by TC Lane, USTA Chief Operating Officer
Chips With That?
40,000 Standardbreds can’t be wrong: high-tech microchipping streamlines registration, supports horse welfare
Our sport and business are ever-changing. While the USTA is responsible for accurately registering and helping to identify Standardbreds, we are cognizant of the impact of advancing technology. No small task, as we manage increases in the foal crop, re-registrations and racing entries, and the importance of “getting it right” is being amplified by rising horse values and purses.
We strive to support our membership in a way that is flexible, efficient and establishes industry leadership. Now more than ever, it’s important to do so with an eye toward enhancing horse well-being and welfare. While our love for the horse remains fervent, there are evolving societal views about horse racing to contend with.
And a tiny technological marvel, the microchip, is helping the USTA, and our sport, to better address this.
In the Beginning
In 2017, the USTA was on the cusp of implementing a standard type of microchip for horse identification. Almost by coincidence, I contacted Steve Montemarano, a USTA member and Merck Animal Health representative. Steve pitched a newer concept. What if the USTA did something beyond basic horse identification and used a modern Bio-Thermo® microchip—one that could instantly read equine body temperature too?
Wow! Horse identification combined with an equine well-being element seemed to be a powerful idea.
The USTA board of directors became interested, and Merck Animal Health worked with us to make this technology, which had been used in horses on a limited basis, a reality for widespread use in our registry.
Beginning with the foal crop of 2019, the USTA implemented the use of microchips. This helped us to address the goals of supporting horse health, providing a modern and humane method of identification, and making the registration and ID process more efficient.
And the USTA is not alone. Thoroughbred racing formerly used lip tattoos for identification, but its registry, The Jockey Club, transitioned to a basic microchip (non-temp sensing) in 2017. Prior to that, horses in Europe were routinely identified with microchips.
And, as the next step, all Standardbreds racing in the U.S. will require a microchip this year.
Why Merck Animal Health?
You may know Merck for its human cancer medication, Keytruda®, but they also have a billion-dollar animal healthcare division. With respect to microchips, Merck Animal Health’s Home Again® brand started in 1995 and is mostly used to identify dogs and cats. The Home Again® network has reunited 3 million lost dogs and cats with their owners.
OK, a proven technology. But the USTA board of directors still evaluated other companies and physical microchip placement options. We considered price, quality and the supply chain. The USTA eventually selected the Merck Animal Health microchip because of its temperature-sensing feature, Merck’s blue-chip reputation and our local relationship with them.
Currently, the Merck Animal Health TempScan® microchips are used by the USTA and have been placed in 40,000 Standardbreds. I’d like to think that the USTA helped expand the equine microchip business because we are the largest user of these temperature scanning chips. And today the Home Again TempScan® product has transitioned to what’s now named the Bio-Thermo® microchip. This product is similar to TempScan® but is marketed and packaged specifically for use in horses.
What Is a Microchip?
A microchip is a passive, non-powered, radio-frequency identification (RFID) instrument about the size of a rice grain. It doesn’t wear out and lasts the lifetime of the horse. It’s activated by a low-power radio frequency that’s transmitted by a handheld scanner. This activates the microchip “antenna” and permits the transfer of information stored in the device. It’s somewhat comparable to the chip technology used in credit cards.
The Bio-Thermo® microchip provides a unique 15-digit identification for each horse. Once applied to the horse, that information is automatically uploaded into Pathway via cell phone. This speeds the registration process and minimizes any manual entry mistakes.
Bio-Thermo® technology also incorporates a feature that instantly senses the body temperature of a horse via a handheld reader. Since temp scanning is noninvasive, it can provide a huge time savings. For example, if you have 20 horses and a rectal thermometer reading takes 3-minutes per horse, that translates into one hour of labor. Also, taking a rectal temp requires prep time and waiting near the back end of a horse—hoping you don’t get kicked. With the Bio-Thermo® microchip, you slide the reader along the near side of the horse’s neck, and in a moment you’re done. The horse is identified, and body temperature is displayed and recorded.
A separate but compatible software program, or app, known as EquiTrace is being developed to work with the Bio-Thermo® technology. EquiTrace automates daily temperature charting, plus can consolidate equine health record keeping—from managing mare ovulation status and logging therapeutic medications to estimating withdrawal times prior to a race date. This app can be accessed on a smart phone (Android or Apple) and its information is backed up securely on the cloud. EquiTrace is optional and the planned subscription price is about $2 per horse per month.
The developer of EquiTrace, Dr. Kevin Corley, is an internationally respected racehorse veterinarian who is based in Ireland and is board certified in both equine medicine and critical care.
“EquiTrace is a software tool that has practical application and unlimited potential,” he said.
Rectal Temperature Compared to the Bio-Thermo®
The Bio-Thermo® microchips are sensitive and accurate instruments. However, there can be small differences between a rectal temp and a reading from the Bio-Thermo® chip. Also, there are typically body temperature differences between horses. These variations are expected and not of consequence because it’s most relevant to track a particular horse over time to determine if changes in body temperature occur. A shift from the baseline could indicate that the horse is unwell.
Knowing early when a horse is feverish could protect the horse and save money. There’s an old veterinary adage that says for each day a horse has a fever, it can lose a week of training. Catching and treating a fever early can preserve Grand Circuit and Sire Stakes aspirations. It could also help a farm successfully manage valuable yearlings consigned to a sale venue.
Placement and Timing
The Bio-Thermo® chip is applied in the nuchal ligament, which is midway between the poll and the withers. This is important because central placement correlates strongly with core body temperature and is less influenced by ambient temperature (i.e., the temperature of the air around the horse).
Bio-Thermo® readings should be taken at roughly the same time each day because the diurnal clock of the equine may influence fluctuations—typically warmer temps during the day and cooler at night. Scanning a horse in the morning one day and then during the evening on the next may not provide the best comparison.
Since Bio-Thermo® information is easily accessed by the handheld reader, the idea is that establishing a daily temp scanning routine has become more practical and labor efficient. If you’re already performing periodic rectal temps on your horse, the process just got a whole lot easier and more cost-effective.
Can I Still Freeze Brand My Horse?
For decades Standardbred racehorses have been identified with a freeze brand, which was deemed an improvement over lip tattooing. Now microchipping is the next logical evolution.
Yet in a few scenarios freeze brands might still be a personal preference. Your USTA ID technician can freeze brand a horse for the nominal fee of $40 when done on the same day as microchipping. You have a choice because microchipping and freeze branding are not mutually exclusive.
Change Can Be Uncomfortable
It’s been debated that microchips migrate and end up somewhere other than where they were implanted. The Bio-Thermo® microchip is coated with a bio compatible material that bonds with the ligament, naturally securing it in place. One study performed at Texas A&M University and published in the Journal of the Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) concluded that microchips implanted in 33 equids didn’t migrate.
Which ID Methodology, Microchip or Freeze Brand, Is More Comfortable for the Horse?
“I think with microchipping, there’s a lot less stress on the baby, less work for the horse holder, and it’s easier on the ID tech,” said USTA ID technician Mike Moss. “Applying a microchip is much safer for the horse and people involved.”
Microchip application takes only a few seconds. With freeze branding, the neck area needs to be shaved and prepped. After that, the ID tech walks back to the truck, gets the branding iron, and then applies it with firm pressure for about 20 seconds to the site.
Another viewpoint contends that a freeze brand makes a Standardbred more recognizable to rescue groups. However, these horses can also be identified with a handheld reader, and the microchip number can be recorded in the Home Again® databank. If a horse becomes unwanted, this network may be used to reunite the horse with its registered owner, much like what Home Again® does with lost pets. (Merck Animal Health has waived the $20 sign-up fee for each USTA-registered horse.) Of course, managing this process takes fine tuning, commitment and communication.
But neither a microchip nor a freeze brand secures a horse’s future better than responsible long-term planning. In this regard the USTA believes that microchips can be useful and is thankful and supportive of horse retraining options such as New Vocations and the USTA-inspired Standardbred Transition Alliance.
Taking Microchipping and EquiTrace to the Next Level
Now that over 40,000 Standardbreds are microchipped, how can EquiTrace and Bio-Thermo® technology be best utilized? I think the answer is education, making the platform user friendly and accessible, and demonstrating its benefits.
The USTA engaged the Brian Brown Stable to better define the user experience. This effort, so-called knowledge engineering, is intended to identify what’s important to a racing stable, and in a way that makes the time-consuming profession of training horses more efficient and productive.
From a breeding farm perspective, Sarah Mackie, DVM, the resident veterinarian at Winbak Farm, has embraced microchip technology.
“The microchip is especially helpful during yearling season when temps are required for health papers and we get them done quickly. In my experience, the microchip readings are usually within 0.1 degree of rectal temperatures,” said Dr. Mackie.
Winbak has about 330 foals each year and keeping track of them can be challenging.
“Sometimes freeze brands are hard to interpret, but there’s no doubt about the identity of a horse with a microchip,” said Dr. Mackie.
USTA President Russell Williams, also the president and CEO of Hanover Shoe Farms, said, “To remain vital, our sport must change with the times or the times will change us. Bio-Thermo® technology candidly is a tool that demonstrates our commitment to horse welfare and identification accuracy. I’m impressed.”
Modern microchip technology is here to stay. It’s used in multiple animal species, and has demonstrated decades-long benefits and a proven safety profile. It’s a humane option with the advantages of making the registry, stable management and the USTA registry more efficient. Whether you own a farm, run a racing stable, or are an owner enjoying the sport, microchipping provides a modern tool designed to enhance the experience.
The convergence of technology and an old-fashioned love of our sport is the future. With your support, we will continue to lead the equine industry, and together we will make a difference. Thank you.
The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association. To comment on this column, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.