Shop The Used Trailer Lot

Truck, auto, boat, plane--buying used saves money. A pre-owned horse trailer also can offer economy over a new one. To bring home the best buy, learn how to evaluate the condition of a secondhand trailer.

You might find the right used trailer from a dealer, but most likely you'll deal with a private party. The seller might or might not be a reliable source of information about the trailer's condition and use (or abuse). This article will help you "vet" each candidate--just like you would a prospective horse purchase. Like horses, trailers must be sound. All systems must function properly for safety.

Does the trailer meet your specs? Determine your basic requirements. What number of horses will you be hauling? If only one or two, the added expense of a "good deal" four-horse trailer won't pay off.

Does the trailer's weight and coupler match your towing vehicle's capacity and hitch? Is the height appropriate for the horses you'll haul?

Beyond capacity, ask about construction and step-up or ramp entry. Is the basic fabrication steel, aluminum on steel, or aluminum? Some lightweight European trailers feature a galvanized steel frame with sides of a laminate wood, resin, and fiberglass product.

Note the manufacturer's name and year of production. A reputable brand name implies quality construction.

If the trailer's configuration meets your needs, plan a systematic inspection. You'll seek defects in the trailer's two basic systems: the chassis and the horse containment area. Then you'll inspect the subsystems of those systems.

Overall Exterior Appearance

First impressions carry an impact. When you first see the trailer, can you picture this trailer occupying your parking space?

A used trailer's appearance reflects its owner's concern. It can look as good as new, if it's been gently used, conscientiously maintained, and regularly housed under cover. Obvious and subtle flaws reveal a lack of attention.

Walk around the entire trailer to look at the condition of the paint. You'll easily notice any major damage, such as dents in the front or sides.

Confirm the materials used in construction of the frame and walls and the model name or number of the trailer. Ask to see the trailer's proof of registration to validate at least some of its pedigree.

Even if the seller doesn't volunteer information about the construction, you can investigate with the manufacturer (if still in business). Jot down the serial number and call the company for more details on the model and production date, and to learn more about the type of axles, metal body, and paint used.

Condition Of The Chassis

The chassis system includes structural and moving component subsystems. On any trailer, examine the exterior structure for signs of corrosion of metal alloys. Steel (a ferrous alloy) eventually will rust, so it requires protection. Paint is a rust barrier, shielding steel from oxidation. Mark Podeyn of Action RV, Albuquerque, N.M., specializes in inspecting and servicing steel and aluminum horse trailers. He explained, "Paint is the only thing to protect steel from rust. We look for rust on all trailers."

He described how rust can be cosmetic or structural. On a steel fender, consider a rusty scrape as cosmetic. Structural rust is more serious, generated from moisture from the inside out. Inside the trailer, the horse produces moisture as he breathes and sweats. Condensation damages steel that's not protected by paint. The rust is called "cancer" by body shops, and you can see it as bubbles rather than the scrape of cosmetic rust.

Manufacturers might use coated steel, such as galvanized or "galvanneal" on frame or walls. These treatments increase the steel's resistance to corrosion. If paint is scratched from a galvanized wall, you shouldn't see rust on the steel's surface.

Aluminum alloy won't rust, but it will corrode. On aluminum, look for electro-chemical corrosion, also called electrolysis or "white rust."

Bruce MacKenzie, of MacKenzie Farms, Conyers, Ga., deals in new and used trailers. He said, "White rust is equivalent to the oxide color you get on steel. The chalky powder is the zinc breaking down in the aluminum alloy." He added, "Microbes and bacteria will attack any metal--aluminum is also attacked."

Notice if the roof is metal or fiberglass. The latter reduces weight.

A Roadworthy Trailer

Now inspect the moving components of the chassis system--the running gear and coupler. "Make sure that the trailer is structurally sound--frame, coupler, floor--and that the brakes, lights, and wiring are okay. Then look at the cosmetics," Podeyn advises.

Most trailers run on tandem axles. Suspension is either leaf spring, torsion, or air.

The leaf spring is a mechanical suspension. Springs bend to absorb shock, and are subject to corrosion and wear.

The torsion suspension is a rubber-cushioned axle assembly. The torsion bar, enclosed in rubber inside a steel tube, gives the trailer an independent suspension on each wheel. "The actual suspension components are hidden," said MacKenzie. "There's no way to determine the condition of the rubber until you have a failure."

Some high-end manufacturers offer air suspension on horse trailers. This option increases the trailer's original cost, but delivers a smoother ride through air-filled rubber bags. Monty Peliti of 4-Star Trailers said, "The air ride is self-contained in the trailer, so any truck can pull it. It runs off a 12-volt system, using a hot wire that 99% of trucks already have."

At this point, you can ask who has been servicing the vehicle, and later check with them."The highest number of repairs are wheel bearings and running gear problems," said Podeyn. He recommends regular servicing, especially packing the wheel bearings.

Look at the brake mechanism. The shackle bar should be solidly attached, as bolts and shackle links are prone to wear. Brake wiring should be protected under a cover. Any exposed wiring can be damaged by road hazards. Podeyn explained, "The weight of snow and ice can pull wires loose."

Check wiring of clearance lights and tail lights. Also note if any plastic covers or bulbs are missing or damaged.

Look at all four tires to be sure they match in type and size. Examine the tires for excess wear or rotting. If tires appear "weather checked," the pattern indicates that the cords can be separating. Tires can be replaced, so consider poor tires as a bargaining factor.

Examine the coupler (hitch) to see if it's damaged in any way. On a bumper pull trailer, you'll usually see a clamshell or Bulldog coupler. Surface rust here isn't unusual, because paint will wear off a moving part. You want to see the appropriate safety chain, and notice if the coupler is a heavy-duty type, stamped with its weight rating.

On a gooseneck trailer, is it adjustable or fixed? An adjustable coupler lets you raise or lower the mechanism to match the height of the truck bed. Work the pin on a gooseneck coupler to see that it slides freely.

Look at the jack to verify its condition. On a gooseneck, this "landing gear" should look straight and crank easily.

While you're at the front of the trailer, look head-on at the body and tire wear. Tires can indicate if the axle is out of alignment or bent. Driving into or over curbs can damage tires and axles.

Interior Inspection

Subsystems in the horse containment area include floors, walls, ceiling, doors, and windows--all subject to damage from horses. Start at the left side of the trailer, and examine all interior surfaces for scrapes, dents, or hoofmarks.

Observe the roof's design, to determine how the roof cap is attached, and look for any signs of leaking. "All trailers flex as they go up and down when on the road," said MacKenzie. "Caulking and sealing material gets brittle from the sun, and it will crack or pop."

Find out if the walls are single or double, and if they are insulated. Open and close all windows, and note any broken or cracked plastic windows, torn screens, or bent tubing on window grilles.

As you check the surfaces, evaluate the condition of stall partitions. Disconnect butt bars and chest bars to move through the trailer, and push and pull dividers as you check their soundness. Check the bolts that hold dividers in place to see if they are tight or loose.

Test doors in the main compartment and any storage areas. Does every door open easily and latch securely? If the trailer has a ramp, lift and lower the ramp. Check that springs are securely attached. A spring can lose its elasticity if the owner routinely left the trailer parked with its ramp lowered, stressing the spring.

Examine the floor for how well it sustains the abuse of stomping feet, splashing urine, and manure. With a wood floor, see if the boards run from side to side or lengthwise (better).

MacKenzie advised inspecting every board, especially ends. "The ends are where you see the most deterioration, because the lumber can't absorb water except where the grain is exposed. Fewer cuts and fewer board ends make less opportunity for water to get into the lumber."

Spaces between the boards allow drainage. Ask if the wood is original or replaced, and if it was pressure-treated lumber.

Lift up edges of the floor mat to examine the floor, unless rubber (called Rhinocoat) is bonded to an aluminum floor. The rubber coating can lose its adhesion, and any gap allows moisture to collect on the aluminum floor. Look closely to see if it has started to separate from the metal.

"Urine gets trapped in the grooves of the floor," Podeyn says. "If the coating peels loose, that tells you that urine can seep in." A white, powdery substance on the aluminum indicates corrosion. Corrosion also can cause depressions in the floor, or tiny pinholes.

Urine damages any floor. "The horse breathes, produces moisture, and urinates, so the floor has to breathe or allow urine to drain through the floor or out the back. Crank up the front of the trailer and let it drain. Pull the mats and hose out the floor," advises Podeyn.

Extras Of The Trailer

Tally a list of the extras. Start while you're still inside, then recheck the exterior.

Are the walls and dividers protected with vinyl padding or rubber sheeting? Are vinyl cushions torn?

Examine the windows and vents and measure their sizes and placement. In a slant load trailer, a window within reach of the horse should be placed above the horse's buttocks. Otherwise, the horse can bump into the window while loading, unloading, or traveling.

How do partitions adjust to fit the size of the horse? Do partitions have two-way latches, so they can swing either front or rear? Are partition bolts securely attached?

Check for placement and attachment of tie rings. Look at roof vents, and open and close each vent.

Step outside for more extras. Look for tie rings, fasteners to hold doors open, loading lights over doors, and gravel guards.

Inspect System Details

Walk around the trailer again and squat down to check the undercarriage. How far apart are the cross members? They should be no farther apart than 20 inches.

A steel frame should be powder coated for protection. Podeyn explained the electrolysis potential of a steel frame with an aluminum floor, "The coating protects, but there are rivets into the floor. The hole is unprotected. Urine gets into the rivets, runs under the coating, and drops out through the holes."

Examine how walls are attached, and the quality of the connection. A steel frame under aluminum can rust--look for rust streams where rivets attach aluminum to the steel.

Inspect welds to see if the connection is sound or cracked. Examine inside doors or windows for any unpainted steel where the manufacturer might have skimped. Structural rust can start in such locations.

Inspect the roof, both from the ground and at roof level. "Ultraviolet light will damage a fiberglass roof," said Podeyn. "You can see stress cracks and splits. Sunlight deteriorates the coating, or the driver could hit a tree branch."

Take A Test Drive

Bring a towing vehicle whose hitch and electrical connection match the trailer. Check the coupler for tightness and security and that all lights work.

Pull the trailer at least around the block, so you have a chance to maneuver around corners and apply the brakes. Pay attention to the trailer's feel, and listen for any noise from the brakes.

What's The True Value?

Without a "blue book," the seller and you agree upon the value. A seller can ask a price of a few hundred dollars, or tens of thousands. Realize that a well-kept trailer can have a resale value equal to its original price because of rising prices of new models.

Ask about the trailer's service records. How many miles did the trailer travel in the last year? When did the seller last have the wheel bearings repacked? How old are those tires? Does a spare tire and jack come with the trailer?

Tally any costs to service or renovate the trailer. Deduct those immediate costs and make your offer.

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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