New Rule on the Horizon: Microchips for Hunters And Jumpers

Microchips are fast becoming the preferred way to identify horses, replacing tattoos, brands and other traditional methods. Now a new rule set to take effect in 2018 will require microchip ID for horses in nationally recognized hunter/jumper divisions.
To read a horse’s microchip number, a hand-held scanner is passed over his neck. The number is linked in a database to ownership information. | © Arnd Bronkhorst

Microchips are fast becoming the preferred way to identify horses, replacing tattoos, brands and other traditional methods. Now a new rule set to take effect in 2018 will require microchip ID for horses in most nationally recognized hunter, jumper and hunt-seat equitation classes. How will the rule affect your horse?

How it works: A microchip ID is a tiny electronic device implanted under the horse’s skin. Each chip is preprogrammed with a unique identification number and encased in a clear capsule roughly the size and shape of an uncooked grain of rice. Once implanted, the chip is invisible. But when a hand-held scanner is passed over it, emitting a low-power radio signal, the chip responds by transmitting its number. Most vets and animal-health officials have the scanners. The scanner reads the number, which is registered to the horse and linked in a database to ownership information. 

Microchip ID is permanent—the chip is extremely difficult to remove, and the ID number can’t be altered. The rule requires microchips operate a frequency set by the International Standards Organization. An ISO-standard chip implanted in Europe (or anywhere) can be read by scanners in the United States and vice versa. 

Why it’s needed: Because microchips provide lifetime positive identification, they can settle questions about a horse’s age, experience and competition status and prevent duplicate registrations. For example, it will no longer be possible for someone to misrepresent a hunter as Pre-Green when the horse has competed at 3-foot-6 under another name. That will help build confidence in the sport, says Mary Babick, vice president of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association.

The USHJA approved the requirement last December, and it was approved at the United States Equestrian Federation convention in January. Lisa Owens, the USEF’s managing director for Competitions and Athlete Services, says the national association supports the procedure as part of responsible horse ownership. “Positive ID is important for the welfare of the horse,” she says. If a horse is lost or stolen, for example, the microchip can both identify the horse and provide a link to owner contact information.

Who’s affected: The requirement applies to all horses competing in USEF- or USHJA-sanctioned hunter, hunter breeding, jumper and hunter/jumping seat equitation classes. Classes restricted by breed are exempt from the rule. Thoroughbreds are the only breed that has separate USHJA divisions, Mary explains, and those classes have ID requirements.

How it’s done: A veterinarian uses a hypodermic needle to insert the device at a standard site—on the left side of the neck, midway along the nuchal ligament, which is just below the mane. No sedation is required. Most veterinarians charge $60 or less for the procedure, including the cost of the chip. 

What to expect: Implanting a microchip is far less painful than branding. It typically hurts no more than a routine injection and leaves no scar. Properly implanted, the chip won’t migrate out of position. Urban legends notwithstanding, a microchip won’t cause cancer and can’t be used to track your horse’s movements. It transmits no information until it’s scanned, and that can happen only when a scanner is held close to the horse.

A few years ago, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture was considering a national animal ID program, “some welfare groups opposed microchipping as an invasive procedure because the chip is injected in the neck ligament,” Lisa says. “To my mind it’s like shoeing—invasive to a degree, but done for the horse’s benefit.” The technology has been around long enough to show that it’s safe and effective. In fact, your horse may already have a chip—Louisiana started microchipping horses in 1995 as part of its equine infectious anemia control program, and the European Union has required chips for new foals since 2009. 

The new rule won’t take effect until the 2018 show season, which starts in December 2017. Horses competing for national and zone awards will have to be chipped for that season, and all horses in the covered classes will need chips for the 2019 show season.—Elaine Pascoe

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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