Trauma-Free Trailering

Spring was a long time coming this year...but finally, the snows have receded (at least temporarily). The last of the melting snowdrifts unveiled your gardens, your pastures, and something rather less attractive--that old two-horse trailer of yours, sitting forlornly in a corner of your field. Chances are, it's been there since November, and now, as your thoughts turn to getting out to the shows or the trails with your horse, you figure it's probably time for an inspection of the winter damage.

If you're like many of us, you can spot a horse's strained suspensory at 500 yards, but the intricacies of determining whether your trailer is sound just aren't your long suit. And you certainly don't want to load Custard up and head down the highway without any idea of whether your rig is roadworthy. If you feel insecure about assessing your trailer's safety, it's best to take it to your local trailer repair center for a complete going-over, but there are a few simple things you can do at home to give your mechanic a head start.

An Inspection

Start by donning your grungy, barn-mucking clothes, and giving your trailer a bath--inside, outside, and underneath-to expose any flaws that might be hiding under last year's road grime and mud. Then chock your wheels and crawl under the trailer with a flashlight and a long, sharp screwdriver. Probe all the metal parts of the undercarriage with your screwdriver, looking for cracks and rusting, especially at the joints and rear cross members, where urine and manure tend to collect and eat away at the metal. Poke at the floorboards, as well, to see if they need replacing. Solid boards are firm and hard and don't give way to the screwdriver; rotted boards will have the consistency of cork.

Shine your flashlight over the suspension and the wiring, and note anything that looks cracked or broken. If the wiring is hanging down, it could snag as you drive down a potholed dirt road or through the hayfield parking lot at your next show. See if you can replace it in its rightful position, or note it as something your trailer repair person should fix. Any frayed or broken wires will need to be replaced.

Now, crawl back out from under there, and take a close look at your tires. Chances are, they're soft from sitting in one position all winter, and the rubber might have suffered from exposure to the weather. (It's a good idea to place a piece of plywood under your tires if your trailer is going to be parked for a long period of time.) Check for tears, bulges, cracks, or signs of a puncture, and have a good look at the treads, as well--do those tires really have much life left in them? Finally, check that they're inflated to the recommended pressure with a tire gauge (the correct pressure is printed on the sidewall). Don't forget to check your spare.

Walk all around your trailer and look for signs of rust along the seams between the trailer tongue and the body, as well as along the roof seams. If you have a steel trailer, rust will be a perennial problem, and you'll probably need to repaint every five or six years to keep ahead of it. Even aluminum trailers sometimes have steel frames, so check carefully along the edges of the side body panels. Excessive rust might mean you have a structural separation that a good kick or "body check" from your horse could turn your trailer into a death trap. (If there are areas on the inside of your trailer where the bare steel is exposed, you can protect them with a coating of the material used to undercoat cars.)

Open up your doors, checking that the hinges on the front escape door still work smoothly, and that the ramp or rear doors (if you have a step-up trailer) swing without grinding or squealing. Your trailer should look straight and square, with nothing out of alignment. Have a good look inside (with your flashlight, if necessary). Are your roof supports in good condition? Do all the latches, chest bars, butt chains or bars, and pins for your partition fit together smoothly? Do the vents and/or windows still open and close properly? Are there any splinters, protruding screws or rivets, loose wires, sharp edges, or other hazards on which your horse could injure himself? Are your floor mats in good shape? (It doesn't hurt to roll back your floor mats and have a poke at the floorboards from up top, as well--damage from urine and manure often is worse here than underneath. It's good practice to minimize that damage when you haul by promptly cleaning out any manure when you arrive, and rolling back the mats to let the boards dry out at the conclusion of every trip.

From the inside, brace your hands against the sides of the trailer and try to twist or move the metal shell. If there's any give at all from the paltry pressure applied by a human, imagine what your horse can do! Have a good jump or two on your ramp (if you have one). The wood used in ramp construction often is far flimsier than that used on the floor of the trailer, and it is subject to some of the worst abuse as horses clamber up and down (and leap, and plunge, and scramble, and otherwise try to avoid being loaded). A ramp that gives way as a horse steps on it can be a lifelong confidence-breaker, so make sure it's up to his weight, and that it is provided with some sort of anti-slip material, whether it be treads, rice mats, or rubber.

Now, hitch up your trailer to your towing rig (checking that rust hasn't caused your hitch to seize--a can of WD-40 can do wonders there). As you do so, look carefully at all the hitch components, as well as your safety chains, examining them for tiny fissures that could indicate metal fatigue. (The risk of this is greater if you drive on very rough roads or those that are salted when icy.) Hook up your electrical system, and have a friend stand behind your trailer to confirm that all the lights are working as you try your brakes and turn signals. Then, back the trailer up onto a block, so you can check the bearings. (You also can jack the trailer up for this--the aim is to free up each wheel in turn.) Spin each tire with your hand, and listen carefully. Rolling or grinding noises, or any harsh, thumping sound, indicates that your bearings have had it. Grab each tire and try to move it from side to side, or in and out, too--any play means the bearings are loose or worn.

Your mechanic, of course, can do a more thorough inspection, including an assessment of your trailer's brakes. A complete going-over, once a year, is a good idea and should include removal of your trailer tires to lubricate the bearings, and a thorough check of your wiring and lights.

While your rig is at the trailer repair place, you also can get your vehicle assessed for its towing-worthiness. With any luck, your truck or SUV (sport utility vehicle) already is equipped to do the job of pulling a two-horse trailer--a V8 engine, towing package (including transmission cooler, heavy-duty springs, shocks, alternator, and battery, a lower-geared rear axle, generously sized radiator and engine fan, and a wiring harness suitable for your trailer), hookup for electric brakes, long wheelbase (114 inches is considered a safe minimum), a Class III or IV frame hitch, and an antilock braking system. Four-wheel drive can be a blessing (although hard on gas mileage), especially in mountainous country. Check your vehicle's specifications, too. To pull an average two-horse trailer (excluding the fiberglass variety), loaded with two full-sized horses, it will need to be capable of pulling a minimum of 5,000 pounds. High altitude driving can greatly compromise a truck's performance, too. For every 1,000 foot rise in elevation from sea level, plan for a horsepower drop of roughly 2%. Many smaller trucks and SUVs don't meet the minimum towing capacity for even a small two-horse trailer, and hauling with an underpowered vehicle is courting disaster. Indeed, most people underpower themselves when hauling. As a rule of thumb, many trailering authorities recommend you have 30% more power than you think you'll need. (That way, you'll also have the option of buying a larger trailer down the road without having to upgrade your towing vehicle.)

In order to be ready to hit the road, your truck should be in top mechanical shape. It's bad enough having a breakdown or brake failure when it's just you and the truck. Having it happen when you're towing is a nightmare! Don't neglect the simple things--properly inflated tires, an oil change, a fully charged battery, and topped-off engine coolant and windshield wiper fluid.

Finally, have your mechanic assess the safety of your hitch assembly. Safety chains now are required by law in every state, and they should be crossed in order to "catch" the trailer tongue should it come loose from the hitch. In addition, you might want to install breakaway brakes, a battery-powered emergency system that automatically engages the trailer's electric brakes if the hitch becomes separated from the truck, and keeps them on for 15 minutes--long enough to unload your horses and re-attach your rig.

Also useful are weight-distributing trailer hitches, which work by spreading the weight of the trailer up to the frame of the tow vehicle, so it's not concentrated completely on the hitch. The result is less strain on the rear suspension, and greater stability of both truck and trailer. Any rig that will be pulling 5,000 pounds or more should be equipped with a weight-distributing hitch.

Finally, consider installing sway bars, particularly if you have a long trailer (two-horse with dressing room, four-horse, or slant three with tack room, for example) with a tag-a-long, rather than a gooseneck, hitch. There are several different designs of sway bars, all of which help minimize side-to-side motion of the trailer, and could help prevent an accident if the trailer should try to fishtail as you drive.

Equipment On Board

First and foremost for the modern-day hauler is a cellular phone. With it, you can reach help in a mechanical or veterinary emergency. If you don't use one on a daily basis, sign up for the "emergencies-only" plan. Chances are, you'll do most of your shipping on the weekends, when rates are lower. And because a dead phone battery is the last thing you'll need, equip your phone with a jack that plugs into your vehicle's cigarette lighter. You'll find having the phone in your truck will provide great peace of mind.

Next, put together an emergency road kit, with a jack, lug wrench (make sure it fits the lugs on your trailer tires), tire iron, a trailer tire change block (which can double as a block for your hitch to rest on when the trailer is parked), an assortment of wrenches and screwdrivers, jumper cables, a flashlight, fuses, flares, a blanket, and a serviceable spare for both the truck and trailer. Add a pair of gloves (to protect your hands and provide better grip on that tire iron), a sharp utility knife, at least one sturdy rope lead shank with a heavy-duty snap, nylon halters to restrain horses which might break their shipping halters, and some extra hay to keep horses occupied if you have a breakdown.

Not sure how to change that tire on your own, or how to tell if your fan belt is broken? Consider taking a course in basic automotive mechanics. Basic "survival" type courses often are offered as municipal programs at local community centers. Ask your mechanic for recommendations. It also can be very reassuring to have an auto club membership such as AAA, so that you know help is a phone call away.

In addition, you should have on board both a human and an equine first aid kit. The human one probably already lives under the seat of your truck. Check it periodically to make sure it contains at least self-stick bandages, an antibiotic burn cream, sunblock, gauze wrap and pads, blunt-ended scissors, and analgesic tablets such as aspirin or tylenol. Add to that according to your needs--if you wear contacts, for example, it would be wise to put a spare pair in your kit, and carry your eyeglasses with you as well. The equine first aid kit should be a permanent fixture in your trailer, and should contain stable bandages and quilts, self-stick bandages such as Vetwrap, gauze pads, an antibiotic cream or spray such as Hibitane or Furacin, hydrogen peroxide, a small container of butazone, some insect repellent, and perhaps a bottle of tranquilizer such as acepromazine, and appropriate syringes (provided your veterinarian has demonstrated how to administer medication safely in an emergency).

On The Road Again

The trip to your mechanic also will give you an opportunity to practice those trailer-towing skills that could be rusty from months of unuse. Horse trailers are, in fact, relatively difficult things to tow, as they're tall, bulky, and have a high center of gravity. That means they can start to sway when subjected to cross-breezes, even the kind that can result from being passed by an 18-wheeler, or coming through an underpass or tunnel. Add the tricky factor of live weight that shifts around, and you've got an equation far more problematic than the average little snowmobile or boat trailer! The moral is this: Never underestimate the potential for trouble, and constantly practice your defensive-driving skills.

It's also true that Custard rather resents being hauled as if he were a snowmobile, and one bad trailer journey might stick in his mind forever, creating a problem hauler (the last thing any of us needs!). Remind yourself to take it easy on the stops and starts (no matter how much honking traffic is behind you), take your turns slowly and smoothly, and adjust your electric brakes according to whether you're hauling one horse or two. (Set too strongly, the trailer's electric brakes have the capacity to stop your truck in its tracks--and potentially slam poor Custard's head into the front wall.) Practice driving with a cup of hot coffee on your dash--that will give you the right feeling of being careful! Remember, it takes longer to stop a loaded trailer, so factor this in when you're braking for stoplights. And if you're rusty about backing up and parking, find yourself an empty parking lot and reacquaint yourself with the skills--because you can't always go around and around the hay field at the show looking for a spot through which you can pull out without going into reverse! (Remember the basic principles of backing up: the trailer will go in the opposite direction of your truck. So if you want the trailer to swing to the right, steer to the left. Keep the trailer within the "five to seven o'clock" range behind you, and you'll avoid jackknifing. And make your steering movements small, as the trailer will always "overreact.")

Minimizing the excess movement in your rig is accomplished by balancing the load as much as possible. If you're shipping only one horse, load him on the left side of your trailer, so that he rides on the crown of the road rather than the shoulder. This weight distribution will help keep the rig stable. If you're shipping two horses, load the larger of the two on the left, for the same reason.

When it's finally time to load Custard up and head down the highway, you can improve his safety and comfort by taking the time to dress him properly for the journey. Leg protection is paramount, and many people make the mistake of applying a stable bandage or brushing boot without providing any protection lower down. Horses which injure their legs in a trailer usually do so by stepping on their coronets as they try to spread their legs for stability on the turns and acceleration/deceleration, so covering the heels and coronets is crucial. You can do this either with extra-long shipping bandages and quilts, with a long pair of heavy-duty shipping boots designed especially for protecting this area, or by using an ordinary shipping boot or bandage in combination with heavy-duty bell boots on all four feet. Lean toward boots if you're not experienced at bandaging, since a badly applied bandage can do more harm than good, unraveling at the worst possible moment, or even applying enough pressure on tendons to create a "bandage bow."

In addition to leg protection, it's a good idea to invest in a poll guard or "head bumper." Even if your horse isn't terribly tall, this head cap will protect him should he be silly enough to rear or throw his head toward the ceiling during the process of shipping or loading. Thread the head bumper through a leather halter that will break in the event he pulls back fiercely. A nylon halter might be a death trap in an accident. And be sure to tie your horse with either a quick-release knot, or a trailer tie with a panic snap on at least one end.

Trailers can get very hot and airless in the summer, so don't overdo the blankets (although a light cotton sheet can help keep him clean on the way to a show if you plan to drive down the dirt back roads). A tail bandage can help protect tail hairs from being rubbed out if your horse is the type who likes to lounge on the butt bar--but be sure you know how to properly apply it, as a too-tight tail bandage can cut off circulation to the main blood vessel that runs down the dock. Tail guards, which tie to a surcingle, are another option (and often stay on better than bandages!). If your horse is a scrambler, you might want to add knee and/or hock boots--although this extra clothing might tempt some horses to kick (in which case they're not worth the added damage to your trailer!).

You also might want to think about stocking your trailer with a couple of large containers of water (which you can offer him if you're going to be traveling more than a couple of hours), a shovel, broom, and manure fork.

No one can anticipate every emergency, of course, and shipping horses can be a stressful experience at the best of times. But correct preparation--and a knowledge that everything is as safe as it can be-can add enormously to your peace of mind when it comes to hitting the road. Here's to enjoying trauma-free trailering!

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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