Tattoo Removal: Changing Horse Identification and Its Impact on Aftercare

Shannon Spillman (in pink hat), horse identifier for the Maryland Jockey Club, lifts the lip of Allstar to read his tattoo before a 2014 stakes race at Pimlico Race Course. (Eclipse Sportswire)

When it was announced in December that the tattoos used to identify racehorses would be discontinued by 2020, it seemed like a logical next step. From 2017 onward, all horses registered with The Jockey Club have to have a microchip, and racetracks must use microchip readers to identify horses, so in the years to come, tattoos will eventually become unnecessary as a means of identification.

But this question remains – how does the change affect racehorse aftercare?

There have been many stories about ex-racehorses ending up at low-level auctions years after their racing or breeding careers are over and being identified by their tattoos. However, Beverly Strauss, Executive Director and President of MidAtlantic Horse Rescue, thinks a lack of tattoos may actually benefit horses at these sales.

“Unfortunately now, when a horse runs through our local livestock auction, the first thing the guy in the ring will do will be to flip a lip and proclaim ‘has a tattoo’ – and the dealers and kill buyers all start bidding because they know they can resell these horses at a premium through social media. When we first started buying at auctions in the mid-1980s, the auctions would never admit a horse was a Thoroughbred, because they didn’t sell as well – they would call them appendix, or whatever. That has changed in the last six to eight years,” she said.

“Going forward, lack of tattoos will take away the situation above, so the Thoroughbreds will not be as readily identifiable by dealers,” she continued. “I can’t see the auction workers scanning a horse in the ring and announcing it is a Thoroughbred, but maybe they will. As a rescue, we have a couple of scanners, and we will start carrying them to ID Thoroughbreds at auctions and kill pens. It will certainly make our job of identifying horses easier.”

Checking a lip tattoo at Monmouth Park. (Eclipse Sportswire)

For ReRun Director Lisa Molloy, microchips are a welcome addition to the identification process. She also doesn’t see a lack of tattoos causing issues, as she has often found it difficult to identify horses by looking at tattoos in the past.

“Tattoos don’t play a big part in my aftercare work,” she said. “Many cannot even be read and many numbers are open to interpretation – is it a 8 or is that a 9? When I fill out forms for the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance or for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, that is the last column I do. It’s always the only one with blank spaces because I cannot read them. In some cases I substitute that information for their registration number. A quick scan revealing a chip would make the whole process so much easier on both the staff and the horse.”

One issue that Strauss sees that may become more prominent concerns older horses who get their microchips later in life – something that horses born before 2017 may face.

“I am excited about microchipping, because hopefully it will make the job of identifying Thoroughbreds easier,” she said. “I do see a potential problem, though. When we chip an older Thoroughbred, we self-report the chip number to The Jockey Club, but if we do not have the right identity or make a mistake in identifying a horse when we chip it, that will present a problem down the road because the chip that we report as being inserted in a certain horse might not be that horse at all.”

She feels that one solution to this problem is to continue tattooing for the next five or six years to make sure that no horses are missed in the beginning years of microchipping. While countries such as New Zealand and Australia brand their horses in addition to microchipping, neither Strauss nor Molloy feel that step needs to be taken in North America.

“ReRrun did experiment with brands six or seven years ago and branded every horse in the program before they were adopted out,” Molloy said. “Upon review, adopters did not like it. First, they thought it detracted from them being seen as Thoroughbreds and confused them with Quarter Horses and other stock type breeds more commonly seen with brands. Second, those adopting what would hopefully become upper-level competition prospects thought it cheapened them as they were now identified as ‘rescues’ as opposed to horses transitioning to a second career, and I tend to agree with that.”

While the transition to using only microchips may take some time to get used to, both Strauss and Molloy are in agreement that moving to microchips is a step in the right direction, not only for racehorse aftercare, but for the Thoroughbred breed overall.

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