Avoiding Hauling Emergencies
- Apr 1, 1998
At first blush, a discussion of trailer safety and emergencies seems quite uncomplicated and straightforward. However, it really isn't all that simple because there are so many facets involved in traveling down the highways and byways safely while pulling a trailer with a horse or horses aboard.
For example, while good equipment in proper working order is imperative, there is also the matter of how that equipment is used. You can have the most modern, best maintained equipment in the world, but if you drive in an unsafe manner, it is all for naught.
Trailer safety involves so much more than just the unit being towed. It involves you as the driver, along with passengers in your vehicle, the horse being hauled, and other motorists on the highway.
The path to proper trailer safety begins when you decide that a trailer is needed and you set forth to purchase one. The decisions made from this point on will have a direct bearing on safety. Usually, for the first-time horse owner, a trailer purchase comes in the wake of buying a horse for yourself or a family member. Buying the horse is usually the cheapest part.
I have a ranching partner and friend who blames me for changing his family's entire lifestyle. They were ensconced in a suburban home, living a quiet, normal life. Then, his daughter asked to spend a summer with us. She loved horses. Throughout that summer she rode, helped with chores, got involved in the training regimen, and traveled along to equine competitions.
As my friend jokingly laments, that was only the beginning. His daughter had to have her own horse. We found one for her, but boarding it at a stable didn't seem to fit. It wasn't long before the house in suburbia was put up for sale. When it sold, a place in the country was purchased. Unfortunately for my friend, his daughter was a talented rider and she wanted to compete. Time to buy a horse trailer. A two-horse model would do just fine.
That was another beginning. Other members of the family also became bitten by the horse bug and loved to go trail riding. Soon, they needed a bigger trailer, but the family discovered that they didn't have a vehicle that could pull a four-horse trailer loaded with horses and gear. Time to buy a new pickup.
And, of course, as the horse population grew, better fences were needed and stalls had to be constructed in the barn.
My friend's story is by no means unusual. Buying a horse is often the simplest and cheapest part of the involvement. A trailer quickly becomes a necessisty whether one wants to go to horse shows, events, or simply joy riding. There are few places in our countryside where once can live and ride without an element of danger being present from our fast-paced way of living that centers around motor vehicles.
Even if one lives far from the city along a dirt road, there will be traffic and activities that tend to get in the way of a pleasurable ride.
A trailer often is required to get from home to somewhere else where horses truly can be enjoyed, be it a horse show or a state or national forest where riding trails are available.
Unfortunately, trailers aren't cheap. If one so desires, thousands of dollars can be spent on a conveyance. They range from the little shotgun, single-horse trailers that some rodeo cowboys still use, to giant-sized conveyances that also serve as living quarters for the humans involved.
The important thing is, first of all, to decide what you need and want--the emphasis here is on "need"-- then set out to find it.
The first basic question to be considered involves how you plan to use the trailer. Next comes the issue of how much space is really needed. The simplest situation involves someone--or some couple--with two horses. The decision is pretty simple. Procure a two-horse trailer. While that might be the most simple of scenarios, it, too, can deal you some complications.
Though a two-horse trailer is relatively easy to pull, do you have the car power to pull it? Add a couple 1,000 pound horses to the weight of the trailer and suddenly you are faced with a need for some horsepower. A little sports car won't get the job done.
Having a vehicle that has the power to pull a trailer down the road, up and down hills, and along straight stretches of highway is all-important. If you lack the necessary pulling power, not only are you going to have difficulty traveling, but the vehicle that has been overloaded will not last very long.
And, safety rears its head here as well. If you can only crawl up steep hills at 25 or 30 miles per hour, it is inevitable that the time will come when an impatient motorist behind you will swing out to pass, setting the stage for a potentially serious accident.
The pulling power needed can vary with geography. If you live in the flatlands of Kansas, for example, you might be able to get by with less power than if you live in Montana or Wyoming with mountains to climb.
I have had the unenviable experience of traveling with a trailer load of horses into mountainous country from a relatively level area and finding, to my despair, that I was short on pulling power. Fortunately, we had already pulled off the highway and were making the last climb to the trailhead when the pickup, blowing black smoke, could climb no higher.
We unloaded the horses and members of the group rode them the rest of the way while I limped in with the pickup pulling an empty trailer.
When shopping for a trailer, explain to the sales company with which you are dealing what type of vehicle you have and what your needs concerning traveling with your horse might be.
If, for example, you plan to be traveling the show horse circuit for the next season or so, and, if following that circuit involves hundreds of highway miles, you might do well to consider an aluminum trailer. Aluminum trailers are more expensive than their steel counterparts, but they also are lighter, making for easier towing and far better gasoline or diesel fuel mileage for your vehicle.
"You need a trailer to suit your needs," says Kent Hall, manager of research and development for Sundowner Trailers in Coleman, Okla.
And, he adds, you need the right kind of vehicle to pull that trailer. What is the right kind of towing vehicle in his mind? That, he said, all depends on what trailer you buy. If the load to be towed is a heavy one, a transmission cooler on the vehicle might be a necessity. It may also need heavier than normal springs in the rear end to support the load.
One thing is a must, he emphasizes, both the towing vehicle and trailer must be equipped with heavy-duty braking equipment. There are a lot of trailers on the road today with little or no braking power, producing a dangerous condition for driver and passengers, the horses being hauled, and ususpecting motorists on the highways.
Jamming on the brakes of the car or pickup when the trailer has no brakes, can cause a crack-the-whip effect with the trailer snapping around one side or the other, either into the lane of oncoming traffic or into the ditch.
When the braking force is equal on trailer and car, the whole combined unit remains in a straight line.
Learning to use brakes properly also is a key factor. When on ice, one should never jam on the brakes, but rather utilize a pumping motion that will help prevent skids.
Driving at speeds that are appropriate for the road conditions can negate the need for heavy braking. Even then, we must never forget that a load of horses in a trailer is a heavy pushing force that sometimes even the best brakes can't stop. Being constantly alert to what might be changing road conditions is imperative.
A case in point. I was pulling a loaded six-horse trailer over nearly 10,000-foot Togwotee Pass in the Brider-Teton Mountains. As we climbed toward the pass, it began to snow. The higher we got, the heavier the snow and the more slippery the road. I shifted into four-wheel drive for both safety and additional traction.
It was slow and torturous going, but finally we crested and began the descent. This was no time to relax because gaining too much speed here would be more dangerous than anything we had experienced climbing the other side of the mountain. I shifted to low gear.
All was going well until we rounded a curve and there, stuck on the highway at an angle, almost in the middle of the road, was a semi with a load of round hay bales. The truck had spun out trying to reach the summit. What happened next seemed to last an eternity, but it was really only a matter of seconds.
I began pumping the brakes and although I was only going about 15 miles per hour at this point, the weight of the trailer and the load of horses, combined with what was now glare ice on the highway, made it impossible for me to stop. Because of the angle, I couldn't see if there was a vehicle coming around the stalled semi. If I went around him in the right lane, I was risking a head-on collision. There was a drop-off on the right side of the road, and a cliff wall on the left.
I made a decision. I would crash the cliff wall rather than risk a head-on collision. As I started my move, the semi driver raced from the rear of his vehicle to the front and waved for me to go by on the other side. He had heard me coming down the mountain before I rounded the curve and had run to the rear of the trailer to flag down oncoming traffic. We slipped past between the semi and the dropoff on the right side and heaved a major sigh of relief.
The reason for recounting this experience, which is still very fresh in my mind as it occurred only a couple of months ago, is to point out the importance of driving with extreme care and caution when pulling a horse trailer. You can't always stop when and where you want.
A year earlier, in that same vicinity, a driver lost control of his trailer-towing vehicle when rounding a curve and flipped the trailer over. A friend of mine was traveling the same road with his horse trailer and narrowly escaped being involved. He stopped to help extricate the horses. Fortunately, they weren't seriously injured, but someone's riding or hunting trip was ruined.
While careful driving is imperative from a safety viewpoint, it also has a lot to do with the comfort of the horses being hauled.
A Colorado acquaintance who had been a highly successful businessman decided to get into the raising of show horses when he sold his company and retired. He did it right. He went to established breeders to examine their animals and to study bloodlines. Finally, he decided what he wanted as foundation stock and purchased the animals from a lady who was carrying on a generations-old breeding program.
He didn't stint when he constructed a new stable and the same was true when he bought his new truck and horse trailer. Excited and eager to begin his horse-raising and showing venture, he drove to the lady's farm to pick up his purchases.
He was a little taken aback when she wouldn't bring the horses out to be loaded. "Before we do that," she said, "I'd like to ask you to go for a ride with me."
He agreed. She then asked that he take the ride in the horse trailer while she did the driving. A bit non-plussed by now, he nevertheless agreed. He stepped into the trailer and she closed and latched the door.
Then, down the road she went, starting with quick acceleration that threw him backward. Hardly had he righted himself and she slammed on the brakes. He went flying toward the front of the trailer. He grabbed hold of the center divider as she careened around a corner. Hardly had he established his balance once again, when she suddenly swerved in the opposite direction. He wasn't ready for that move and he almost lost his grip on the divider.
Concern in his mind was now bordering on panic. As quickly as the careening ride began, it ended. The vehicle slowed, made an easy turn and headed back toward the farm. The lady accelerated carefully and when she pulled into the driveway, slowed and gently braked to a stop. My friend was able to maintain his balance while simply resting one hand on the center divider.
Visibly shaken, he exited the trailer when she opened the door.
"Sorry to do that," she told him, "but you have never pulled horses in a trailer before. I wanted you to know what it is like for them when someone starts and stops with abruptness and when sharp corners are taken at speed. It is much safer and more pleasant for the horses when you drive with care."
The man hauled thousands of miles on the horse show circuit once he got seriously involved in the business, and, he said, always drove carefully. Never would he forget the experience of being a helpless creature locked inside a horse trailer that was careening around corners.
What we sometimes also forget when thinking about trailer safety that involves not only us, but our horses, is that each equine is an individual. There are people who suffer from claustrophobia, and so do some horses.
Another personal experience goes back to my endurance riding days. I was training a mare which showed excellent potential for the sport. A friend, who was also an endurance racer, phoned and asked if I'd like to accompany him and his daughter to train on some newly opened trails. I quickly agreed.
He pulled into the yard with a three-horse trailer. The three side-by-side stalls were narrower than I would have preferred and the dividing partitions went all the way to the floor.
The driver had apparently never had a ride in the back of a horse trailer. He took corners too fast to suit me, accelerated with a jerk and stopped with suddenness. I could hear and feel horses scrambling in the trailer.
When we reached our destination, my mare was drenched with sweat and shaking. She was a leggy mare that needed some bracing room for her feet, but there was none because of the narrow stalls and the partitions that went to floor level.
When we finished riding, she didn't want to load. This was a mare which normally hopped into the trailer with no urging.
I became more assertive toward the driver on the homeward trip, and we traveled at a slower, safer pace. Nevertheless, I could hear my mare scrambling against the wall with every turn. She was reacting out of claustrophobic fear now, even though the corners were being negotiated safely.
From that day forward, it was impossible to haul her on the left side of a trailer, and we always made sure that whatever trailer was used, there would be space between the partition and the floor so that she didn't feel trapped.
As I mentioned at the outset, trailer safety is far more involved than simply having good equipment.
However, this is not to make light of good, well-maintained equipment. That is a must.
Back to the type of trailer you decide to buy. Once you have decided on the size, the next decision is to determine whether you will have a gooseneck or a bumper pull.
There is an additional element of safety involved with the gooseneck, says Hall. A gooseneck, of course, is only an option if you have a pickup as your towing vehicle.
With a gooseneck, Hall explains, all of the weight of the trailer is centered over the axles, which makes for stability. With the bumper pull, he said, the weight is cantilevered out behind the towing vehicle and you wind up with something of a v-effect with the weight applied to the rear of the towing vehicle and to the front of the trailer being towed.
A must with a bumper pull trailer, Hall says, is an equalizer hitch to prevent swaying.
Almost as important as good braking ability in a trailer is an appropriate lighting system. Something out there, it seems, doesn't like trailer lights that function properly. At one time or another, I have had about every wiring problem imaginable on a trailer.
Perhaps the most bizarre experience I have heard about involved an acquaintance who had his new bumper pull trailer wired to match his pickup. On his very first trip, he was totally shocked when he switched on the pickup's headlights and the trailer brakes slammed on. That's a rare occurrence, but it did happen. Check out everything before heading out onto the highway if it is a new wiring job.
A basic requirement for good trailer lighting, says Hall, is to have the wires encased in conduit. This will protect the delicate wires from mud, brush, stones, and debris that a trailer kicks up when in motion.
Long before one is ready to leave on a trip with a trailer load of horses, it is wise to check the lights, including brake lights and signal lights. By doing it in advance, you have allowed yourself time for repairs if they are needed.
Right up there with wiring and pulling power in degree of importance with horse trailers are good tires. I have seen dozens of trailers at showgrounds and rodeo competitions that were traveling on worn tires that one wouldn't think of using on an automobile. A blowout of a trailer tire on a busy highway can be dangerous and put a big dent in the fun one had hoped to have while traveling with horses.
I am hesitant to recommend the extreme to which I have gone involving tires on a horse trailer because of the cost involved. For two years or more in a row, it seemed that we were having an inordinate amount of flat tires on our horse trailer while traveling across the country, even though the tires were in excellent condition. On one trip alone, we had three flats. I was totally fed up.
I went to a tire dealer and told him I wanted four steel-belted radials on the horse trailer. He looked at me as though I were out of my mind. "You don't need radials," he argued. "Yes, I do," I stubbornly argued back. We put on radials and were flat-free for the next few years.
You might not want to go to that expense, but it is very important that you have good "rubber" on your trailer. In some cases, horse trailers are parked outdoors in the fall and not used again until spring. Weather is a potent foe of the rubber in your tires as they freeze into the ground, then thaw out and freeze again. The best situation is to park the trailer inside a garage with a dry floor. If that isn't possible, you might want to consider tire covers or at least parking so that the tires are resting on planks, above the dirt.
Good trailer maintenance also involves cleaning out the trailer floor after each use. Horse urine and manure are potent corroding elements and they can cause heavy damage to plank flooring as well as to metal. I won't repeat the many horror stories I've heard about a horse's feet and legs falling through rotted trailer floorboards while being pulled at speed down a highway.
One should remove the rubber mat after each use and hose down the flooring of the trailer. Just shoveling and sweeping the floor isn't enough. The manure and urine should be washed and scrubbed free with water. If the flooring is of wood, the boards should be examined regularly, probing with a sharp instrument for signs of rotting and weakness. Any board that is at all suspect should be replaced.
As part of the ongoing maintenance program, it is wise to have the wheel bearings of the trailer repacked on an annual basis. Perhaps the best time to have this done is first thing in the spring before another travel season begins. A burned out bearing can, in worst case scenario, result in a wheel coming off, totally wrecking a trip and maybe even the trailer.
It is highly important to have the correct size ball on the bumper or gooseneck attachment in the pickup bed for your trailer. That might seem pretty basic, but I can recount horror stories of people traveling down the road, hitting a bump, and having the trailer pop free because the ball was too small for the hitch. A loose trailer careening down the highway or into the ditch, or one slamming from side to side while held with safety chains, is a menace on the highway.
A great deal of enjoyment can be garnered by hauling our horses from place to place. We can keep it enjoyable by having the right kind of trailer pulled by a towing vehicle with sufficient power and by providing on-going maintenance for both vehicle and trailer. And, the final requirement--driving safely.
About the Author
Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.
POLL: University Equine Hospitals