborious practice, as it has a few more steps involved with each animal. First the brands must be cooled with liquid nitrogen which requires very specific handling.  Then the area to be branded is shaved down as close to the skin as possible, and drenched with rubbing alcohol. The cold brand is then pushed against the skin for 10 to 15 seconds. The branded skin swells briefly.  It takes weeks to develop, but eventually the hair will grow back white in the shape of the brand.

Many of the horses at the ranch have acquired brands from the various ranches from where they were born, where they were trained, or from where they were bought. They are a mixture of fire and freeze brands, and we often try to name a horse around the brand(s) they carry.   For example, we have a blue roan horse with an MJ brand - David thought Michael Jordan, king of basketball, and Michael Jackson, king of pop, and named him King. And we named Amigo for his 3 and A brands - one of our wranglers, Sorrell, came up with it because it made her think of the film The Three Amigos.  Or a new horse this past summer,  named for his connected double M brand that looks like arches - therefore we called him Moab, after the headquarters for Arches National Park.

So as you can see, we have fun with brands that horses come in with.  But they do serve a purpose other than helping us name new horses, and sometimes they might give us a hint as to where the horse came from.  Santa Fe, a wonderful horse who we had for many years, carried the Bar N brand which means he came from the Navajo nation, well known for their good horses.

The ranch brand is “R lazy T R.”  See if you can come up with a “brand” for your family!


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