Breaking down the meaning of a brand

Livestock branding is not only a function of large-scale organization and management, it’s also an exercise in communication and design.

Marking an animal with a hot iron to identify its owner is not something created by modernity; in fact, it dates as far back as ancient Egypt. Summarized by Fay E. Edward in The Cowboy at Work, “a unique brand meant that cattle owned by multiple ranches could then graze freely together on the open range. Cowboys could then separate the cattle at ‘roundup’ time for driving to market.”

On the whole, brands are highly regulated and are treated as their own language. Smithsonian Magazine recently broke down the creative, intriguing process:

At its most basic, a cattle brand is composed of a few simple letters and numbers, possibly in combination with a basic shape or symbols like a line, circle, heart, arc, or diamond. But these characters can also be embellished with serif-like flourishes to create myriad “pyroglyphics.” For example, such serifs might include extraneous “wings” or “feet” added to a letter or number.

Each character can also be rotated or reversed. Every addition and variation results in a unique character that is named accordingly. The letters with “wings” for example, are described as “flying” while those with “feet” are, you guessed it, “walking.” An upside-down characters is “crazy” while a 90-degree rotation makes a character “lazy.”

These colorful designations aren’t just cute nicknames used to identify the characters, but are actually a part of the name, a spoken part of the brand language, which like most western languages is read from left to right, top to bottom and, perhaps unique to brands, outside to inside.

Learning any new language is difficult, much less creating one, so The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association has a guide to designing your own cattle brand.

But we won't blame you if that's too much work — you can always just order a poster of the 200 most iconic and picturesque "irons" from Frontier Times to hang nicely on the wall of your home on the range.