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.