Horse Identification Lip Tattoos

horse racing tattoo
The horse identifier checks a lip tattoo on a Thoroughbred Race Horse. Cindy Pierson Dulay

Most breeds of horses racing in North America are required to have a lip tattoo for identification purposes prior to their first race. This tattoo is inside the upper lip and is linked to the registration papers to identify the horse and owner. The identifying lip tattoo service was started in 1947 by the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau: It was so effective that most states now require a tattoo on all racehorses.

Reading Tattoos

If you purchase a retired race horse and have no registration papers, you can use the tattoo to find its registered name (for free) and even information about its racing career (for a fee). This tattoo can also be useful in identifying stolen horses.

A thoroughbred tattoo has one letter, which indicates the year of birth, followed by four or five numbers, with horses over 25 years of age having only four. Horses foaled outside North America will also have an asterisk (*) at the beginning of the tattoo. The Jockey Club has a free tattoo-lookup and research registry, as well as a tattoo frequently asked questions section, which includes a video of how to read a lip tattoo.

Tattoo Characteristics

  • A standardbred tattoo always has five characters, either a letter and four numbers or two letters and three numbers. The first letter in the tattoo indicates the year of birth. You can look up a standardbred tattoo online for free here. There is also a list of all tattoo numbers by horse name of foals born from 1996 through 2010 here.
  • A quarterhorse tattoo has four or five numbers followed by a letter, making it easy to tell from a thoroughbred tattoo. You can get more information about quarterhorse tattoos and registration here, and the American Quarter Horse Association will look up a tattoo number for free if you call the organization at 806-376-4811.
  • Most Appaloosas are tattooed even if they have not raced in the past, and some information about their marks is available here. Arabians are also tattooed with the last six digits of the horse's registration certificate number.

Identifying Information

Lip tattoos are applied by technicians licensed through the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, and you can find more information about the tattoos and how they came to be here. The group also offers a free service to help you research your horse's tattoo to find the registered name.

Below is a chart showing the year of birth associated with the letter in the lip tattoo for thoroughbred and standardbred horses. For thoroughbreds, it is always the first characters in the tattoo. For standarbreds, the first character in the tattoo is used for the earlier years, while for the later years, it will be the second character. For standardbreds foaled in 1981 and before, the last (fifth) character indicates the year of foaling, starting with Z for 1981 and going backward in the alphabet.

 

Thoroughbreds
A = 1971 or 1997
B = 1972 or 1998
C = 1973 or 1999
D = 1974 or 2000
E = 1975 or 2001
F = 1976 or 2002
G = 1977 or 2003
H = 1978 or 2004
I = 1979 or 2005
J = 1980 or 2006
K = 1981 or 2007
L = 1982 or 2008
M = 1983 or 2009
N = 1984 or 2010
O = 1985 or 2011
P = 1986 or 2012
Q = 1987 or 2013
R = 1988 or 2014
S = 1989 or 2015
T = 1990 or 2016
U = 1991 or 2017
V = 1992 or 2018
W = 1993 or 2019
X = 1994 or 2020
Y = 1995 or 2021
Z = 1996 or 2022

Standardbreds
A = 1982 or 2003
B = 1983 or 2004
C = 1984 or 2005
D = 1985 or 2006
E = 1986 or 2007
F = 1987 or 2008
G = 1988 or 2009
H = 1989 or 2010
J = 1990 or 2011
K = 1991 or 2012
L = 1992 or 2013
M = 1993 or 2014
N = 1994 or 2015
P = 1995 or 2016
R = 1996 or 2017
S = 1997 or 2018
T = 1998 or 2019
V = 1999 or 2020
W = 2000 or 2021
X = 2001 or 2022
Z = 2002 or 2023

Note that I, O, Q, U and Y are not used for standardbreds