The State of Microchip Use in Horses

Article by Nancy S. Loving, DVM on theHorse.com

More horse organizations are requiring owners to use this identification technology

Countless dog and cat owners can attest to the value of microchipping. These are the people who have spent sleepless nights agonizing over their pets’ disappearance and whereabouts until they receive that phone call with the comforting words, “Your dog is at the local animal shelter; we scanned him for a microchip and found your contact information.”

This practice of microchipping is also becoming prevalent throughout the horse world—but for reasons beyond simply IDing a lost equid. Many competitive organizations and breed registries are now requiring it for ease of identifying individual horses.

The Microchipping Process

Microchip implantation is a fairly innocuous process for horses—or any animal, for that matter. After scanning the chip to make sure it’s readable, a veterinarian uses a large gauge needle to inject the chip below the mane into the nuchal ligament on the left side of the neck, about halfway between the horse’s poll and withers. A new mini-chip is now available so that veterinarians can use a smaller-gauge needle for the procedure. This microchip and its surrounding glass-polycarbonate capsule is roughly the size of a grain of raw rice. The injection causes minimal discomfort to the horse and does not leave a scar. The chip is encapsulated within the ligament and unlikely to migrate within the tissue.

The entire process, including the price of the microchip, usually costs less than $100. Upon inserting the chip, the veterinarian scans it again to ensure it’s transmitting readable information. Then the horse owner registers the chip with the appropriate microchip company, as well as the desired sport organization and/or breed registry. This is a one-time process that needs no repeat fee or renewal.

Jean Anne Mayhall, president of MicroChip ID Inc., in Covington, Louisiana, advises horse owners to be proactive about registering their microchips. Once registered in a database like Microchip ID’s Equine Protection Registry (EPR), it is easier to track down a lost, stolen, or displaced horse. And once a horse is registered in the database, owners can request an ownership certificate or download that paperwork to a mobile app. Should a horse go missing, the owner alerts the EPR team, and the website sends out an immediate search alert to notify multiple agencies (state veterinarians’ offices, brand inspectors, horse rescues, and the organization Stolen Horse International) about the animal.

“If a horse is missing but not microchipped, it is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Mayhall, whereas if microchipped and registered to an owner, law enforcement has something they can pursue. Much like the VIN (vehicle identification number) on your car, a microchip provides unbiased third-party proof of ownership.

During microchip registration, you can input additional contact information, such as for the horse’s veterinarian, and forms of identification, such as a photo of a horse’s freeze brand. You can also include a horse’s unique breed registry lifetime registration number.

“The microchip information works much like a social security number that is unique to you: Your personal information only comes up from within the database and is not visible to anyone simply entering your SSN,” says Mayhall. “Similarly, your contact information that links you to your horse is only available through the microchip manufacturer, sport organization, and/or breed registry with whom you registered. A microchip company is an unbiased entity that proves the chip is verifiable and that your horse is registered to you.”

How It Works

Mayhall says that, regardless of manufacturer, the chips used today must meet specific requirements set by the International Organization of Standardization (ISO) for radio-frequency identification. Each chip:

  • Must be an ISO chip;
  • Must have 15 numbers—the first three designate the manufacturer or country code, and the other 12 are unique to each horse (Most companies use codes that begin with 9; however, any chip with a prefix of 900 is unacceptable and has the potential for duplicate numbers.); and
  • Must operate at 134.2 kHz, which can be read by a universal scanner compatible with ISO 11784 or ISO 11785.

The microchip receives a radio wave signal from the scanner and instantly transmits the identifying number and other information to it.

“This number is a positive, foolproof, unalterable, and unique number that remains with the horse for its entire life,” says Mayhall. “The microchip is tiny but mighty. It is always there to prove that the horse is the horse of record.”

Change of Ownership

Horses often change hands and go on to new homes. How do you make sure the microchip information also changes with new ownership? To start, says Jean Anne Mayhall, president of MicroChip ID Inc., in Covington, Louisiana, make sure the owner of record is even listed with the microchip in the registration database. Then, the seller must release ownership by contacting the microchip recording company. The new owner can then register the chip under a new agreement with the chip manufacturer and/or breed/sport registry.

NANCY LOVING, DVM

Both European and U.S. scanners are capable of reading 134.2 kHz ISO chips. The European Union has required microchipping of all new foals since 2009, so it is likely that any European import born that year or later is already microchipped. In the United States, Louisiana has required identification using microchips, brands, or tattoos in conjunction with its mandatory equine infectious anemia (EIA) testing since 1994; it is important to identify those horses already equipped with a microchip to avoid duplication.

“Under no circumstances should a second chip be implanted,” says Mayhall, “as that would be like giving a person two social security numbers.”

To help avoid this (among other reasons), she says Microchip ID is launching a free, centralized search engine for all equine microchip data, no matter the manufacturer: MicrochipIDEquine.com/equinemicrochiplookup.

For U.S. Competition Horses

The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) jointly with the United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) is requiring microchip identification of all its member horses starting Dec. 1, 2017. Nonmicrochipped horses can still show during the yearlong grace period (until Nov. 30, 2018), but only horses with microchips can accumulate points or win money. For hunter/jumper USEF-­sanctioned events held Dec. 1, 2018, and beyond, every horse must be microchipped to participate in competition.

Horses participating in USEF-­sanctioned events restricted by breed, such as Arabian, Morgan, or Saddlebred, do not have to comply with this rule. Mary Babick, chair of the National Breeds and Disciplines Council for USEF and vice president of Hunters for the USHJA, explains that many breed registries require DNA typing of the horse for membership and, so, their recognized breed shows do not require an additional form of identification. “For instance, if an Arabian competes in a hunter or jumper class at an Arabian show there is no restriction,” she says. “However, if the Arabian comes into the hunter/jumper show world (not under the Arabian breed umbrella) it must be microchipped.”

The organizations’ intent for the new rule is to eliminate duplicate registrations and confusion over a horse’s identity or past performance. This is helpful for both competition and breeding purposes. In addition, microchip scanning provides a chain of confidence about a horse’s identity when it undergoes a prepurchase examination and sale and confirms a horse’s performance record.

“People will know that the plain bay gelding that they bought really is the plain bay that it is represented to be,” says Babick. “Microchip and show records are tied together. Currently, it is against the rules for a horse to have multiple identities (in the form of several USEF/USHJA numbers). This new system will start to police this.”

Another benefit for USHJA and USEF is that chip identification helps prevent owners from entering horses that have competed at high levels into lower-level classes for which they are overqualified. The USEF can also use microchip identification when measuring horses and ponies for height-restricted classes, drug testing, as a link to an owner’s protest, and to confirm a horse is eligible for certain incentives and events.

“The microchip can be recorded with USEF either online through the member’s My Way account or by filling out the microchip reporting form found on USEF.org,” says Babick.

If a horse has breed papers or a passport, these documents can be scanned and uploaded to the USEF My Way accound for another layer of ID verification, she says.

For Horses in FEI Competition

Any horse being registered with the FEI must be microchipped. Here, a horse arriving for the 2016 Summer Olympics is scanned to verify his identity.

Photo: Courtesy Gabriel Nascimento/FEI Photo

Any owner registering a particular horse for the first time with the ­Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) must have the horse microchipped before the registration process can even begin—this has been a requirement since Jan. 1, 2013. Horses registered prior to that date do not need to be microchipped, although the FEI still advises that it be done in these animals.

The rules stipulate that the veterinarian implanting the chip must be licensed to practice in that country. The chip used must be compatible with ISO 11784 and ISO 11785 for scanning purposes with a universal chip reader. Once the horse has been microchipped, the veterinarian records the information in the horse’s FEI passport. In the event a horse has multiple functioning microchips, all chip numbers must be recorded in the horse’s passport. If there are any changes to the ­microchip—implantation of a new chip because of a nonfunctioning one, for example—the veterinarian fills out the appropriate form and sends it to the country’s national federation.

For Racehorses

The Jockey Club—the breed registry for Thoroughbreds in the United States, Canada, and Puerto—is requiring microchipping for all foals born as of Jan. 1, 2016. Registries have enacted this requirement successfully for Thoroughbreds in other countries such as Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, France, Germany, and Italy. When the horse owner submits a Live Foal Report, the Jockey Club sends him or her free microchipping materials, registration papers, and a DNA hair sampling kit. North American Thoroughbred foals that were born before 2016 can be microchipped by requesting materials (for a fee) from the Jockey Club. Scanning older horses for a previously placed microchip helps avoid duplicate microchip registrations.

Microchips make a racehorse’s breeding, racing, and travel easier to trace, with the added benefit of providing permanent identification that isn’t going to fade or become unreadable like many lip tattoos.

For Biosecurity Tracking

In the event of an infectious disease outbreak at a USEF or FEI competition venue, microchips offer the added benefit of being able to quickly confirm a horse’s presence at an event site and provide the owner’s contact information. This gives authorities the means to locate an owner once the horse has left the show grounds.

“With microchip identification on board, it is easier for state vets to understand which horses were in attendance at a competition,” says Babick. “Because these microchips are read-only and do not contain GPS software, the horses can’t be tracked. However, the connection of the horse with its paper records at a horse show makes it easier to follow the trail. Some shippers are also planning to scan horses to help keep track of horse movement.”

For Natural Disasters

As for tracking horse transport, microchips can be instrumental in reuniting displaced horses with their owners following a natural disaster. Louisiana, for instance, has had its share of natural disasters, including hurricanes and resulting flooding.

Jay Addison, DVM, of Equi-Vet LLC, a racetrack practice based out of New Orleans, has experience using microchips to find displaced horses. Remember, it’s been a requirement that every horse in the state be tested for EIA since 1994, and any horse lacking a form of permanent identification, such as a brand or tattoo, must be microchipped at the time of the blood draw.

For a very small expense, this lifelong identification proves that a horse belongs to its owner. 

DR. JAY ADDISON

“After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the microchips and other permanent identification features made it possible to reconnect all but one of 500 displaced horses with their owners,” says Addison. “For a very small expense, this lifelong identification proves that a horse belongs to its owner.”

This is important not only for ­displacement during natural disasters but also in stolen horse cases.

In the future, Addison hopes to see scanner technology developed that automatically checks the microchip number against a national database via Wi-Fi. Currently in the pet world, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) has a Pet Microchip Lookup website that allows entry of a microchip number to determine which database company to contact to reunite a lost pet with its owner. Mayhall is hopeful that in the near future the equine industry will establish its own centralized method to verify all horses’ identities.

Take-Home Message

A new era of technology has allowed us to incorporate radio-frequency identification devices when registering horses rather than having to rely on procedures such as hot or cold branding or lip tattoos. Microchips are invaluable for ensuring a level playing field for competition horses, as well as a means of tracking horses during disease outbreaks or if lost, displaced, or stolen.

AUTHOR: Jerry Finch
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