How to Read a Horse Brand: Ranch History

How to Read a Horse Brand: Ranch History

A brand is both a symbol of ownership and the trademark of an operation. Here’s the history behind horse brands and how to read them.

A photograph showing a line of horse's hips, all of which are branded with a Box O brand.

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

The American Quarter Horse industry’s most storied ranches have been registering and branding horses for more than 80 years. But the history of branding horses and cattle started way before that. 

Brands have been in use for more than 4,000 years, according to historian Jane Pattie, author of “Cattle Brands: Ironclad Signatures."

“Artisans carved and painted pictures depicting cattle roundups and brandings on the walls of Egyptian tombs beginning as far back as 1900 B.C.,” Jane says. “The branding of stock was also known to the Mesopotamians, who held the sand-swept lands along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in today’s Iraq and Iran. Ancient texts describe the process of branding, and cattle with brands on their hips or shoulders are depicted in carvings seen on the ruins of temple walls.”

The Spanish conquerors of the Aztecs in South America were the first to introduce branding to the Western Hemisphere on the hips and shoulders of their cattle and horses, Jane adds. 

In 1519, explorer Hernan Cortes’ settled in Mexico and began experimenting with cattle breeding. His cattle wore the brand of the three Latin crosses, which represent the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. 

Why are horses and cattle branded?

As a symbol of ownership, branding is also hoped to be a deterrent to rustlers. 

If you sell your livestock, how did authorities or the new owner’s neighbors know you hadn’t stolen the animals? This is where a “vent brand” was used. 

The name of this brand comes from the Spanish word venta, meaning “sale.” The original owner placed his brand on another part of the animal, which meant the he had deeded the animal to a new owner, whose brand it also bore, explains Ramon F. Adams in the foreward of “Texas Cattle Brands.” 

“It had the effect of cancelling the ownership brand, thus serving as the acknowledgement of a sale,” he wrote. “It was usually placed on the same side of the animal as the original brand.” 

How to Read Brand Symbols

The rules for reading a brand are a lot like the rules for reading.

1. Read top-to-bottom, then left-to-right.

2. Modify based on individual characters.

  •  A letter or number on its side is called “lazy.”

  •  A character upside down is called “crazy.”

  •  A character with small curves on the ends is called “running.”

  •  A character with a curved bar added on the bottom is called “rocking.”

  •  A character with long tails hanging to the left is called “dragging.”

  •  A character with wings on the top is called “flying.”

  •  A character with a curved bar added on the top is called “swinging.”

  •  A character with long tails hanging to the right is called “walking.”

  •  A character placed at a diagonal angle is called “tumbling.”

3. Modify based on other symbols

  • ​​​​​​Common symbols include a circle, diamond, slash, bar, box, bench, quarter circle, rafter, rail, heart, triangle, hat, arrow or mashed o. 

Brand Placement Matters

While you'll find most brands on the left hip, some ranches will brand other areas of a horse's body, and each brand tells a story.

For example, at the Tongue River Ranch, the ranch's iconic crooked T goes on their horses' left hip, the year on their left buttock and the stallion number on the right buttock. The mare number goes on the left jaw.

At the Four Sixes Ranch:

  • Left jaw: brand designates whether the horse hails from Triangle Ranch or Four Sixes lineage. 
  • Left shoulder: On Four Sixes horses, the “L” brand recognizes ancestor M. F. Loyd. On Triangle Ranch mares, the brand here designated a particular mare family.
  • Left buttocks: designates the year the horse was foaled.
  • Right buttocks: designates the horse's sire.

Quiz: Can You Read These Brands?

10 ranch brands

Scroll to the bottom of this article for the answers.

Famous Horse Brands

Examples of  a few famous horse brands carried by AQHA Best Remuda winners include: 

  • The King Ranch's "Running W"

  • Wagonhound Land & Livestock's "quarter circle, bar, quarter circle" loosely resembles a wagon hound

  • Silver Spur Operating Co.'s "Spur"

  • Haythorn Land & Livestock's "Figure Four" 

  • Burnett Ranches's "6666 (Four Sixes)"

  • R.A. Brown Ranch's "Reverse RB Connected" styles the founder's initials

  • Stuart Ranch's "7S" was initially a Bar S, but later generations added a tail to the bar to create 7S

Ranching History

Reading a horse brand is a major part of ranching history and the heritage of the American West. So, too, is the cowboy code. Download AQHA’s free Cowboy Etiquette e-book to learn more about cowboy manners for roping, branding, working cattle and herding cattle.

Answers to Brand Quiz

  1. Reverse CC Spear: used by Clayt and Terri Cooper of Otis, Colorado. Terri and their stallion Peppy Chex Your Gun were the first AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse world champions crowned in the amateur division.
  2. Rafter Dragging W
  3. Double Bar S: used by the Double Bar S Ranch, owned by Dawn and Rhonda List, breeders of racing American Quarter Horses.
  4. S Cross S Bar
  5. Circle Bar
  6. Spade: used by the Spade Ranch of Ellsworth, Nebraska, owned by Bixby Cattle Co. Founded in 1888 and on the National Register of Historic Places, the ranch still conducts much of its operation horseback, including its annual branding.
  7. Bar S Bar
  8. Wagon Hound: territorial brand used by Wagonhound Land & Livestock Co. of Douglas, Wyoming. A wagon "hound" binds the axles to the wagon. A creek on the ranch had a reputation for breaking wagon hounds if not crossed carefully.
  9. Rafter Dragging W
  10. Triangle Slash Connected