Safe Trailer ~ Safe Ride


As you shop for a trailer for your equestrian pur­suits, put the safety of your horse first by following this ex­pert seven-step guide.

AAs you shop for a trailer for your equine part­ner, put his safety first. Keep in mind that un­like the hu­man pas­sen­gers in your tow ve­hi­cle, horses rarely have seat­belts, airbags, or even crashre­sis­tant struc­tures around them. Fol­low this seven-step guide to the safety as­pects to con­sider be­fore you sign the sales con­tract.

1 Con­sider Trailer Ca­pac­ity

How much stuff are you go­ing to lug around with you? There may be more than one horse, plus sad­dles and groom­ing tools, a ma­nure fork, brooms, buck­ets, feed, and camp­ing gear. To es­ti­mate ca­pac­ity needed, you’ll need a tape mea­sure and a re­li­able scale.

Mea­sure your horse first. Not just how many hands, but how tall he is when stand­ing with his head in a nor­mal, re­laxed po­si­tion. Your trailer must have enough in­te­rior height to al­low him to raise his head and neck to a com­fort­able po­si­tion while in the trailer and dur­ing the load­ing process.

The in­te­rior height can be spec­i­fied by you as the buyer and should be more than ad­e­quate for the an­tic­i­pated horses when fully grown.

Next, weigh everything you an­tic­i­pate car­ry­ing in your trailer. (While you’re do­ing this, weigh everything you’ll carry in your tow ve­hi­cle to save time later.)

This in­cludes the weight of your horse when fully grown, tack, first-aid kit, spare tires, groom­ing sup­plies, food, bed­ding for your horse and you, your per­sonal be­long­ings in the liv­ing quar­ters, the full weight of any cook­ing fuel tanks, drink­ing wa­ter, and waste wa­ter when the tanks are full. If you’re car­ry­ing wa­ter, al­low eight pounds per gal­lon for the tanks, hoses, and fit­tings.

Keep in mind that young horses can still grow, and may gain sig­nif­i­cant weight as they ma­ture. And the amount of stuff in the trailer will grow as you ma­ture as a rider or en­counter un­met needs in the field. Now you’ll have an idea of the size and weight ca­pac­ity you’ll need.

2 Review Planned Routes

Next, drive the roads and scout the routes on which you’ll prob­a­bly be driv­ing. The ac­cess drive into the barn, the lo­cal roads to show grounds, the vet clinic, trails, train­ing lo­ca­tions can all have an ef­fect on what you buy.

Look for low bridges, weight ca­pac­ity lim­its, sharp turns, high crowns (roads with humps in the mid­dle), no shoul­ders, and poor vis­i­bil­ity at in­ter­sec­tions.

Many lo­cal roads, and most in­ter­states, have a max­i­mum empty height of 13 feet. Any bridge less than 15 feet is marked as low.

In many ar­eas, stone arch over­passes re­quire cross­ing the cen­ter line to meet the marked max­i­mum clear­ance. More and more bridges are be­ing re­stricted due to de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. Farm roads in Penn­syl­va­nia and other east­ern states are now posted for max­i­mum width and length of trail­ers, as well as ground clear­ance.

As you shop for a trailer for your equestrian pur­suits, put the safety of your horse first by following this ex­pert seven-step guide.

3 Know State and Fed­eral Laws

The size and weight of a ve­hi­cle is lim­ited by both state law and fed­eral reg­u­la­tion. Gen­er­ally, any ve­hi­cle — or the com­bi­na­tion of tow ve­hi­cle and trailer that may weigh more than 10,000 pounds on the road — must be reg­is­tered as a com­mer­cial ve­hi­cle.

If your trailer weighs more than 10,000 pounds, you must add its weight to the reg­is­tered weight of the tow ve­hi­cle pulling it. This can be an ex­pen­sive byprod­uct, in terms of ve­hi­cle in­sur­ance, reg­is­tra­tion fees, and need for com­mer­cial driv­ing li­censes, even if you’re not paid to drive.

Trail­ers can be con­sid­ered com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles if you’re in a horse-re­lated busi­ness, such as train­ing, board­ing, or bro­ker­ing, as you’re “in com­merce.” Check the lo­cal laws to avoid sur­prises.

4 Se­lect the Right Hitch

The hitch you se­lect must be ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing the an­tic­i­pated loads. It should

also pro­vide a pos­i­tive me­chan­i­cal con­nec­tion be­tween the tow ve­hi­cle and the trailer. It must be eas­ily in­spected for both main­te­nance and proper op­er­a­tion.

The hitch has two parts; one part is on your tow ve­hi­cle, and the other part is on your trailer. • Tow ve­hi­cle. Your tow ve­hi­cle has the re­ceiver, brake con­troller, half the wiring har­ness, and con­nec­tors. • Trailer. Your trailer has the cou­pler, safety chains, brakes, break­away de­vices, and a plug to con­nect its half of the wiring to your tow ve­hi­cle. There may be tor­sion bars as part of an equal­iz­ing plat­form, a sway bar or snub­ber, and other ac­ces­sories, such as a tongue jack or land­ing gear to sup­port the trailer when not hitched.

All of these com­po­nents have ca­pac­i­ties or load lim­its. All have to be matched to the trailer and tow ve­hi­cle ca­pac­i­ties. All should have eas­ily vis­i­ble in­di­ca­tions that they’re prop­erly con­nected when in use.

See a hitch spe­cial­ist when putting this fi­nal piece of the pre­pur­chase puz­zle to­gether. Hitches can fail even when prop­erly en­gi­neered and in­stalled. This is an­other area where hav­ing more than the min­i­mum tow­ing ca­pac­ity can be a life­saver.

5 Match Tow Ve­hi­cle to Trailer

Next, match your tow-ve­hi­cle ca­pac­ity to the ex­pected load. For this, you’ll need a cal­cu­la­tor, your weight es­ti­mates, and the owner’s man­u­als for can­di­date tow ve­hi­cles.

Your tow-ve­hi­cle’s owner’s man­ual in­cludes the spec­i­fi­ca­tions below you need to safely match your ve­hi­cle to the trailer load. • Gross Com­bined Weight. This is the max­i­mum weight a prop­erly equipped tow ve­hi­cle and trailer can weigh on the road, re­gard­less of reg­is­tered weight. The en­gi­neers who de­signed the tow ve­hi­cle set this num­ber based on a par­tic­u­lar com­bi­na­tion of springs, en­gine, trans­mis­sion, and dif­fer­en­tial op­tions. • Gross Ve­hi­cle Weight. This is the max­i­mum weight for the tow ve­hi­cle, fully loaded but without a trailer con­nected. • Gross Trailer Weight. As with the tow ve­hi­cle, there’s a max­i­mum weight for the trailer alone when fully loaded. • Empty weight/tare weight/pay­load. These num­bers re­fer to the un­loaded weight of the tow ve­hi­cle or trailer or in the case of pay­load in­di­cate the max­i­mum weight that can be added to an empty ve­hi­cle without ex­ceed­ing its gross weight. Ex­am­ple: A 3/4-ton pickup can carry 3/4 of a ton (1,500 pounds) over its empty weight as pay­load. This in­cludes the weight of the driver and pas­sen­gers, the weight in the bed, and ac­ces­sories added by the dealer or by you. • Tongue weight. This is the ver­ti­cal load on the hitch added by the trailer be­ing con­nected. Tag-along (bumper pull) re­ceivers and draw bars are usu­ally marked for ca­pac­ity and the owner’s man­ual for the tow ve­hi­cle will in­di­cate the ac­cept­able weights. Too much tongue weight or load will shift the tow ve­hi­cle’s weight to the rear and af­fects steer­ing and brak­ing. Too lit­tle may make the trailer un­bal­anced and dif­fi­cult to con­trol. Load­con­trol de­vices, such as equal­iz­ing hitch plat­forms or air springs, may help cor­rect this con­di­tion. How­ever, all air springs or air bags do is in­crease the load on the sus­pen­sion by jack­ing up the body to a more level at­ti­tude.

Look into other tow-ve­hi­cle fea­tures. It takes more than a big en­gine to tow a horse trailer. A heavy-duty au­to­matic trans­mis­sion with mul­ti­ple pro­grams is use­ful. You can change from no trailer to trailer and from hills to flat­lands with a sim­ple but­ton push.

Fac­tory-in­stalled tow­ing equip­ment, such as re­ceivers, elec­tric brake con­trollers, heavy duty al­ter­na­tors, oil and trans- mis­sion cool­ers, con­nec­tors, and wiring har­nesses as­sure the unit is de­liv­ered ready to go to the hitch shop for draw­bars and equal­iz­ers, and is road­wor­thy on de­liv­ery.

If you need all-wheel or se­lectable 4x4 drive sys­tems due to weather or ter­rain, in­clude a lim­ited slip dif­fer­en­tial, as well. This will help you avoid get­ting stuck be­cause one wheel is spin­ning.

Four-by-four sys­tems typ­i­cally add 1,000 pounds or more to the empty weight of a tow ve­hi­cle, and add to the cost and main­te­nance re­quire­ments.

6 Con­sider Trailer In­tegrity

At this point, you have a pretty good es­ti­mate of size, weight, load ca­pac­ity, and driv­abil­ity of the tow ve­hi­cle and trailer com­bi­na­tion you need. You have a list of re­quire­ments, a list of nice-to-haves, maybe even a list of brands or deal­ers your fel­low rid­ers have rec­om­mended. The hard­est and most crit­i­cal part of the pre­pur­chase ex­am­i­na­tion is now at hand.

De­spite our best ef­forts in try­ing to pre­vent col­li­sions and trailer up­sets, they’ll hap­pen. You might not be at fault when an­other driver skids through a stop sign or a red light, or a deer comes out of the woods.

Or maybe it’s a com­bi­na­tion of things: a long day at a show or sale, bad weather, de­bris on the road, a me­chan­i­cal fail­ure. You must an­tic­i­pate these oc­cur­rences and build your trailer to not only with­stand these in­sults but to pro­tect your horse and

you from in­jury and make ex­tri­ca­tion eas­ier, if re­quired.

Look at how the trailer is built. Is it crash-wor­thy? Will the stalls, doors, di­viders still work af­ter a hit? Can they be re­moved with the typ­i­cal hand tools on a fire en­gine? Are there al­ter­na­tive ac­cess points where large an­i­mal res­cue per­son­nel can get into the horse ar­eas and ex­tri­cate the horses or safely treat them in place?

If your horse can get over, un­der, unlatch, or climb into a space not de­signed for horses, he will. Horses will climb into hay mangers at the front of side-by-side trail­ers, break butt bars or knock them loose, and try to exit through safety doors de­signed for small peo­ple, not big horses. Avoid these fea­tures.

To­day’s trail­ers are built with light­weight ma­te­ri­als to im­prove fuel ef­fi­ciency and re­duce empty weight. Many of these ma­te­ri­als are en­gi­neered to be stressed in one direc­tion and will fail cat­a­stroph­i­cally if im­pacted in an­other direc­tion.

What is the trailer made of? Is it a plas­tic mold­ing? Foam-core pan­els with lit­tle pen­e­tra­tion strength? Or is it made from heav­ily re­in­forced alu­minum or steel sheet ma­te­ri­als with shapes de­signed to fur­ther re­in­force the struc­ture?

How much spare ca­pac­ity is de­signed into the unit? There’s no rule that says a 10,000-pound gross trailer weight has to have 12,000 pounds of sus­pen­sion ca­pac­ity, but a safety mar­gin is nice to have.

7 Con­sider Other Safety Fea­tures

Fi­nally, con­sider the trailer’s in­te­rior fea­tures, as fol­lows. • Liner. The in­te­rior of the trailer, es­pe­cially the horse ar­eas if they’re sep­a­rate, must re­sist your horse’s ef­forts to destroy them. Con­sider hav­ing a liner in­stalled that can ab­sorb im­pact and can be eas­ily re­placed when da­m­aged. Plac­ing thick ply­wood sheets in­side the trailer can be the dif­fer­ence be­tween a hoof pen­e­trat­ing the side­wall or just re­plac­ing a piece of ply­wood with a dent in it. • Trailer floor. Whether you choose a wooden or metal floor, it’ll need an an­ti­cor­ro­sion coat­ing and reg­u­lar in­spec­tions. In­stall mats to pro­tect both your trailer and your horse. • Door latches. Choose pos­i­tive-ac­tion latches that can’t be un­locked without def­i­nite ac­tion. Avoid snap-lock latches, which latch when the door closes and unlatch via pulling on a large han­dle. These latches of­ten fail to latch when the lock­ing bolt isn’t en­gaged by the springloaded de­vices. Even when locked with a key, these types of door locks can fail to en­gage or eas­ily fail if the trailer door is bent by a col­li­sion, a kick, or a thief. Trail­ers equipped with ramps or half doors (Dutch doors) of­ten lack pos­i­tive latch­ing de­vices or re­quire a spe­cific se­quence to open and close the doors. • Di­vider or stall locks. The di­vider or stall panel locks keep your horse within the stall area. Make sure these are pos­i­tive-ac­tion de­vices that can’t be un­locked without a def­i­nite ac­tion. The door bolts on com­mer­cial cargo trail­ers or con­tain­ers are good ex­am­ples. The bolt is se­cured top and bot­tom with eas­ily vis­i­ble re­straints mounted to the frame of the door­way. The ac­tu­at­ing han­dle is then ro­tated to en­gage the locks and placed in a fur­ther re­straint to keep it from ro­tat­ing open ac­ci­den­tally. • Warn­ing lights and de­vices. The hazard warn­ing light fea­ture flashes both the right- and left-turn sig­nals or brake lights to­gether to mark the sides of the stopped ve­hi­cle. Use of wig-wag or criss­cross pat­terns is con­fus­ing and may be il­le­gal. If your state re­quires car­ry­ing flares or traf­fic cones, make sure they com­ply with the lo­cal laws and the fed­eral reg­u­la­tions. Their height, color, re­flec­tiv­ity, and spac­ing on the high­way are reg­u­lated based on type of road and traf­fic speed. TTR Irvin Licht­en­stein has more than 42 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence as an emer­gency re­spon­der, trainer, and planner. He’s a cer­ti­fied in­struc­tor (emer­i­tus) for non-live fire courses of­fered by the Penn­syl­va­nia State Fire Academy and re­gional train­ing fa­cil­i­ties. Since 1985, he’s been a ve­hi­cle-res­cue in­struc­tor and an emer­gency med­i­cal tech­ni­cian. He has taught first aid and car­diopul­monary re­sus­ci­ta­tion (CPR) for the Red Cross for al­most 40 years and also re­sponds to vic­tim-as­sis­tance calls with the Red Cross Dis­as­ter As­sis­tance Team. He’s cer­ti­fied by FEMA to teach the In­ci­dent Com­mand Sys­tem through 400-level courses.

As you trailer shop, put the safety of your equine first. Shown is a stock trailer with a steel frame. Note the door latch on safety door.

The hitch you se­lect must be ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing the an­tic­i­pated loads. In the tongue or-A-frame are the elec­tri­cal junc­tion (the white box), the safety chain, the break­away switch, and pull wire. Brack­ets are for equal­izer hitch tor­sion bars.

Check the tires in­side and out. Have the dealer pull the wheels to check the brakes, the wheel bear­ings, the air pres­sure, and tire con­di­tion.

Left: Eval­u­ate how the trailer is built. Is it crash-wor­thy? Will the stalls, doors, and di­viders still work af­ter a hit? Mid­dle: Choose pos­i­tive-ac­tion latches that can’t be un­locked without def­i­nite ac­tion. Right: The in­te­rior of the trailer, es­pe­cially the horse ar­eas, must re­sist your horse’s ef­forts to destroy them.

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