Photo: Christy M. West
If you own a barn, sooner or later you're going to have to think about investing in some horsepower. And unless your hobby is old-fashioned draft-horse farming, you'll need some motorized muscle on your side.
All trucks might seem similar, but when you're thinking about hauling a trailer filled with horses, you need to make sure you're buying the right vehicle. As a general rule, Cherry Hill, author of Equipping your Horse Farm: Tractors, Trailers and Other Implements (with Richard Klimesh, Storey Publishing), said that there are rules of thumb to follow.
"A full-size half-ton truck can pull a two-horse tagalong weighing 5,000 pounds fully loaded; a three-quarter-ton dually can pull a two-horse tagalong with dressing room or a three- or four- horse gooseneck weighing 7,000 pounds fully loaded," she said. "A one-ton dually can pull a five- to six-horse gooseneck weighing 10,000 pounds fully loaded."
Adds John Estep, spokesmen for Sundowner Trailers, "One-ton duallys are rated to pull a fully loaded gooseneck weighing from 14,000 to 16,000 pounds depending on truck's axle and transmission, and anything at or above that needs a bigger tow vehicle, such as the Ford F-450 or one of the increasingly popular medium duty trucks by International or Freightliner. But I always urge people to choose a heavier vehicle because a six-horse trailer full of Arabians or Quarter Horses will weigh lighter than that same trailer full of warmbloods or drafts."
Note: the term ton denotes load-carrying capacity, but safety and suitability depends on the vehicle's Maximum Trailer Weight Rating (MTWR), the weight rating of the hitch, and the overall combined weight of the fully loaded vehicle and trailer.
"Many mid-size sport utility vehicles or SUVs are rated to tow less than 5,000 pounds," said Hill. "For safety reasons these vehicles cannot be outfitted with a hitch rated high enough to pull a loaded horse trailer. They do not have adequate wheel base length for stability. And they do not have a high enough gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) to carry passengers and cargo plus the tongue weight from a loaded trailer."
Some companies are now manufacturing a lighter two-horse tagalong (also called a bumper pull) that the mid- to large-size SUV can handle. Some of the new large SUVs have the specs to perform like a half-ton truck, so they could be considered to pull a two-horse trailer without a dressing room.
"To be able to safely accommodate this lighter trailer," said Estep. "Your SUV must handle at least a 5,000-pound fully loaded trailer with a 500-pound minimum tongue weight."
If you only need a trailer occasionally, then a standard trailer with no frills will be sufficient. For multiple horses, a stock trailer with dividers and ties will work. If you only have one or two horses, choose a two-horse tag-along that fits your largest horse.
"A two- to three-horse bumper pull trailer may be the best choice for the occasional user simply because it can be pulled by just about any type of vehicle," said Nicole Ausdemore from Featherlite.
If you're hauling different sized horses together, your trailer should provide ample head room and length to allow the largest horse to travel in a comfortable position and adjustable enough to prevent a smaller horse from turning around. Trailers can have full dividers, extensions, swinging mats, and even removable dividers. Breast and butt bars can also be lowered and raised.
Anyone traveling more than 10 hours at a time should take the horse's comfort into consideration because long-haul travel can be extremely stressful for a horse. Shipping fever (respiratory and pulmonary disorders contracted during shipping) is a common issue, so choose features to lessen travel stress.
"Good-quality tires and rubber torsion suspension, which is now becoming standard in the trailer business, is a must for comfort during long hauls," said Tom Scheve, co-author of The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining and Servicing a Horse Trailer (co-authored with his wife, Neva Kittrell Scheve). "Rubber torsion replaces the old drop leaf or shackle spring system. This self-contained suspension system absorbs at least 97% of road shock and vibration, creating a smoother ride for the horse. And if you get a flat, the trailer will continue to track straight ahead until you can change the flat."
Ausdemore adds, "Vented feed and exit doors will let more light in and increase airflow. Trailers windows can be fitted with screens to keep out unwanted road debris and insects."
Both Hill and Estep recommend a gooseneck trailer if you are hauling more than four horses long-distance because the weight is distributed more evenly between both axles of the towing vehicle.
Another kind of trailer that is useful around the farm is a wagon or cart designed to be pulled behind a tractor or truck. This can be useful for carrying fencing materials or haul loads of hay from one barn to another. Small carts, such as a dumper type four-wheeled barrow, can even be hitched onto a small garden tractor. Larger trailers, such as a flat bed trailer, can be multi-purpose for truck and tractor. "But sometimes the farm trailers are less road-worthy and can only go at slow speeds," adds Hill.
Although there are four types of tractors available, Hill said most horse farm owners would be interested in the compact (including the subcompact) and the utility. The other two are the lawn and garden tractor and the farm tractor.
The lawn and garden has up to 25 horsepower. Although this vehicle is not for heavy work, it's useful for work that your larger tractor is too big for. "For instance, it can be equipped with a wagon and driven into a barn to remove smaller amounts of manure and can be used for lighter mowing chores," said Hill.
The compact tractor has 25 to 45 horsepower and is suitable for a five- to 10-acre farm that might have four or five horses. With this you could pull a friction drive manure spreader or attach a bucket to groom the driveway.
The utility tractor has 45 to 80 horsepower and works great for a larger farm. "We have 70 acres that we need to maintain so we have a 65 horsepower tractor," said Hill. "With this workhorse we have all the power to run the necessary implements."
The largest tractor, the farm tractor, is really for working land, so unless someone is making their own hay or planting crops, this size won't be used on a horse farm.
Another choice is the utility vehicle with a dump bed. This is good for people who want to zoom around a barn, pick up a day's worth of manure, and dump it.
"You could pull a harrow with it to smooth a driveway," said Hill. "But you wouldn't want to harrow a large arena because it would take a long time."
An important feature to consider in a compact or utility tractor is the power takeoff (PTO), which uses the tractor's engine to power implements.
"It's a quickly revolving drive shaft that gives your mower, spreader, or digger a lot of power," said Hill. If you are going to do heavy-duty mowing, you will need a PTO. Or you'll have to get a self-contained, gas powered mower that you have to start up and pull behind the tractor. If you have a (small) tractor without a PTO, you'll need to buy a friction drive manure spreader, which spreads only when the wheels are rolling. With a PTO running, the manure spreader keeps flinging the manure even when the tractor is standing still. You can even empty the load in one pile."
So where do you go to buy a tractor? Although they are often offered for sale through private treaty or at auction, Hill said it's a buyer beware situation.
"Auctions and private sales are good only if you really know what you are looking for and know about tractor mechanics," she said. "You might end up buying something that needs repairs and that's very expensive."
The solution is work with a reputable dealer who will help you narrow your choices. If you can swing it, Hill said a new tractor is the best way to go because there will be a warranty. However, sometimes dealers will sell a used tractor that has been reconditioned and has a short warranty.
Spreader--The capacity will depend upon how much manure/bedding you have and how much spreading you want to do. For example, if you have five to 10 horses and you spread the composted manure once a year, you'll need spreader with a 90-cubic foot capacity struck (struck means level with the top of the sides)/135-cubic foot capacity heaped. It takes approximately seven tractor bucket loads to fill a spreader of that size.
Mower--To keep pastures in good shape a mower is a necessity. The pull-behind rotary mower is a popular choice for grooming pastures and keeping weeds under control. "These are flat and have a rotary blade under a big heavy shield. The bigger models can even mow shrubs and brush," said Hill.
Bucket--The bucket is something that every tractor should have; most new tractors have them as standard. With a bucket you can transport and dump quickly. Buckets can be difficult for one person to remove, so an automatic removable bucket is a nice feature to look for.
Harrow--Hill said to think about what you want to use your harrow for. "I have two: a rotary for grooming arena footing and an adjustable spike tooth to smooth out the pastures and break up manure clumps."
A rotary harrow digs and turns as it's pulled, which makes it a great choice for the arena. An adjustable spike harrow will break up soil, and the English harrow, which looks like a section of chain link fence, is typically used for smoothing.
"You could use these for an arena, but the rotary is ideal because it digs and smooths as it rotates," said Hill. "A spike harrow will just make furrows."
Blade--With a blade you can level pens and rutted driveways and plow snow. Blades are available in front-, rear-, and belly-mounted blade. The front blade resembles a snowplow, the rear blade is handy for leveling, and the belly blade is set at angle to push snow to the side.
Auger or posthole digger--When people have horses they are always putting in more fences, so an auger is a feature you might want to consider. You can purchase a hand-held gas-powered auger, but if you if you're going to digging many holes, then a tractor auger might be more convenient.
Take Home Message
There's a lot to know when buying equipment for your farm. Our experts agree that you don't want something so small that you'll end up overpowering it, or something so large that it will be impractical. Consider your needs carefully and write a checklist of what you want. When considering your vehicle, find out which of your desired implements and/or trailers will work with it and make your choice from there.
About the Author
Sharon Biggs Waller is a freelance writer for equine science and human interest publications. Her work has appeared in several publications and on several websites, and she is a classical dressage instructor.