Guide to reading cattle brands

Photo of a wooden boards with brands.
Local cattle brands are on display at the 1902 Stockyard Exchange Building. | Photo by @FTWtoday

It’s no surprise that the livestock trade has influenced the culture of Cowtown, particularly with cattle brands that pop up all over the place — and not just on the business side of a cow. But these funny symbols can often be a language of their own, so we’re cracking the code with this quick guide to cattle brands

Bit o’ history

Livestock branding dates back to the ancient Egyptians but has had a long history in Texas. Ranches developed custom brands to help differentiate their herds from others, often using the owner’s initials or part of the land’s history in the symbol. Variations on the letters helped brands stand out. 

Guthrie’s 6666 Ranch supposedly got its name when owner Samuel “Burk” Burnett won the ranch in a poker game with four sixes in the winning hand — although real estate records claim he named the land after the first cattle he purchased. ICYMI: The 6666 Ranch recently sold to Fort Worth’s “Yellowstone” producer Taylor Sheridan.  

One of the most famous brands, the “Running W” is the mark of Kingsville’s King Ranch, which is said to have gotten its name when Capt. Richard King bought the land from William Mann in 1862 and flipped Mann’s brand upside down. Even if you’re new to Texas, you’ve probably seen this brand on Ford F-series trucks

Let’s break it down

Brands are read left to right, top to bottom, or outside to inside, and the orientation and form of the letter or number make up part of its name. Brands are often combinations of characters and symbols and can also be identified by shapes like diamonds, circles, bars, rails + more. 

  • Backward characters are “reversed.”
  • Leaning or tipping characters are “tumbling.”
  • Upside-down characters are “crazy.” 
  • Characters lying on their sides are “lazy.”
  • Curved characters with rounded angles are “running.”
  • Curvy dashes on either side are “flying.”
  • Bottom serifs angled to the right are “walking.”
  • Bottom serifs angled to the left are “dragged.”
  • Characters set on top of a quarter circle are “rocking.”
  • Characters attached to quarter circles at the top are “hanging” or “swinging.”

Interested in a custom logo? The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association created a guide to help people design their own brands. 

Brands in the wild

Brands are still used in the cattle industry but have been adopted for other businesses — particularly those with Western themes — like restaurants, western wear stores, and honky tonks. Here are a few places to spot brands around Cowtown.

Photo of a western wear sign.
Lazy J sign on N. Main Street. | Photo by @FTWtoday

Lazy J Ranch Wear, 2405 N. Main St. | Don’t sleep on this northside boot store.

Photo of a menu
Riscky’s Steakhouse menu. | Photo by @FTWtoday

Riscky’s Steakhouse, 120 E. Exchange Ave. | Check out the stories behind the ranch brands inside the menu. 

Photo of storefront
King Ranch Saddle Shop in the Stockyards. | Photo by @FTWtoday

King Ranch Saddle Shop, 128 E. Exchange Ave. | Stop by for leather goods featuring the famous Running W brand. 

Now that you’re a brand-readin’ pro, test your skills with this quiz