The practice of containing animals in circular-shaped pens for branding gave
birth to the first rodeos. The rodeo assumed official status in 1574, when
the Spanish government began regulating them in Mexico.
Rodeos and Branding Irons
by Susana Kirchberg
Branding Irons, an instrument of discomfort we usually associate with old
Hopalong Cassidy films, have been around for a long time.
Originally introduced into Mexico during the first decade of the Spanish
conquest (1519-1530), early brands employed by the Spaniards simply
denoted the animals' place of origin.
Today branding is more regulated, with marks indicating specific farms or
owners. The great majority of horses brought into Mexico during and
inmediately after the Conquest came from breeding ranches established in
the mid 1490's, on the colonized islands of Cuba and Jamaica.
According to brand marks appearing on animals depicted in the Lienzo
de Tlaxcala Codex, and from other sources, we can see that most of the
horses used during the attack on the Aztec capital, Tenochtitla'n (now
Mexico City) were of Cuban origin.
With colonization came the rapid growth of breeding horses and livestock
in Mexico making the "place of origin" method of branding animals
obsolete. On top of that, the new Mexican herds grazed on communal lands.
Respective owners were experiencing increasing difficulty in
distinguishing their herds from those of neighboring ranches. To ease this
confusion, in 1529 Spanish authorities in Mexico City issued the first
ordinance calling for the registration of brands by each ranch and horse-
breeding establishment. These early brands took the form of complex
detailed scrolls ornate geometric patterns and letters.
With the development of New Spain, ranches and herds continued to grow in
number and size.
Problems were created by the burden of branding large herds on the open
range. Colonists began using circular-shaped pens to contain their animals
As time passed, branding took on the gaiety of a fiesta. Cheered on by
spectators, ranch hands tried to outdo one another in speed and skill as
they wielded the hot irons.
The practice of containing the animals to be branded gave birth to the
rodeo. These spectacles assumed official status in 1574, when the Spanish
goverment began officially regulating rodeos in Mexico.
Branding irons vary greafly in intricacy as well as size. The detailed
scrolls, patterns and letters used in colonial times have remained popular
in Mexico to this very day. U.S. brand insignias tend to he simpler in
design, these brands using crisp letters or geometric shapes. Larger irons
are used for catfie and smaller ones primarily for horses.
The most common type of branding iron is known as the "stamp brand."
The brand mark on this type of iron is forged to a long metal handle-
rod. The handle is either then finished with a closed loop for hanging or
with a hollow opening to allow for a wood handle extention.
Other types of branding instrurients are the "running iron" and "branding
ring". The former is a straight piece of metal wrought from a strip of
iron. Its handle is attached at an angle to the rod and used to brand the
animal freehand, rather like using a pencil.
This type of iron was popular among both settlers and rustlers in the Old
The "branding ring" is a ring of copper manipulated by stick handles to
create the type of brand desired. The main advantage of this type of
branding device is compactness, as it can easily he carried on horseback
for use on the open range.
The detailed scrolls, paenns and letters used in Colonial times have
remained popular inMexico to this very day.
Recently, branding irons have become much sought-after collectors' items.
The most valuable come from well-known ranches. A prospective buyer should
look for quality and intricacy of craftsmanship, and be on guard for
recent repairs or additions (such as replaced handles).
Also look for hand-wrought irons, as opposed to the newer welded ones.
Beware of reproductions that are now begining to infiltrate the market.
Ernesto Icaza's (1870-1926) "charreria" paintings treated the theme with attention to detail. A charro himself, he faithfully interpreted the animals, the feats and accesories in his art-- which has reached the status of "investment quality."
"Stamp brands," like these, are the most common type of irons. Modern brands indicate specific ranches, but early Spanish colonial branding irons were used to denote the animals' country of origin.