Safe & Sound On the Road
Many horse owners think of the trailer first, but safety starts with the tow vehicle itself, which should be regularly serviced and well maintained.
People often overestimate towing capacity and try to get away with using a vehicle that isn’t up to the task. Check the owner’s manual for gross vehicle weight and stay under the limits. Remember, your total weight includes not just the trailer and horse(s), but everything else you put in the trailer.
Make sure your vehicle has the proper hitch for hauling a horse trailer and that it is securely attached to the frame. A bumper hitch isn’t adequate or safe for hauling horses. Tow mirrors aren’t a necessity, but they definitely make it easier to see the trailer.
Check Those Tires
The tires on both your tow vehicle and horse trailer must be in good shape. First, let’s talk tire age. That’s right, you can look at your tires to find out when they were manufactured. Look closely and you’ll find a year date on the sidewall.
Don’t rely on appearance, since many trailers aren’t used often enough to wear out the tires. The tread may appear perfectly fine, but there can be dry rot and tires begin to deteriorate from the inside.
“Many trailers have old tires, so check the date. You really should not be using tires older than five years,” cautions Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, president and main instructor of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER), which has compiled a database of over 1,000 trailer wrecks since 1993. Based in Macon, Georgia, TLAER provides courses around the country on rescuing horses and other large animals from entrapments, such as trailer wrecks, etc.
Even if tires are in good condition, they must be properly inflated. You can’t verify this by kicking your tires, so buy a gauge and check them before you load the trailer. Don’t forget to check the spare, as well.
“Check the tires on your truck, too, and that means all six if you have a dually,” says Gimenez. “It’s bad enough if you blow a tire on the trailer or the back axle of the truck, but if you lose a tire on the steering axle (front), you will lose control.”
Bearings should be packed and greased once a year, even if you only use your trailer a couple times.
Travel includes some degree of stress for any horse, reduce this by taking steps to prepare him for hauling.
“If you have any questions or aren’t sure about maintaining your trailer, you can haul it to a reliable mechanic or trailer shop and they can go over it for you,” Gimenez adds. “Most states don’t require an annual inspection of trailers, so you should have this done yourself each year.”
Hitch Up Right
It sounds like a no-brainer, but the ball on your receiver MUST match the trailer hitch. Incorrect ball size is the most common reason trailers come unhitched. If the ball is the right size and the trailer is hitched properly, it will not come undone.
“Hitching is very important. Once the hitch is on the ball, there must be a pin or other mechanism to make sure it stays where it should be,” Gimenez notes. “You can get a long-shanked locking pin and this will also make sure no one can mess with your hitch while the trailer is parked.
“You also want to check the pin that holds your receiver in the hitch,” she adds. “Replace it whenever there’s any evidence of wear or tear. A locking pin will keep your receiver from coming loose or being stolen.”
Always connect the safety chains/cables from the trailer to the tow vehicle.
Before you pull out of the driveway, double-check that your lights and trailer brakes are working correctly. Make sure the brake control box in your vehicle is engaged and registers that it’s working with the trailer brakes.
Keep Safety in Mind
Wood floors topped with rubber mats are common in horse trailers, but should be inspected regularly.
“Even if a wood floor is in great shape, it should be replaced at least every 10 years because manure and urine are destructive to wood,” says Gimenez.
You may want to consider an alternative to wood floors, such as poured-in rubber material or “boards” of composite material made from recycled rubber and plastics.
Rubber mats on the floor provide traction, but a layer of shavings will provide additional cushion and make it more comfortable for the horse to urinate if on a long trip. Just be sure to use large flake shavings to reduce dust particles blowing around inside the trailer. Don’t use straw; it can be too slippery atop the rubber mats.
It’s tempting to put tack and equipment in the “nose” of the trailer, but don’t do this unless there is a dividing wall between that section and the horse compartment. Without a wall to separate them, any objects in this area can become projectiles and possibly injure your horse in the event of an accident, or if you have to slam on the brakes in an emergency.
Put together human and equine first aid kits and keep them with you when traveling. In addition to your horse’s health and Coggins papers, you should have your own emergency contact information readily available. It’s also a good idea to store such contact info on your cell phone under the name ICE (“in case of emergency”).
Is Your Horse Ready?
Travel includes some degree of stress for any horse, but you can reduce this by taking steps to prepare him for hauling.
Before planning a trip, take whatever time is needed to work with your horse so he loads and unloads quietly and easily.
If you want to protect his lower legs while traveling (and this is a very good idea), get him used to the wraps or boots well before you put him in a trailer. Otherwise, something new on his legs will just add to his anxiety.
Hang a hay bag/net so he has forage to eat while traveling. If possible, bring some water from home or get him accustomed to water flavored with a little molasses or Kool-Aid (use the envelope without added sugar since all you want is flavor) to encourage drinking.
Always drive with your horse in mind. This means gradual acceleration and braking. Keep enough distance from other vehicles so that you don’t have to make sharp turns or sudden stops. You’re hauling precious cargo, so drive defensively.
It may help to print out a checklist so you can run through it any time you haul. One overlooked detail can be the difference between a safe outing and a disaster. Take responsibility! If someone else hooks up the trailer, double-check carefully to be sure all is done correctly. Better still, do it yourself.
- Make sure you have up-to-date Coggins papers and any necessary horse health documents, including your own emergency contact information with you.
- Check that first aid kits are well stocked and up-to-date.
- Check the condition and air pressure of all tires (including spares) on the trailer and tow vehicle.
- Check the fluids on the tow vehicle.
- Start with a full tank of gas.
- Hitch the trailer and double-check all connections and pins, including safety chains/cables.
- Check inside the trailer before loading the horses to be sure there are no hazards or damage.
- Open the vents and windows, but be sure the horses cannot put their heads outside the trailer.
- Check to see that all lights and brakes are working. Have someone stand behind the trailer to verify light function.
- Check the brakes again once the horses are loaded, and verify that the brake control box in the tow vehicle shows the brakes are engaged and working.
- Once the horses are loaded, double-check that all latches and doors are secure.
- Drive with the headlights on.
- Always double-check your tow vehicle, hitch and trailer carefully anytime it’s been parked unattended at a show, event, trailhead or rest area. This way you’ll notice if anything’s been tampered with before you hit the road again.
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