The FEI and other entities already require microchipping. It’s not mandatory in dressage, but you might want to do it anyway, a top veterinarian says.
By Penny Hawes
Reprinted from the November/December 2020 issue of USDF Connection magazine.
The European Union has required them for more than 25 years. The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) has mandated them for seven years. The United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA), in partnership with US Equestrian (USEF), has required them for three. They’re also advocated by a host of animal-rescue organizations.
What are they? Microchips—tiny integrated circuits about the size of a grain of rice.
Implanted in a horse, dog, cat, cow, or other animal, a microchip makes each individual uniquely identifiable. Inert until activated by a scanner, the device then becomes a transponder, emitting identification and location information. Because they can’t be removed without special equipment and aren’t subject to fading or tampering like brands or tattoos, microchips are the current gold standard for animal identification worldwide. They are widely used in companion animals, in the livestock and ranching industries, in zoos, and in wildlife research, to name a few.
Although microchip technology has been around since the 1980s, it’s only within the past decade that the sport-horse world has begun to embrace “chipping”—and it currently isn’t required in US national-level dressage competition.
Should it be? Regardless, should you microchip your horse for ID purposes and peace of mind? We asked experts to weigh in.
Microchip Technology Explained
A microchip uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, which was developed in Great Britain during World War II as a means of verifying the identity of aircraft returning to base, with a radar scanner reading a reflector attached to the plane as it came within range. Known as “Identify Friend or Foe” (IFF), it was the first use of RFID technology.
RFID technology has since found its way into hundreds of applications. Those little tags attached to clothing items that trigger a store’s shoplifting warning system if someone tries to walk out without paying, keyless entry systems, and E-ZPass highway toll systems are a few of the more familiar uses.
RFID Technology and Animals
In the mid-1980s, Great Britain’s livestock industry was devastated by an epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad-cow disease. Because there was no rapid or standardized method to trace the origin of the infected cattle, millions of cattle had to be slaughtered. Since then, Great Britain and the European Union have mandated the microchipping of all livestock, including horses.
The use of microchips to help reunite lost pets with their owners has become widespread, as well. The New Jersey-based national pet-recovery service Home Again, which maintains a database of microchipped animals, claims to have helped more than 2 million lost pets get home.
In the equine world, the NetPosse ID Registry, a service of the North Carolina-based Stolen Horse International, maintains a database of thousands of microchipped horses and has helped to reunite hundreds of stolen or missing horses with their owners. (The service now also is available for dogs, cats, and other animals.)
The process of implanting a microchip in an animal is fairly straightforward. To “chip” a horse, a veterinarian uses a syringe-like device to inject the chip into the horse’s nuchal ligament, about halfway down the neck. A properly implanted chip won’t migrate away from the insertion site, and because the chip is inert (and coated with silicon), a horse’s body will not react to or reject the foreign object.
“Chipping” Comes to the Sport-Horse Industry
In 2017 the USHJA, the official USEF hunter/jumper national affiliate organization, began requiring horses to be microchipped in order to compete in classes that require USHJA registration. (USEF as a whole does not require microchipping, and most of its breed and discipline affiliate organizations, including the USDF, do not currently require it.)
“We attempted to get a microchipping rule passed two years prior to our successful effort,” says USHJA president Mary Babick. But the membership soundly rejected that initial rule-change proposal, citing concerns about microchips themselves as well about the financial impact of a microchipping requirement.
The organization realized that in order to argue its case for microchipping, it needed to do more research, promotion, and member outreach.
“We spent much time doing research and conducting mythbusting informational sessions and articles,” Babick says. “The good thing about failing was that we understood the challenges that we were up against, and we could pre-answer many of the questions.”
As part of its information-gathering, the USHJA sought advice from the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA), which “is composed of many state vets and US Department of Agriculture APHIS [Animal and Plant Health and Inspection Service] representatives,” Babick says. USHJA representatives attended a NIAA conference on animal identification, which was “unbelievably helpful,” she says.
“One of the questions that we worked on,” Babick says, “was whether we would require 840 chips.” (Bearing the numeric prefix 840 to designate a US identity, official 840 microchips may be manufactured only by companies approved by the US Department of Agriculture.) But “we decided not to go down this route, as they are more expensive and also require that the horse owner register their premises with the USDA. The idea that the government was going to get into our industry was a large concern.”
Instead, the USHJA opted to require a 15-digit, International Standards Organization (ISO)-compliant 11784/11785 animal microchip.
When it came time for the USHJA to try again to get a microchip rule passed, it was armed not only with more details, but also with what Babick calls “a face”: “We chose Summer Stoffel, who is a breeder and IT [information technology] expert.” Stoffel, who breeds hunters and jumpers at her Silver Creek International near Tulsa, Oklahoma, “guided the membership through the process and did a wonderful job.”
One of the things that quelled members’ fears was learning that microchips themselves are actually very inexpensive—costing only a few cents, according to FEI veterinarian C. Mike Tomlinson, DVM, MBA, of Thousand Oaks, California. The associated costs have more to do with “what you do with the data when you read it,” he explains. “If you simply write it in a book, it costs you the price of the book. If you want to have somebody maintain it for you in their database and display it in a beautiful website,” that service naturally costs more.
Today the USHJA “promote[s] microchipping as an ‘integrity tool,’” says Babick: “Now people know that the horse is really the horse they are buying, since the microchip is connected to the record.”
Likewise, the FEI requires that all horses being registered for the first time be microchipped with the same ISO-compliant 11784/11785 chip that the USHJA mandates.
Beyond ID: Microchip Uses
A horse’s microchip can be linked to various databases, such as a breed or an animal-ID registry, which may be able to store a multitude of information about that animal. As Babick explains, “Emergency ID can happen through the database or the database of the microchip company if [the owner has] registered the chip with that company. Health-record access is [also] possible, but that happens through the individual microchip companies.”
A relatively new capability is temperature monitoring. RFID technology “makes it very simple for us to walk up, identify the horse, and get their temperature,” Tomlinson enthuses. The temperature reading via microchip “is more accurate, instantaneous, and it’s a good core temperature,” he says, which “makes it useful in breeding and sport-horse facilities. Every day you can go down the shed row and go click, click, click [with the microchip-scanner device] and get everybody’s [temperature], and it does a really good job of telling you when that individual horse is out of normal. …You can catch something early. That makes a huge difference.”
The Compatibility Issue
Just as there are different computer and device platforms, microchip standards vary. Multiple database registries exist, further complicating the issue.
Most of the world uses the ISO standard for animal microchips: 15-digit ID numbers and a frequency of 134.2 kHz. But the US has developed a few standards, which vary both in numbers of digits used and in frequency. And that can be a problem: Not all chip readers are “universal,” meaning that some may not be able to detect an older, non-ISO chip. In this country, microchip scanners almost always can read multiple standards, but that’s not typically the case in the rest of the world.
What’s more, because there is no single database for microchip ID numbers, it can be difficult to identify a horse by his ID number alone. And, as Tomlinson cautions, “you can, with significant technical know-how, change the number reported by the chip.” In other words, microchipping “is not a good way of uniquely identifying [horses] anywhere you have incentive to cheat. When a horse is running wild due to a disaster, you have no incentive to cheat; you want to find out its identity. But in a sporting competition or when buying a horse, you cannot use just the chip [for identity verification] because those who have enough incentive to cheat will cheat. It is easy to use other identifying characteristics if you don’t get lazy and just use the chip alone.”
To add one more potential wrinkle to the ID issue, it’s not uncommon to discover multiple chips in one horse, particularly in jumpers, says Tomlinson. “Dressage horses tend to stay with one owner much longer than jumpers. Jumpers tend to change owners and not always be checked for previous chips. I have seen a jumper with five!”
Other issues can also lead to a horse’s being chipped more than once, Tomlinson says. For instance, a scanner with a low battery may fail to detect a chip, which “often leads to a new chip being implanted.”
Still Bullish on Microchipping
Despite these issues, Tomlinson hopes that microchipping will move beyond its current “for higher-end competition horses only” perception to become standard practice for equine-ID purposes. To those who might dismiss the idea as irrelevant for their situations, he offers a personal anecdote about loose and wandering horses:
“One morning, about three in the morning, I woke up and thought, ‘Gee, who’s riding around at this time of night?’ Then I figured out, ‘Oh, those are my horses!’ They somehow got out.”
Then there’s the horse owner’s nightmare of becoming separated from their animal in the event of a hurricane, wildfire, tornado, or other natural disaster. When these events occur, organizations from the Red Cross to the ASPCA typically step in to offer aid. Problem is, according to Tomlinson, such groups generally aren’t equipped to reunite lost or evacuated equines with their owners, and “emergency horse identification…has fallen through the cracks.” Microchipping, he believes, offers the best chance of identifying rescued or loose horses and locating their owners.
Emergency ID, Tomlinson believes, is also the “hook” that will entice more equine organizations and individual horse owners to get on the microchipping bandwagon: “If organizations want to have chips [more widely] used in horses, they should say it’s for emergency identification, and then everybody would do it.”
To encourage participation and compliance, he says, equine registries and organizations should promote the message: “Don’t just do it because we require you to; do it because it’s a good thing” for the safety and welfare of our beloved horses.
Penny Hawes is a writer and coach who lives in Virginia with her husband, their daughter, and various quadrupeds. Visit her at TheHorseyLife.com/USDF, and follow her on Instagram at @thehorseylifecoach.