People might think that ranchers are not too quick, seeing as they live in the boonies and all. But that is not true. Not at all. In a lot of ways, ranching is just one giant science experiment. From figuring the best grasses for hay to building their own drainages and roads, ranchers have been doing science experiments for eons.

Being a nerdy scientist myself, this has been a wonderful thing to learn about ranching. This FAQ–How do you brand a horse? — is a prime example of a rancher science experiment. I’ll walk you through the definition and the procedure.

A brand is used to identify the owner of livestock animal and protects against fraud and theft. Freeze branding is how we brand our horses here at Drowsy Water Ranch. Most of our horses have a white symbol or two on their left shoulder. That is a freeze brand. The freeze branding process produces white hair by destroying pigment-forming cells of the hair follicle.

Freeze branding is different than hot iron branding in a few ways. First, like the name implies, freeze branding is achieved by extensive cooling where hot iron branding is achieved by extensive heating. Ranchers freeze brand horses because it is less painful than hot iron branding and because the hide of the horse is so thin that a hot iron brand often injures the horse.
Okay, you nerdy scientist, you want to try to do this at home? While there is really no reason why you can’t try this little experiment at home, I have to mention a few things. First, in most states, in order to brand a horse you must have a state registered brand. It is a big no-no to brand a horse with an unregistered brand. Actually, it’s usually illegal.
Second, freeze branding is safe, economical, and is relatively painless. It produces lasting results that discourage horse thieves and fraudulent practices. But, if you don’t have a brand and a horse to try this on, this doesn’t mean you can try to brand your dog, or, worse yet, your little sister.
As the youngest of three kids, I was the subject of countless science experiments. I can tell you, for a fact, that, yes, cat medicine does taste sorta like Pepto-Bismol, and, no, it doesn’t actually hurt if the toilet is flushed while your head is inside the bowl. I’m glad that my siblings didn’t find out about this one and I don’t have a permanent brand anywhere on my body. Please do not try to freeze brand another human being.
Okay, here we go. To do your own freeze brand at home you will need:
  • Branding Iron: Irons made from brass or copper work best because they hold the cold better.
  • Coolant: We use dry ice. It is cheap and readily available. You can also use liquid nitrogen, if you can find it.
  • Container for Coolant: We just use a little lunch-sized cooler. It needs to be big enough to hold the dry ice and enough alcohol to cover the dry ice.
  • Clippers: The branding site is shaved first to get as close to the hair follicle as possible.
  • Bottle with 99% alcohol: Preferably a squirt bottle to clean the brand site. Alcohol also aids in the transfer of cold to the skin. We also use the alcohol in the cooler with the dry ice.
  • Stopwatch: For tracking the time the iron is applied to the skin.
  • Gloves: These are optional (you’ll notice Justin doesn’t wear them), but probably safest.
  • Handlers: At least three people works best. One holds the horse, one brands, and one times.

Now for the procedure:

  • Restrain horse: Most of our horses can just be put in a halter. Some horses may require a twitch, a chute, or even tranquilizers.
  • Prepare coolant and branding iron: Place dry ice in cooler and cover with water. Insert branding iron to cooler so the brand face is covered. Let sit for around five minutes or until the liquid ceases bubbling.
  • Prepare brand site: Clip a square shape larger than the face of the branding iron on the horses left shoulder. Using a nice square or rectangle clipping site will help with brand alignment.

  • Prepare timer: Holler at the timer person “you ready?”
  • Cover brand site with alcohol: This removes oil from the skin and helps transfer cold from iron to skin.
  • Apply brand: Immediately after alcohol application, apply branding iron to brand site and simultaneously begin timing. Hold the brand on the site for 90 seconds. You may gently rock the branding iron slightly during application but do not wrinkle the skin.
  • Sit back and watch: Now you just get to watch the final product materialize. At first, the site will appear indented. Within a few minutes the site will become slightly swelled. In a month or two, the top layer of skin sheds and white hair starts growing in. After about four months, hair growth is complete and you should see a neat white brand.
Congratulations! You’ve completed a freeze brand.