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Updated on March 2, 2010

A brand is a scar left from a special design, or mark, burned on the hides of cattle, horses, and other animals for the purpose of identification. Most brands are relatively simple, often only a number or a picture symbol for the name of a particular ranch. For example, cattle owned by the Lazy 9 Ranch might be branded with the figure 9 stamped in a horizontal position to indicate "lazy." A wide variety of symbols, including a rocking chair, a dollar sign, a skull and crossbones, and the letter T enclosed in a square, are used as brands.

Although there are some duplications of brands in different states and even within the same state, brands have proved very useful. In addition to ownership identification, they are used in disease control and in counting herds and keeping breeding records. They also help to discourage rustlers, although many simple brands can be changed by adding a new section or letter to the basic design.


Cattle and horses are normally branded when they are very young. The branding iron, or iron rod on the end of which is the identifying mark, is heated over a fire. When the rod is very hot, it is applied briefly to the animal's hide. Although the animal's hair and skin are seared, the pain is only temporary and the wound heals rapidly, leaving a distinctive scar, or brand. Brands are usually placed on the forequarters, hindquarters, or rump where they can easily be seen by men tending the animals.


Brands were used by the Egyptians as early as 2000 B.C. In the United States branding of cattle was probably introduced during the 16th century by the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez (1485-1547). Settlers on Staten Island, New York, branded their horses, cattle, and other livestock as early as 1721 and registered their brands to prevent others from copying them. Ranchers in Arizona, California, Texas, and New Mexico practiced branding when these regions were under Mexican rule, and a very few early California mission brands are still in use.

Brands were particularly helpful in the days of the long trail drives when cowboys drove large herds of cattle belonging to several owners to markets and railroads far from their home ranges. When the cattle reached their destination, the cowboys were able to separate the various herds by their brands.

Brands were also a boon to Texas cattle owners returning from the Civil War. Roaming the ranges were thousands of full-grown, unbranded animals, and it was the rule of the range that these animals could be caught and branded to increase a man's herd.

The term "maverick" for an unbranded animal came into use because a man named Maverick excelled in this method of acquiring cattle. Today it is the custom in almost all cattle-raising areas to brand horses and cattle and to register these brands with the appropriate state authorities.


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