Hot iron branding of Exmoor ponies has sparked controversy among fans of the breed as to whether the process harms the ponies’ welfare

The current practice of hot branding Exmoor ponies suitable for breeding has raised concerns over whether or not it is ethical.

Exmoor pony enthusiasts are expressing growing concern about a process they describe as “hazardous and antiquated” as well as “ineffective and painful”. There are currently no written guidelines from any welfare organisations on the health and safety aspects of branding.

In order to be accepted into the studbook and be considered suitable for breeding, Exmoor ponies are inspected at weaning by the Exmoor Pony Society (EPS). If a foal passes, it is branded with an appropriate herd number using a branding iron heated by a Calor gas burner. Each iron carries only one number, so up to six hot irons may be used to brand each foal.

Views expressed by Horse & Hound readers range from “as an inspection process, hot iron branding has resulted in one of the best and most accurate native pony stud books” to concerns that “the avoidance of deep tissue damage as a result of the technique is not the result of an informed knowledge of skin physiology or veterinary qualifications”.

However, the EPS considers other forms of identification inappropriate. David Mansel, society secretary, said: “We have considered micro-chipping and the decision to continue the process of hot iron branding has been made democratically at AGMs within the society.”

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons regards hot iron branding as “not acceptable”. The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) is also opposed to hot iron branding, a spokesman describing it as “outmoded and unnecessary,” and added: “We advocate the identification of animals but prefermodern technology to traditional methods.”

However, the RSPCA stops short of condemning hot iron branding. David McDowell, the society’s equine veterinary officer, said: “The society reluctantly accepts hot branding for unhandled native foals where the degree of restraint needed for freeze-branding is impractical. It would not support hot branding for well-handled foals, where either freeze-branding or micro-chipping would be the methods of choice.”

The British Warmblood and British Hanoverian Horse Society are among the other breed societies that use hot iron branding as a means of identification.

Read the full story in today’s Horse & Hound (13 June), or click here to subscribe and enjoy Horse & Hound delivered to your door every week.

Read more about Exmoor ponies: