New Zealand harness horse racing: Iron branding of foals to be phased out

New Zealand harness racing horses are facing big change as a tradition dating back to the 1970s is phased out. 

From next season, all foals will be microchipped instead of being branded by an iron on their neck. 

The age-old technique used on standard-bred foals involves dipping a branding iron into dry ice before pressing it onto the foal's neck. 

A South Island horse identifier says it aims to kill pigment in the foals hair.

"What we're trying to do is kill the pigment in the hair, not kill the hair follicle because we want the hair to grow back white." 

Harness Racing New Zealand says the practice doesn't hurt, but it's not pain propelling the change to microchipping - it's the ability to provide more accurate identification.

"Moving into a modern era, we're one of the last racing jurisdictions to adopt microchipping. They provide accurate identification," explains Liz Bishop, Harness Racing New Zealand's general manager of corporate services. 

The chip is inserted into the horse's neck muscle - it's the size of a grain of rice - and carries a 15-digit number unique to the horse. A scanner can then be used to identify the animal. 

The move brings New Zealand in line with several other countries already microchipping instead of branding. 

"We were watching to see particularly what our Australian colleagues were doing to see if there were any issues so we could learn from them," Bishop says.

Animal welfare organisation SAFE says it's a positive move but believes more could be done. 

"People [have] been microchipping their cats and dogs for who knows how long so they are obviously slow on this issue," says SAFE Spokesperson Will Appelbe.

"I think it's an indicator of wider problems in horse racing in general."